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date: 11 December 2023

Participants in the northern risingfree

(act. 1569–1570)

Participants in the northern risingfree

(act. 1569–1570)
  • Krista Kesselring

Participants in the northern rising (act. 1569–1570), launched the only major armed rebellion in Elizabethan England. In November and December 1569 they marched under the banners of the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland—and also under that of the five wounds of Christ which had last been seen in the Pilgrimage of Grace of 1536–7—in an attempt to secure the restoration of Catholicism and an older way of life.


Discontent built up in the north of England during the 1560s as the initial ambiguities of the Elizabethan protestant settlement dissipated. Traditionalists felt increasingly under pressure as the number of arrests and deprivations of office for religious nonconformity grew, and churches were more thoroughly purged of the remnants of Catholic worship. In May 1568 the arrival of the Catholic Mary, queen of Scots, provided hope for an alternative. There had been conspiracies of varying degrees of seriousness almost since Elizabeth's accession ten years earlier, but they became more intense during 1569. A group of northern gentlemen centred upon the earls of Northumberland and Westmorland talked of rising to restore the old faith, most likely by replacing Elizabeth with her cousin Mary, or at least by having Elizabeth recognize Mary as her heir.

Thomas Percy, seventh earl of Northumberland, proved susceptible to such talk. He was the son of the rebel Sir Thomas Percy—executed in 1537 for his part in the aftershocks of the Pilgrimage of Grace—and nephew of the sixth earl of Northumberland, who had died in the same year. The seventh earl had had the family title and much (though not all) of its estates restored to him by 1557, but still smarted at the indignities inflicted upon him by protestant parvenus in key northern offices. Long a traditionalist in matters religious, he had been formally reconciled with the Catholic church in late 1567 or early 1568. His wife, Anne Percy, countess of Northumberland, shared and strengthened his views. Charles Neville, sixth earl of Westmorland, was also a Catholic and had similarly faced financial conflicts with newly promoted protestants, especially with Bishop James Pilkington and his increasingly assertive establishment in Durham. The young earl's uncles Christopher Neville and Cuthbert Neville [see under Christopher Neville] fostered his perception of links between the new faith and the new assaults on family and fortune. Around them gathered men such as Richard Norton, who despite his staunch Catholicism had been sheriff of Yorkshire for the twelve months from November 1568, along with his brother Thomas, and his sons. They were joined by Norton's brother-in-law Thomas Markenfield; Egremont Radcliffe (whose half-brother the earl of Sussex played a leading role in the suppression of the rebellion); John Swinburne, a prominent servant of the earl of Westmorland who was also a committed Catholic; and other men with some substance, status, and sense of grievance. Shadowy figures such as the writer Thomas Jenye and influential members of the Catholic exile community, including Norton's kinsman (and papal agent) Nicholas Morton, flitted around the edges of this group, as did the would-be Cumberland magnate Leonard Dacre, who although a Catholic was principally concerned to recover his family's estates, lost the previous year.

Given the reluctance of the earls to commit themselves to open rebellion, it is uncertain whether anything would have come of these complaints and conspiracies had Elizabeth not called the men to court upon suspicions of their intentions, having reacted with alarm and anger upon learning of the plan to wed Thomas Howard, fourth duke of Norfolk, to Queen Mary. The northern earls seem not to have been strong proponents of this plan, devised by protestants, but they feared for their safety and decided to rise. On 14 November 1569 they and their closest followers stormed into Durham Cathedral, celebrating a Catholic mass and proclaiming themselves ready 'to resist force by force'. With the help of God and 'you good people', they declared their intent to set about 'the restoring of all ancient customs and liberties to God's church and this noble realm' (Kesselring, 59).

Supporters quickly appeared. At its peak the rebel army consisted of about 6000 men. Some historians had assumed that the bulk of this force consisted of the earls' tenants and retainers, but Susan Taylor's careful work has shown that fewer than 20 per cent of those in arms had any tenurial links with the rebellion's leaders. The Nevilles did raise some of their tenants, but Northumberland barely bothered to try. Instead of relying on feudal loyalties, the earls adapted the muster system to their purposes, using coercion, promises of pay, and the call of religious conviction to gather their forces. The last of these motivations cannot be overlooked: certainly, the queen's chief lieutenant in the north and others among the loyalists opined that most who joined the earls did so because they 'like so well their cause of religion' (Kesselring, 67). The rebels' behaviour suggests that they had been impelled to act by their religious convictions, as they marched beneath religious banners accompanied by priests, wearing crusader crosses and celebrating masses. They drew upon broadly supportive communities, too. At least one group of parishioners contributed to a common purse to send young men to the rebel army. In other parishes men and women worked together to re-erect altars and to burn protestant service books.

Surviving lists of those pardoned, fined, and executed in the early months of 1570 provide just over 5500 names and a few additional details. Among the 4525 men whose parish of residence can be identified, the overwhelming majority came from co. Durham and Yorkshire, with smaller numbers drawn from Northumberland, Westmorland, and Cumberland. Over 80 per cent of the roughly 2600 men with recorded designations of status were yeomen, with smaller numbers of tradesmen and husbandmen. The profile of rebels from the town of Richmond similarly suggests that men of respectably middling means and status made up a significant proportion of the rebel army: of forty-eight rebels known to have resided there, at least sixteen had been burgesses, school governors, and men with similar local responsibilities. In both Yorkshire and Durham village constables led their neighbours to the rebel army.

While the rebellion's leaders had little trouble finding supporters, they had less success devising a coherent strategy. In late November they marched through Durham and parts of Yorkshire, besieging Barnard Castle and taking Hartlepool. Some began talking with potential Scottish confederates; Thomas Markenfield went to the continent in hopes of securing foreign aid from that quarter.

Government responses

Meanwhile the queen's forces gathered. Thomas Radcliffe, third earl of Sussex, had been serving as lord president of the council in the north and now sought to co-ordinate efforts against the rebels. Fearing him to be somewhat compromised by his friendships with some of the rebels, however, the queen also sent north that long-time stalwart of Tudor service, Sir Ralph Sadler, as well as Henry Carey, first Baron Hunsdon, the warden of the east march. Sussex had the support of local gentlemen such as Sir Thomas Gargrave, dispatched to Pontefract Castle, and Sir George Bowes, who sought to hold Barnard Castle, and also, somewhat unexpectedly, that of Sir Henry Percy, Northumberland's brother and his eventual successor as earl. But help from Sir John Forster in the middle march and Lord Scrope to the west proved less forthcoming, with the latter resisting sending forces to Sussex as he thought them necessary to allay danger from the Dacres and the borderers. In the south plans for a force of some 22,500 men proved overly ambitious, but an army of just over 14,000 did assemble under the command of Lord Admiral Edward Clinton and Ambrose Dudley, earl of Warwick.

As this southern force finally arrived to reinforce Sussex's efforts, the rebel earls fled. On 16 December they abandoned the bulk of their army, taking a group of their horsemen and riding north. Four days later they, the countess of Northumberland, and some of their closest supporters arrived in Scotland, where Hector Armstrong of Harlaw, the Scottish borderer to whom the earl of Northumberland turned for shelter, promptly seized and sold the earl to the Scottish regent, James Stewart, earl of Moray. In the following month Leonard Dacre launched a rising of his own against the queen's government, but was defeated by Hunsdon on the River Gelt on 20 February, and himself then took refuge in Scotland along with some of his men. A number of fierce raids across the border were then made by Sussex and others against English fugitives and Marian loyalists, but while civil war in Scotland continued until 1573, by September 1570 Sussex had secured an accord with a number of leading Scots in which they agreed to abandon ties with the English rebels. Those of the latter who could do so then went into exile on the continent, some to continue efforts to undermine England's protestant regime. The earl of Northumberland remained for a time in Scottish captivity, with both Queen Elizabeth and his wife, Anne, bargaining to buy him back. Elizabeth eventually won, and had him executed in York on 22 August 1572. He was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1895.


To the south, meanwhile, many participants suffered on gallows hastily erected by provost marshals. Sir George Bowes and Sir John Forster co-ordinated the heaviest judicial death toll of any sixteenth-century English rebellion, with the summary executions in late 1569 and early 1570 of roughly 600 of the men who had joined the earls and been left behind. Rebels with assets worth seizing faced trials, forfeitures, and very often death—with executions in London, York, Durham, and throughout the communities that had supported the rebellion. Churches in the north had bells seized as a memorial of the iniquities of protest, supplemented by special prayers of thanksgiving and a new homily against disobedience and wilful rebellion to ensure that the lessons of loyalty were learned in all parts of the realm.

The consequences of the northern rising thus included hundreds of personal tragedies throughout the north, as families dealt with the slaughter and spoil. The massive transfer of assets enriched a number of loyalists, including men such as Thomas Sutton, a servant of the earl of Warwick who was appointed master of the ordnance in the north of England. Sutton so built upon the wealth he acquired in the wake of the rising that by the end of the century he had become possibly the richest man in the country. The transfer of assets also served the interests of the crown, depriving some in the north of the material resources needed to rebel while rewarding and cementing the loyalty of others through patronage grants. The rebellion prompted Pope Pius V's excommunication of Queen Elizabeth on 25 February 1570; its defeat led to the growth of exile communities on the continent and a new set of martyrs for Catholics to commemorate. It fed into the Ridolfi plot and responses to it. Ties between English and Scottish protestants grew stronger. The rebellion confirmed among loyalists the need to clear away any remaining ambiguities in the religious settlement and to move more forcefully against nonconformists, with new measures passed by the parliament of 1571. Ultimately, too, a virulently anti-papist rhetoric drew a strength from the rebellion that would shape English history for decades to come, as the participants in the rebellion of 1569 came to be remembered by many protestants as dangerous dupes of the papal Antichrist.


  • CSP dom., addenda, 1566–79
  • The state papers and letters of Sir Ralph Sadler, ed. A. Clifford, 2 vols. (1809)
  • S. Alford, The early Elizabethan polity: William Cecil and the British succession crisis, 1558–1569 (1998)
  • A. Fletcher and D. MacCulloch, Tudor rebellions, 5th edn (2008)
  • M. James, ‘The concept of honour and the northern rising, 1569’, Society, politics and culture: studies in early modern England (1986), 270–307
  • K. Kesselring, The northern rebellion of 1569: faith, politics, and protest in Elizabethan England (2007)
  • D. Marcombe, ‘A rude and heady people: the local community and the rebellion of the northern earls’, The last principality: politics, religion and society in the bishopric of Durham, 1494–1660, ed. D. Marcombe (1987)
  • R. Pollitt, ‘The defeat of the northern rebellion and the shaping of Anglo-Scottish relations’, SHR, 64 (1985), 1–21
  • S. E. Taylor, ‘The crown and the north of England, 1559–70: a study of the rebellion of the northern earls, 1569–70, and its causes’, PhD diss., University of Manchester, 1981
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