Escapes, by John Buchan


Lord Nithsdale’s Escape

THE first of the great Jacobite rebellions, that of 1715, was grossly mismanaged from the start. The invasion of England by the Scottish Catholic lords and the Northumbrian Jacobites came to a dismal close at Preston, and the Tower of London was soon full of exalted personages the English Earl of Derwentwater, who was a grandson of Charles II., and the Scottish Earls of Wintoun, Nithsdale, and Carnwath, and Lord Kenmure, who was head of the Galloway Gordons. The trial of the Jacobite lords was not a masterpiece of English justice. The method followed was impeachment, and it was clear from the start that with a Protestant House of Commons Catholic rebels had no kind of chance. Without proper proof they were condemned a political, rather than a legal verdict. They were advised to plead guilty, which as it turned out was an unwise course, for thereby they trusted their lives to the Crown and not to the English law, and King George’s Government were determined to make an example of them as a matter of policy. Wintoun alone refused to plead.

But the people of England were more merciful than their Government, and the popular feeling in favour of leniency was so strong that Walpole was unable to send all the lords to the scaffold. For Derwentwater there could be no mercy; he was too near in blood to the royal house. Mthsdale and Kenmure were also marked for death, partly because they were devouter Catholics than the others, and partly because of their great power in the Lowlands. On Thursday, February 23, 1716, the Lord Chancellor signed the warrants for their execution on the Saturday.

Derwentwater and Kenmure duly lost their heads, and two famous houses were brought to ruin. But when the guards arrived to summon Mthsdale to the scaffold they found that he was gone. This is the story of his escape.

The Countess of Mthsdale had been Lady Winifred Herbert, the youngest daughter of the first Marquis of Powis. At the time she was twenty-six years of age, a slim young woman with reddish hair and pale blue eyes. Her family had always been Catholic and Royalist, and she had shown herself one of the most ardent of Jacobite ladies.

When the news came of the rout at Preston she was at Terregles, the home of the Maxwells in Nithsdale. She realized at once that her husband could expect no mercy, and that his death must follow his imprisonment as certainly as night follows day. It was a bitter January, with snowdrifts on every road. Without wasting an hour she set off for the south after burning incriminating papers. Her only attendant was a Welsh girl called Evans, from the Powis estates, who had been her maid since childhood.

The two women and a groom rode through the wintry country to Newcastle, where they took the coach for York. Presently the coach stuck in the snow and word came that all the roads were blocked. But by offering a large sum Lady Nithsdale managed to hire horses, and pushed on into the Midlands. The little company suffered every kind of disaster, but the lady’s resolute spirit overcame them all, and after some days of weary travel they reached London.

Lady Mthsdale went straight to some of the Scottish great ladies, such as the Duchess of Buccleuch and the Duchess of Montrose, and heard from them that the worst might be expected. She realized that no appeal could save the prisoner, and that, unless he could break bar and bolt, in a week she would be a widow. The first step was to get admission to the Tower. Walpole refused to let her see her husband unless she was prepared to share his captivity to the end. She declined the condition, for she understood that if she was to do anything she must be free. At last she succeeded in bribing the keepers, and found herself in her husband’s chamber. As she looked round she saw that there was no chance of an ordinary escape. One high barred window gave on the ramparts and Water Lane, and a sentry was on guard in front. If Lord Nithsdale were to leave the Tower he must leave it by the door. That in turn was strongly guarded. A halberdier stood outside and two sentries with fixed bayonets, and the stairs and the outer door were equally well held. Force was out of the question. The only hope lay in ingenuity.

The weak part of any prison is to be found in. the human warders, more especially in a place so strong as the Tower, where the ordinary avenues of escape are few and difficult. The Lieutenant, trusting in his walls, was inclined to be negligent. The prison rules were often disregarded, and the wives and children of the officials wandered about the passages at will. TMs gave Lady Nithsdale her plan. — She proposed to her husband to dress him up in cap and skirt and false curls and pass him as a woman through the soldiers. Very soon she had worked out the details. She had women friends who would assist: a Miss Hilton, and the landlady, Mrs. Mills, at her lodging in Drury Lane. The latter was tall and inclined to be stout, and a riding-hood that fitted her would fit Lord Nithsdale, while a red wig would counterfeit Mrs. Mills’s hair. The prisoner’s black eyebrows could be painted out, his chin shaved and his skin rouged.

Lord Nithsdale stubbornly refused. The scheme seemed to him crazy. How could a stalwart soldier with a rugged face and a martial stride imitate any woman? He might do something with a sword in his hand, but, raddled and painted, he would only be a laughing-stock. Far better let his wife get a petition from him placed in the royal hands. There might be some hope in that.

Lady Nithsdale pretended to agree, though she knew well that the Bong’s clemency was a broken reed. For George had given strict orders that no petition from Lord Nithsdale should be received, and she found her friends very unwilling to disobey the King and act as intermediary. Her only hope was to see George himself; so she dressed herself in deep black, and, accompanied “by Miss Hilton, who knew the King by sight, went to Court. They reached the room “between the King’s apartment and the main drawing-room, and when George appeared she flung herself before him. “ I am the wretched Countess of Nithsdale,” she cried. The King stepped back, refusing to take the petition; but she caught him by the skirt of Ms coat and poured out her story in French. George lost his temper, but she would not let go, and suffered herself to be dragged along the floor to the drawing-room door. There the officials unclasped her fingers and released his angry Majesty.

Lord Nithsdale now turned his hopes to the House of Lords. The Countess went from peer to peer; but once again she failed. Lord Pembroke, indeed, who was a kinsman, spoke in favour of the prisoner, but the thing was hopeless from the start. Nithsdale was utterly intractable and impenitent, and would never beg for his life.

Her husband’s counsels having failed, it remained to follow her own. She drove to the Tower and told all the guards and keepers that Lord Nithsdale’s last petition to the House of Lords had been favourably received, and that His Majesty was about to listen to their prayer. The officials congratulated her, for she had made herself very popular amongst them, and their friendliness was increased by her gifts. But to her husband she told the plain truth. The last moment had come. Next day was Friday, when the King would answer the petition. If he refused, as he was certain to do, on Saturday the prisoner would go to the scaffold.

On that Friday morning she completed her plans with Mrs. Mills, and as the January dusk drew in Miss Hilton joined them in Drury Lane and the details were finally settled. Miss Hilton was to be a friend, “Mrs. Catherine,” and Mrs. Mills another friend, “ Mrs. Betty.” With the maid Evans all three would drive to the Tower, where Evans would wait inconspicuously near the Lieutenant’s door, and the other three women would go to the earl’s chamber. Miss Hilton, being slim, was to wear two riding-hoods, her own and that of Mrs. Mills. When she was in the room she was to drop her extra clothes and leave at once. Mrs. Mills was then to go in as “ Mrs. Betty,” wearing a riding-hood to fit the earl. She was to be weeping bitterly and holding a handkerchief to her face. Everything depended upon Miss Hilton being able to slip away quietly; then Mrs. Mills, having diminished in size, was to depart as “ Mrs. Catherine,” while the earl was to go out as “ Mrs. Betty.” The vital point was to get the sentries thoroughly confused as to who had gone in and out.

They drove in a coach to the Tower, and Lady Nithsdale, in order to keep the others from doleful anticipations, chattered the whole way. When they reached the Tower they found several women in the Council Chamber who had come to see Lady Nithsdale pass, for they had a suspicion, in spite of her cheerfulness, that this was the last occasion on which she would see her husband alive. The presence of these women, who were all talking together, helped to confuse the sentries. Lady Nithsdale took in Miss Hilton first, naming her “Mrs. Catherine.” Miss Hilton at once shed her extra clothing and then left, Lady Nithsdale accompanying her to the staircase and crying, “ Send my maid to me at once. I must be dressed without delay or I shall be too late for my petition.” Then Mrs. Mills came up the stairs, a large fat woman sobbing bitterly and apparently all confused with grief. She was greeted by the Countess as “ Mrs. Betty,” and taken into Lord Nithsdale’s room. There she changed her clothes, dried her tears, and went out with her head up and a light foot.

“ Good-bye, my dear Mrs. Catherine,” Lady Nithsdale cried after her. “ Don’t omit to send my maid. She cannot know how late it is. She has forgotten that I am to present the petition to-night.” The women in the Council Chamber watched Mrs. Mills’s departure with sympathy, and the sentry opened the door for her to pass.

Now came the great moment. If any single keeper in the outer room had kept his wits about him the plot must be discovered. Everything depended upon their being confused among the women, and believing that “ Mrs. Betty “ was still with the Countess in Lord Nithsdale’s chamber. It was nearly dark and in a few minutes lights would be brought in, and a single candle would betray them. The Countess took off all her petticoats save one and tied them round her husband. There was no time to shave him, so she wrapped a muffler round his chin. His cheeks were rouged; false ringlets were tied around his brow; and a great riding-hood was put on. Then the Countess opened the door and led him by the hand. Her voice was now sharp with anxiety. “ For the love of God,” she cried, “ my dear Mrs. Betty, run and bring her with you. You know my lodgings, and if ever you hurried in your life, hurry now. I am driven mad with this delay!” The sentries in the dim light were unsuspicious and let them pass; indeed, one of them opened the chamber door. The Countess slipped behind her husband in the passage, so that no one looking after him should see his walk, which was unlike that of any woman ever born. “Make haste, make haste,” she cried, and then, almost before she had realized it, they had passed the last door and the sentries.

Evans, the maid, was waiting, and, seizing Lord Nithsdale, alias “ Mrs. Betty,” by the arm, hurried “him off to a house near Drury Lane. There he was dressed in the livery of a servant of the Venetian Minister, and started for the coast.

The Countess, dreading lest some keeper should enter her husband’s room and find him gone, rushed back there with a great appearance of distress and slammed the door. Then for a few minutes she strolled about with the step of a heavy man, and carried on an imaginary conversation, imitating his gruff replies. Now came the last stage. She raised the latch, and, standing in the doorway so that all the crowd in the Council Chamber could hear, bade her husband goodnight with every phrase of affection. She declared that something extraordinary must have happened to Evans, and that there was nothing for it but to go herself and see. She added that if the Tower were open she would come back that night. Anyhow, she hoped to be with him early in the morning, bringing him good news. As she spoke she drew the latch-string through the hole and banged the door. “I pray you, do not disturb my lord,” she said in passing. “ Do not send him candles till he calls for them. He is now at his prayers.” The unsuspicious sentries saluted her with sympathy. Beyond the outer gate was a waiting coach in which she drove at once to tell the Duchess of Montrose what had been done. Meantime Lord Nithsdale, dressed as an Italian servant, was posting along the road to Dover, where, next morning, he found a boat for Calais. It was not long before Ms wife rejoined him in Borne.

Lady Nithsdale’s bold escapade was received by the people of England with very general approval. Even the Grovernment, who were beginning to iiave doubts about the wisdom of their policy, were not disposed to be too severe on the heroic wife. When the Duchess of Montrose went to Court next day she found the King very angry. But the royal anger was short-lived. Presently he began to laugh. “ Upon my soul,” he said, “ for a man in my lord’s situation it was the very best thing he could have done.”

Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:05