The Revolt of the Northern Earls

On the 14th November, 1569, men under the command of the Earl of Northumberland and Earl of Westmorland, two of the great magnates of the North of England, marched into Durham Cathedral bearing banners depicting the Five Wounds of Christ, memories of the Pilgrimage of Grace1 no doubt foremost in their minds. They threw the Protestant communion table out of the Cathedral and restored the Catholic Mass, and eight other Churches in Durham followed suit. The force went on to seize Hartlepool, by which they hoped Spanish troops would land and assist them in their aims, which overtly were to restore the Old Religion to the land. Sir Thomas Wyatt, it seems, was forgotten for ever!2

But no foreign aid arrived, and as news of a Royal force 10,000 men strong under the leadership of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, arrived, the two Earls disbanded their forces on December 16th, and fled North to escape the Queen's wrath. A month later, Lord Dacre raised a force of a mere 3,000 followers, and was defeated in battle. The rebels, including the Earl of Northumberland, fled to Scotland. Elizabeth ordered the execution of some 750 rebels3, but only 400 met this fate. However, the Earl of Northumberland was among them when he was returned to the Queen by the Scots in 1572.


As was always the case with disorder in these complicated times, the aims of the rebels were diverse and different to those overtly stated. Before we can even begin to examine the goals of the main players involved, we must examine the context in which the rebellion took place. The Elizabethan Religious Settlement4 had up until now had little effect on the people in the North - it was estimated at the time that around two thirds of the Justices of the Peace, who were the people in charge of enforcing the new religion, were in fact Catholics themselves! In most cases all that was demanded was the minimum of outward conformity.

There was no harsh climate of repression in the North, then, but there were still fears pertaining to religion. Once the Earls had decided to rise, they issued a proclamation which claimed that if the Queen did not soon revert to the Old Religion, foreign powers would intervene and do it for her. An invasion by the devotedly Catholic Philip II of Spain5 was imminent, they claimed - if not, the excommunication of Elizabeth by the Pope was. In fact, this excommunication was published in 1570, but only once the rebellion had finished. If it had arrived when the rebellion was at its height, the common people may have been much more likely to rise up against their sovereign.

The arrival of Mary, Queen of Scots from Scotland added another potential spark to the mix. Mary told a Catholic priest that she could rely on the support of all of the great magnates of the North for they were "of the Old Religion", and among her patrons were Lord Percy, whose family had been virtually Kings in their dominions for centuries. Mary was of particular interest to members of the Privy Council in London who wished to displace Elizabeth's principal advisor, Sir William Cecil. This faction feared Cecil was bringing England close to war by sabre-rattling at the Spanish - in 1568 he had impounded Spanish bullion ships which had sought refuge in English ports, preventing the King of Spain from paying his troops in their fight against Calvinist rebels in the Low Countries. By marrying Mary, Queen of Scots to the powerful Duke of Norfolk, they hoped to create a new axis of power to displace Cecil from court.

The two Northern Earls had supported this plan from the start, although not for reasons of attaining peace - they believed that it would bring a Catholic succession closer to being realized, and hence were willing to risk sedition for it. The Queen soon heard of this plot, and she summoned Norfolk to her. He threw himself on the Queen's mercy, wrote to the Earls telling them to postpone any rebellion, and was punished with only a short spell in the Tower. At this point, all the plans might well have faded into nothing, and internal peace have been ensured, at least until the next plot of the Northmen. But Elizabeth chose to summon the two Earls to court, and fearing for their lives6, they raised their followers into rebellion.

Religion, it seems, was only one factor in the decision of the Earls to revolt in the first place. As we have noted, the great Northern families (Percy, Dacre, Neville) were used to a high degree of autonomy and control in their region. This was really the last remnant of bastard feudalism in England - a line drawn at the Trent which had divided the country in two since the time of the Norman conquest. Both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I had conducted campaigns of political assaults against the families of the North, aiming to reduce their autonomy. Northumberland had been denied the Wardenship of Middle March, and Westmorland lost the title Lieutenant General of the North shortly before the revolt. These titles were being given to supporters of Elizabeth, who were naturally viewed as arch-rivals by the Earls of the North. The traditional magnates of the North were being put out of favour, and their fortunes were suffering accordingly7.

It is understood that the wives of the Earls put considerable pressure on their husbands to act. The Earl of Norfolk's sister, wife of the Earl of Westmorland, said -

"What a simple man the Duke is, to begin a matter and not go through with it; we and our country were shamed for ever, that now in the end we should seek holes to creep in to."

Why did the revolt fail?

The image of two Earls, driven more by fear and the admonitions of their spouses to rebel than by an iron will, is hardly appealing to us today. It is likely it was just as unappealing to the men of the time - many of the followers who rode to Durham and Hartlepool with the Earls did so out of allegiences owed under the North's system of bastard feudalism. It was traditional for the gentry of the North to serve in one of the great noble's houses, as it was for their sons. There are also reports of men being press-ganged into action - the rebels certainly began to disperse when the Earls became unable to pay them, which shows their lack of devotion to the cause.

On the matter of religion, it is not likely that the Catholic faith, as it existed in the North, was enough to motivate the common people to great action. While the Mass heard in Durham was well-attended, as the Royal comamnder Sir Ralph Sadler noted -

"The ancient faith still lay like lees at the bottom of men's hearts and if the vessel was stirred a little came to the top."

The people of the North may have disliked Protestantism - an influx of radical puritans into the diocese of Durham had no doubt not helped. But for them, the Catholic faith was mainly a collection of ancient rituals and rites, and it was habitual and uninformed. At the time of the Pilgramge of Grace, the reformation must have seemed scary and hard to grasp. Now, the worst had passed, and the Reformation had not had a massive impact on their daily lives. The very fact that the Earls chose to use religious propaganda to try and motivate the masses is telling that it still had some effect, but it was not as potent as it once had been.

Especially, the nobility and gentry could not be encouraged by religion as they once had been. They recognized that to rebel in the name of religion would mean certain death and disinheritance of their families, and were not willing to take such a risk against a system which had not treated tham all that badly. The lesser Catholic gentry in the North had been rewarded fairly well - for instance, two thirds of the Justices of the Peace were Catholic. Elizabeth had created no martyrs and left the North to its own devices at a lower level. But after the Revolt the fears of the lower Northern gentry and nobility came true, as Elizabeth became resolved to destroy the last remnants of the North's authority once and for all.

1. In 1536, the North had been alight with the fire of revolt as the English Reformation struck fear of the unknown into the region. At the time, Royal authority in this remote part of the Kingdom had been much reduced than in the time of Elizabeth I, and it had constituted the greatest armed threat to Henry VIII.

2. Sir Thomas Wyatt led a rebellion in support of Protestantism and in hatred of a Spanish clique which was gaining influence over England following the marriage of Mary I to Philip II. This had occured a mere sixteen years earlier.

3. Tudor monarches had usually granted amnesty to the bulk of rebel forces in the past, instead only executing the main leaders and agitators.

4. The Elizabethan Religious Settlement outlawed traditional Roman Catholicism. See its node for further details.

5. Philip II was not at this point likely to invade England, and was in fact writing to the Pope urging him not to excommunicate Elizabeth. The reason for this is that he was a persistent suitor who feared that if Elizabeth were excommunicated he would be unable to marry her (he never got to marry her anyway.) See King Philip II and the Catholic Church. As we shall see, the connection of the rebels with Mary, Queen of Scots made Philip even less likely to intervene, for he loathed the French above all others. Of course, in the next fifteen years, this would all change (as it was starting to), culminating in the Spanish armada in 1585.

6. A royal official wrote "Sir, I take this gathering is taken more out of fear, than they want to carry out any evil act."

7. Historian Lawrence Stone, in The Crisis of the Aristocracy, described the revolt as 'the last episode in 500 years of protest by the Highland zone against the interference of London.'


Churchill, Winston. A brief history of the English-speaking Peoples Vol. 2: Cassell, 1956.
Elton, G. R. England under the Tudors: Methuen & Co., 1974.
Fellows, Nicholas. Disorder and rebellion in Tudor England: Hodder and Stoughton, 2001.
Fletcher, Anthony. Tudor Rebellions 2nd. ed.: Longman, 1973.
Guy, John. Tudor England: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Lotherington, John. The Tudor Years: Hodder and Stoughton, 1994.

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