The story of the Northern Rising of 1569, writes John Tomaney, points to enduring geographical fault lines in English life, albeit reworked in different historical contexts. But themes of an indifferent Court and a region let down by its leaders resonate today.
450 years ago, the north of England rose in rebellion against the Tudor state. Its leaders were Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland and Charles Neville, Earl of Westmoreland, their retainers and sundry gentry, such as Richard Norton. The Northern Rising (or Rising of the Northern Earls) in 1569 was the greatest domestic challenge to the rule of Elizabeth I, but one scarcely known today.
The Tudor period saw several insurgencies. The North itself had been at the centre for the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536; a rebellion concerned with opposing Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries on which sparsely populated northern society was highly dependent. The ‘pilgrims’ raised the ancient banner of St Cuthbert, taken from Durham Cathedral, and 20,000 marched south. London panicked. Henry opened negotiations, met the rebels, acceded to their demands, played for time and, when his forces were carefully marshalled, ruthlessly crushed the uprising.
The Rising of 1569 was the final regional insurrection of early modern England. The motives of the rebels were mixed. Some were sympathetic to the regnal claims of the Catholic, Mary, Queen of Scots. Scotland, France and the Pope had geo-strategic interests in its outcome. But the rebellion should be seen also through a regional lens. The Catholic North remained resistant to Elizabeth’s effort to impose Protestantism and assert power of the Tudor state in all parts of her kingdom. Efforts to institute her reforms in the north represented not just an attack on deeply held beliefs, but also on the remote feudal society they supported and the position of the northern nobility and gentry which operated at arm’s length from the Court.
Elizabeth’s actions in the North were provocative. In Durham, Bishop Tunstall was removed from office in 1559 for his Catholic leanings. His replacement, Bishop Pilkington was militantly Protestant. Along with Dean Whittingham, he set about eradicating the last signs of Catholic ritual from the diocese, stripping altars and removing images. In Durham Cathedral, the fanatical Mrs Whittingham supervised the burning of St Cuthbert’s Banner, an icon of the region since the days of the Kingdom of Northumbria, but idolatrous in puritanical eyes. More broadly, Elizabeth appointed her allies to local offices of state that had long been the sinecures of northern nobles. For instance, in Northumberland, the ambitious Sir John Forster was favoured at the expense of Percy. Local conflicts also concerned access to the regions increasingly important coal deposits, which fuelled the growth of Elizabethan London.
The Percies and Nevilles fomented rebellion. The Rising proper began with the celebration of Catholic Mass at Durham Cathedral on 30 November 1569. The rebels then marched south to Darlington and crossed the Tees into Yorkshire, assembling a force of 6,000 armed men. Carrying the banner of the Five Wounds of Christ, they destroyed signs of Protestantism wherever they found them. The rebels captured the key port of Hartlepool and laid siege to Barnard Castle which was in the hands of the loyalist Sir John Bowes. The defenders capitulated but victory was short-lived. The navy recaptured Hartlepool, while a southern army, under the Earl of Sussex advanced North. The leading rebels including Northumberland and Westmoreland fled in disarray, abandoning their own foot soldiers, and heading for Scotland.
The rebel leaders found sympathy in the Borders among the Catholic Scottish nobility and many were given shelter. Elizabeth ordered incursions into Scotland in order to retrieve those she regarded as traitors. Raids by Sussex, the Earl of Hunsdon, and her local ally Forster, were fruitless. Westmoreland and others were able to make their way eventually to Flanders or France to live and die in exile. The Earl of Northumberland was less fortunate; betrayed by his Scottish hosts, eventually he was handed over to the English for £2,000. Attainted as a traitor, he was beheaded in York on 22 August 1572, an event overseen by his rival Forster. Refusing to renounce his faith, Thomas Percy was beatified as a martyr by the Catholic Church.
Even by the standards of the time, Elizabeth exacted savage revenge on the North. Literally, the rebels were decimated: over 600 were executed, and their heads placed on spikes across the region. The southern army looted the region. Rebel lands and property, such as the Neville’s Brancepeth Castle, were forfeited to the Crown and used to reward loyalists. The Tudor state aimed to eliminate any potential Northern threat, by promoting rising gentry such as Forster, and extinguishing the region’s distinctive feudal society.
The drama of 1569 is largely forgotten. The official account is told through the chronicles of the victors, but traces of another story can be found in northern culture. Northern ballads recount a romantic tragedy and tales of treachery. Wordsworth’s poem, The White Doe of Rylstone, memorialises the fate of Richard Norton and his sons who were among those executed in the aftermath of the rising. Reflecting on failed northern rebellions of the 16th century, the early 20th historian Rachel Reid, described the North as “the natural refuge of lost causes”.
The poet Basil Bunting saw the brutal repression of the 1569 Rising as one of a series of disasters that had been inflicted on the North by the South. At the time of his death in 1980, Bunting was working on an epic poem about the Rising and its aftermath. Only fragments exist:
Wind sakes a blotch of sun,
flatter and tattle willow and oak alike
sly as a trout’s shadow on gravel.
Light stots from stone, sets ridge and kerf quick
as shot skims from steel. Men of the north
‘subject to being beheaded and cannot avoid it…’
The story of the Rising – and the Pilgrimage of Grace beforehand – point to enduring geographical fault lines in English life, albeit reworked in different historical contexts. But themes of an indifferent Court and a region let down by its leaders resonate today. Northern school children know nothing about these tumultuous events. Why so? For Bunting the argument was simple: ‘all the school histories are written by or for Southrons.’
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