Rebellion of the Northern Earls Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The failed Rebellion of the Northern Earls was the only significant attempt at returning Protestant England to Roman Catholicism by dethroning Queen Elizabeth I, a Protestant, and supporting the enthronement of Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic.

Summary of Event

The Rebellion of the Northern Earls was prompted by a desire to replace Queen Elizabeth I, who supported the Protestant Protestantism;England cause, with Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic, Catholicism;England and to return England to the Roman Catholic fold. Elizabeth, who had narrowly escaped death in 1562 when she contracted smallpox, had been urged to name a successor to her throne to avert civil war. An Act of Succession called for the crown to go to the Suffolk line and the Grey family, Protestants in faith, but Parliament contained several Catholics who considered Mary to be the legitimate heir to the English throne. Mary was King Henry VIII’s daughter by his first wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon, a Spaniard and a Roman Catholic; Elizabeth was his daughter by Anne Boleyn, for whom Henry had divorced Catherine in defiance of the Catholic Church. Divorce;Catherine of Aragon and Divorce;Henry VIII and Elizabeth was therefore born as the Anglican offspring of England’s first Protestant king. In 1568, Mary, who had been deposed as queen, came to northern England, which was still a hotbed of Catholicism and where Catholic Mass was still being celebrated openly in churches. Northern Earls, Rebellion of the (1569) Elizabeth I Mary, Queen of Scotst Cecil, William Percy, Thomas Neville, Charles Norton, Richard Devereux, Walter Elizabeth I (queen of England) Mary Tudor (queen of Scots) Howard, Thomas (fourth duke of Norfolk) Cecil, William Neville, Charles Neville, Christopher Norton, Richard Radcliffe, Thomas Percy, Thomas Essex, first earl of Bowes, Sir George Dacre, Leonard

In response to Mary’s presence in the north, Elizabeth reduced the influence of some Catholic families in that region, among them the Percies and the Nevilles, who were in Northumberland and Westmoreland. None of the northern earls were members of the Privy Council, and Elizabeth had removed the earl of Northumberland as warden of the Middle March, an influential post. When their roles at court and in the north were reduced substantially, they were naturally concerned and apprehensive about their futures.

Some of the dissident Catholics proposed a plan whereby Mary would marry Thomas Howard, the fourth duke of Norfolk, and then take the crown from Elizabeth. William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief secretary of state, was afraid that there would be an insurrection. Concerned about rumors about the plot, the duke of Norfolk, who was weak and timid, returned to his country estate but then returned to London and was then sent to the Tower of London. He urged the northern earls (the earl of Westmoreland, Charles Neville, was his brother-in-law) to abort any planned rebellion. Christopher Neville, the uncle of the earl of Westmoreland, and Richard Norton had proposed using the duke of Alva’s Spanish troops to overthrow Elizabeth and put Mary on the throne.

Cecil suspected that the earls of Westmoreland and Northumberland were implicated in the Neville/Norton plot, and the earls went before the Northern Council, where Thomas Radcliffe, the earl of Sussex and an opponent of Cecil, presided. Although they convinced Sussex that there was, in fact, no plot, Elizabeth wanted to bring them before the Privy Council at court. Meanwhile, she had Mary moved from Tutbury to Coventry to keep her away from the earls.

Elizabeth forced the hand of the insurrectionists, who did not have enough lead time to secure Spanish help or determine the amount of support among the other Catholic northern earls. To some extent, the rebellion depended on assistance from Lancashire and Cheshire, but that did not materialize, and help from the Cumbrians arrived too late. In fact, there was not as much support for their cause as they had anticipated. Nevertheless, on November 9, at the sound of church bells pealing backward, the revolt began. Westmoreland and Northumberland (Thomas Percy) led their troops to Durham, which they occupied. When they entered the cathedral there, Norton entered with a crucifix, and the rebels then ripped the English Bible and the Book of Common Prayer, symbols of the Anglican faith. They celebrated their victory with a Catholic Mass at the cathedral on November 30, 1569. They next moved south and succeeded in restoring Catholic worship at churches in Staindrop, Darlington, Richmond, and Ripon. When they arrived at Bramham Moor, they had four thousand foot soldiers and seventeen hundred soldiers on horseback.

They had planned to then invade York, the episcopal city, but Walter Devereux, the earl of Essex, had raised a formidable force against them, so they turned instead to Raby Castle and then to Barnard Castle. Sir George Bowes and his brother defended Barnard Castle for eleven days before surrendering. When they arrived at Clifford Moor, the rebel force was greatly diminished, and some of the earl of Westmoreland’s troops deserted. The depleted forces faced Essex and his soliders and another army led by the earl of Warwick on December 13, 1569. The rebels retreated to Raby first and then to Naworth Castle, where they disbanded. Many of the rebels were killed or captured as they attempted to flee, most of them to Scotland. Four of the most prominent of the leaders were jailed at York Castle and later hanged, beheaded, and quartered; their heads were then mounted at the four city gates. Three thousand Cumbrians under the command of Leonard Dacre were late to the fray and were defeated at Gelt’s Bridge by Lord Hundson’s troops. The rebellion was over, but intrigues and schemes continued to plague Elizabeth.

The penalty for rebellion or treason was severe. The earl of Northumberland was captured by the Scots, then ransomed and given to Elizabeth, who had him hanged and beheaded in York in 1572. His head was affixed to a pole over Micklegate Bar for two years. Westmoreland was only a bit more fortunate. Hidden for a while at Fernyhurst Castle, he was betrayed by a kinsman but escaped to Flanders, where he died a pauper in 1601. Richard Norton also escaped to Flanders, where he joined Westmoreland in poverty. His brother Thomas and his son Christopher were hanged and quartered. Even some of the less notable rebels were punished severely. The earl of Essex and Bowes executed sixty-six of them at Durham, and others were killed at York and London. An estimated 750 rebels were executed. The lands of the prominent rebels (Northumberland, Westmoreland, Norton, and Swinburne) were forfeited and awarded to Elizabeth’s supporters.


The Rebellion of the Northern Earls reflects what was a chaotic situation in England regarding not only the question of who should rule but also what should be the state religion. Mary, for many the legitimate queen, was a devout Catholic; Elizabeth, the reigning monarch, was committed to Protestantism. That there was a rebellion, however short-lived, indicates that there were substantial numbers of Roman Catholics intent on returning England to Catholicism. That the rebellion did not succeed indicates that for many Catholics, the state was more important than religion.

Moreover, the rebellious northern earls were attempting to cling to a past that elevated local autonomy over a centralized government, and many of their colleagues saw the winds of change and either remained neutral in the conflict or gave lukewarm support to Elizabeth. After the failure of the revolt, there were no other significant attempts to reinstitute Catholicism in England. The Anglican Church continues its ties to the monarchy to this day.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hume, Martin A. S. The Great Lord Burghly: A Study in Elizabethan Statecraft. London: James Nisbet, 1893. Focuses on Cecil’s handling of the rebellion and finds that Norfolk’s hesitation and cowardice contributed to the failure of the revolt.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kinney, Arthur F., ed. Elizabethan Backgrounds: Historical Documents of the Age of Elizabeth. Hamden, Conn.: Archon, 1975. A concise four-page summary of the events leading to the revolt and to Elizabeth’s proclamation about the rebellion. Kinney provides information about the involvement of Norfolk’s sister Jane, Lady Westmoreland, who shamed the rebels into action.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Loades, David. Tudor Government. Oxford, England: 1997. Loades attributes the failure of the rebellion to changing times, asserting that even in the conservative north the “days had passed when a great nobleman could raise a private army to trouble the king.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">MacCaffrey, Wallace. The Shaping of the Elizabethan Regime. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1968. The most extensive coverage of the revolt. MacCaffrey sees the revolt and the Ridolfi plot as the “testing-time of the regime” and provides a thorough discussion of events leading to the revolt and the revolt’s aftermath.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Read, Conyers. Mr. Secretary Cecil and Queen Elizabeth. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961. Explores the relationship between Norfolk, whom Read sees as a tool of the conspirators, and Cecil, who managed to maintain communication with the rebellious earls and with the queen. Norfolk became irritated at Cecil’s domination of English foreign policy.

July, 1553: Coronation of Mary Tudor

Jan. 25-Feb. 7, 1554: Wyatt’s Rebellion

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I

Jan., 1563: Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England

Feb. 25, 1570: Pius V Excommunicates Elizabeth I

Categories: History