The Wrong Nevills & the Northern Rising: a digression into the 16th century

Posted: March 21, 2011 in The Wrong Nevills

I came across this story in my new book, De Nova Villa: Or The House of Nevill, In Sunshine and in Shade, by Henry J Swallow (1885) and it struck me as having all the elements anyone could wish in a ripping yarn. I’ve quite deliberately not done any further research on it just yet as Swallow’s telling of it makes for compulsive reading. (As a side note, some of his data regarding the earlier Nevills is a little off the mark, so I have no doubt this applies here as well – that’s one of the reasons I’m posting this before I dig any deeper. What Swallow does do is include contemporary sources, both complete and in extract. He wouldn’t pass muster as a ‘serious historian’ today, but the collected material in this book is extensive. He also writes in a rather jolly tone.)

It’s got everything! Rebellion, a hopeless romantic cause, treason, betrayal, religious division, defeat snatched from the grasp of victory, exile, darkly hinted at sexual infamies, abandoned children, beatification, long years of house arrest, over the top royal vengeance, sad and sorry executions… And at the heart of it, what would appear to be a strong, but doomed, love. Oh, and a character called Twinkes…

Charles Nevill, the 6th earl of Westmoreland, and Thomas Percy, 7th earl of Northumberland, along with their wives and the brother-in-law of one (Thomas Howard, 4th duke of Norfolk) hatched a plan that was broad in scope, ambitious in outcome and hopelessly short on detail. The idea was that they would free the captive Queen of Scots, marry her to Norfolk, bring down Elizabeth’s government and return England to the warm embrace of the Church of Rome. What makes this all the more interesting is that, while four of the five major conspirators were Catholic, the countess of Westmoreland (Twinkes), wasn’t. As she was Norfolk’s sister, one suspects it was the dynastic part of the plot that appealed to her more than the religious.

In 1563, Charles Nevill and Jane Howard were married. They lived at Brancepeth Castle in Country Durham and had four daughters. Just why Jane was the only non-Catholic member of a very Catholic family, Swallow doesn’t tell us, nor does he seem to have any idea as to why her husband came to call her Twinkes. Norfolk abandoned the scheme early and was imprisoned in the Tower by Elizabeth. (He learned no lesson from this, however, took part in further plots and was executed in 1572.) With Norfolk gone, the dynastic aspect of the rebellion was abandoned and it became strictly a matter of religion.

Westmoreland and Percy had some early success, with many people flocking to their side, the successful seizure of Bibles and Books of Common Prayer and the forced saying of Mass in churches in the north. Thomas Ratcliffe, earl of Sussex, sent a series of letters to the queen, begging for money and resources to put down the rebellion. Little was forthcoming.

Like Norfolk, there seemed to be a failure of resolve on the part of Westmoreland and Northumberland. When Mary Queen of Scots was removed to Coventry, the focus of their revolt vanished. Faced with resistance from Lord Scrope, “[i]n the earl of Northumberland the blood of Hotspur had cooled to the passive temperature which could suffer, but could not act.” The rebels, leaving Twinkes behind in Brancepeth, headed north for Scotland and refuge. The Northumberlands’ daughters were also left behind at Topcliffe. Westmoreland’s cousin, Robert Constable, was sent after them. He attempted to gain Westmoreland’s trust, with the view to turning him over to the authorities in England, but failed dismally in this regard.

One rather touching part of the story (as told by Swallow) has Twinkes saying her own (protestant) prayers then, in case her fleeing husband found no time to do it for himself, his Catholic ones.

In Scotland, the fugitives didn’t fare well. Northumberland was separated from his wife, Anne Somerset, who was removed to the custody of Black Ormiston and Jock o’ the Side. Nothing detailed is said about these men, but what is is decidedly not flattering. Ormiston was “one of the murderers of Darnley” and Jock is described as a thief. Anne was pregnant and would give birth to a daughter the following May. Westmoreland soon found himself in Fernihurst Castle. Northumberland wasn’t so lucky, being betrayed into the hands of the Scots Regent, eventually repatriated to England where he was executed. Three hundred years later, he was beatified by Leo XIII, so that’s something, I suppose.

Westmoreland, urged by his wife, sent several letters to queen Elizabeth asking for pardon and promising to be good, but the queen would have none of it. He eventually made his way to Flanders.

While Swallow gleefully repeats the (unfounded) gossip about Westmoreland and the Laird of Fernihurst’s ‘wanton’ lady, he, much more discreetly, doesn’t care to dwell on the tribulations of the countess of Northumberland as she made her way to eventual safety in Flanders. Such shyness invites speculation of a particularly sordid kind!

Once the rebellion was quelled and the protagonists either dead or in exile, Elizabeth wreaked a bloody vengeance on the commons of the north. Many hundreds were hanged, though Swallow (citing supporting sources) suggests that many who might prove useful, or who had little in the way of property to seize, were pardoned and spared.

Twinkes hung on at Brancepeth for a while, on a not terribly generous pension from the crown, but eventually moved to London, where she spent the rest of her life essentially under house arrest. She never saw her husband again and died in 1593.

The abandoned Percy children were finally rescued by a kind relative. ‘The poor children as they looked shivering out of their window, must have seen scores of their father’s servants hanging on the trees about the house.” Their oldest daughter, Elizabeth, was lured to Flanders by news of her mother’s death. The countess was very much alive, however, and had used this trick in order to see her daughter. Westmoreland, slightly bonkers by this time, died in 1601. Mary Percy, the child born in exile, founded the Benedictine order in Brussels.

Three of the four Westmoreland daughters found themselves in serious trouble after their mother died, but that is a story for another time, perhaps.

  1. nicole says:

    interesting read, i am confused as to in what sense that they are the wrong nevills, is it a wrong family altogether? My brains still not working properly lol.

    Also, did mr swallow spell trees ‘tress’ or was it a mistake? I just noticed it sorry.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Fixed the typo already! The Wrong Nevills are the descendants of Ralph Nevill’s first wife. My Nevills are the descendants of his second wife. It’s just shorthand, really. ❤

  2. Great stuff! Poor Twinkes.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    It seems from whatever branch of the family they came, if there was a pot to be stirred you could find a Neville in there helping out. What a family. I’m looking forward to the post about the daughters as I am a fan of those kinds of things – for good or bad!

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