The rebellion took place in the autumn of 1569 -in all the crisis lasted for three months, possibly prompting William Cecil to say ‘I told you so!’ when the council considered that it was Mary’s presence in England that triggered the uprising.
The North had a reputation for recusancy – or Catholicism. In 1536 as the smaller monastic houses were being shut the Pilgrims of the North rebelled under a banner bearing the five wounds of Christ. The following year Bigod’s Rebellion was similarly associated with a demand for Henry VIII to return to Catholicism, restore the Mass and bring back the monasteries. The Rebellion of 1537 gave Henry the excuse to punish the rebels of the previous year. He sent an army north, imposed martial law and had 100s of rebels hanged virtually on their own doorsteps.
In 1569, the desire to place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne and restore the country to Catholicism wasn’t the only reason for the rebellion. Oh no – not by a long chalk.
- The northern earls were somewhat rattled by the administrative interference coming from London. They were not keen on William Cecil. Men like Northumberland and Norfolk also felt frozen out of power by Elizabeth’s choice of advisers.
- For reasons best known to themselves a group of powerful men including Robert Dudley Earl of Leicester and the Earl of Arundel decided that in order to cancel out the threat posed by Mary that she should marry an English nobleman, convert to Protestantism and then the English could help rule Scotland and everything would be simply wonderful. No one quite plucked up the nerve to tell Elizabeth this cunning plan or that the proposed groom was Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk (think vain and ambitious and you’ll be in the right ball park).
The plot when it first began was not a Catholic plot! Mary’s half brother James Stewart, Earl of Moray is for the plan to begin with but after he’s had a think about it decided that he doesn’t really want Mary back in Scotland whatever her faith might be, and certainly not with Norfolk at her side. For the English earls loyal to Elizabeth who came up with the idea this was a killer blow – the game, which was never a good one if the truth was told, was over by the start of the autumn. Besides which they still haven’t told Elizabeth about their plan to marry Mary off to one of themselves …and no one wanted that particular job. So they probably all heaved a sigh of relief.
However, Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk had also had some thinking time and he rather fancied a crown of some description…and besides which he resented William Cecil who he regarded as having too much power, which he thought ought more rightfully to have belonged to him….so asked the northern earls for support to marry Mary.
Robert Dudley, the queen’s favourite, recognising that things were getting out of hand told Elizabeth in September 1569 that Norfolk intended to marry Mary without the consent of the privy council – which was treason. Norfolk had also left court without royal permission. By October Howard, who really wasn’t rebel material and hadn’t done any serious planning before he asked his northern pals to lend a hand, was back in London and begging for mercy. Elizabeth had him sent to the Tower.
In the north, the Earls of Westmorland and Northumberland, who were both Catholics, were still plotting but not, it appears, actually doing very much. In reality although they had an alternative to Elizabeth in the form of Mary they really weren’t very organised and were a bit vague about their aims. They were hauled up in front of the president of the Council of the North who cleared them of any wrongdoing and sent them on their way.
In London, Elizabeth wasn’t so convinced about the loyalty of the two men, so decided that she wanted a little chat with Northumberland and Westmorland. Not to put too fine a point on it, the earls panicked. Not wanting to end up in the Tower with Norfolk the two terrified men finally…rebelled, raising about 4,600 men from among their tenantry and kinship networks. They marched south. One of their key demands was that Cecil had to go – And the second was that they wanted the Religious Settlement of 1559 overturned so that the Mass could be restored.
On 14 November, 1569, Westmorland and Northumberland captured Durham; restored it to Catholicism, threw out the Protestant hymn books, and celebrated the Mass. They also called on all Catholics to take up arms in the defence of the true faith. Fortunately for Elizabeth most of England’s Catholics ignored the demand. Even though Barnard Castle and the port at Hartlepool fell to the rebels – the whole affair was really rather restricted.
It should be noted that James Pilkington was made Bishop of Durham in 1561 and had imposed Protestantism on his diocese despite the fact that the locals really weren’t that keen on the idea. His attitude helped rubbed the earls up the wrong way and added to the opinion that London was interfering in the way things were done in the north.
In London there was some difficulty raising a force to resist the rebels. Finally the Earl of Sussex (who wasn’t a fan of Robert Dudley) was appointed Lord Lieutenant of the North, put an army together and headed north to restore order. Elizabeth had Mary moved for safe keeping to Coventry and by December it was all over. Mary Queen of Scots and King Philip II of Spain hadn’t backed the rebels and neither had the majority of the kingdom. Recognising that the game was up the earls fled to Scotland.
Elizabeth registered her irritation by having at least 400 rebels executed for treason. The Earl of Westmorland spent the rest of his life in exile and the Earl of Northumberland was executed in 1572 when he was captured and given back to the English.
It was the only armed rebellion of Elizabeth’s reign – discounting the Earl of Essex’s failed uprising at the end of her life. The lack of support at the time is an indicator of her popularity. Her response to the rebels indicated that she was a chip off the old block and not to be trifled with. And laws were passed that made any further Catholic threat punishable as treason. She also appointed Robert Dudley’s brother-in-law Henry Hastings 3rd Earl of Huntingdon as the President of the Council of the North after Sussex (who held the post from 1569 until his death in 1572.) Huntingdon was an active Puritan who spent the next 23 years keeping the north in check.