The famous escape of Lord Nithsdale from the Tower of London

Posted in Adventure, Bravery, Historical articles, History, Law, London, Politics, Royalty, Scotland on Thursday, 18 July 2013

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This edited article about Lord Nithsdale’s escape originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 340 published on 20 July 1968.

Lord Nithsdale escapes, picture, image, illustration

The escape of Lord Nithsdale from the tower in 1716 by Emily Mary Osborn

The guards at the Tower of London felt sorry for the fat lady who came to see her imprisoned friend, the Earl of Nithsdale. The Earl was under sentence of death and, as she entered his cell, his visitor sobbed brokenly and buried her face in her handkerchief.

The fat lady – a Mrs. Mills of Drury Lane – was accompanied by the Earl’s wife, Lady Winifred Nithsdale.

Mrs. Mills continued her lament until the guards were out of sight. Then, miraculously, she stopped crying. She took off her bulky cloak and handed it to the anxious prisoner.

The first stage in an audacious plan to rescue the Earl from the executioner had been successfully accomplished.

Together with five other Lords, Lord Nithsdale had been condemned for his part in the fruitless Jacobite uprising of 1715.

On December 8th, 1715, Winifred Nithsdale heard that her husband had been found guilty of treason, and that he was on his way to the Tower to await execution. She instantly left the family home near Dumfries and, with her maid, Cecilia Evans, set out on horseback for London.

They arrived safely at Newcastle, but could not get places on the coach sister-in-law that despite heavy snow going to York. Winifred wrote to her they were forced to continue on horseback.

By the time they reached Stamford, in Lincolnshire, they were compelled to stop, for “the snow is so deep that our horses yesterday were in several places almost buried.”

However despite the excessive cold, these two women rode into London in January. Lady Nithsdale spent several weeks recovering from the rigours of the trip, taking lodgings in Mrs. Mills’ house.

For a while, she waited in the hope that her husband would be reprieved. Then, when a final petition for mercy was refused, she decided to try and smuggle him out of the Tower.

To achieve this, she enlisted the help of Mrs. Mills, a slender lady named Miss Hilton, and her loyal Cecilia.

Lady Nithsdale sprang her plot on the others at the very last moment. She rushed them out of the lodging-house and “into the coach, where I never ceased talking, not to give them leisure to think, for they consented immediately to come with me, and the surprise left them no time to reflect on the consequences.”

When they came to the Tower, Cecilia and Mrs. Mills stayed outside. Miss Hilton, who wore an extra riding-cloak, went in first. Then Mrs. Mills, after she had entered the cell and given her cloak to the Earl, put on the spare one. She and Miss Hilton left immediately, unnoticed among the press of visitors.

The afternoon light was fading, and it was nearly dark in the condemned man’s cell.

It was now that Lady Nithsdale embarked upon the most daring part of her scheme. She told her husband to put on Mrs. Mills’ discarded cloak, and set about disguising him in the likeness of her friend.

“. . . Her eyebrows being a little upon the yellow,” she wrote later, “and his very thick and black, I had provided paint of that colour to dye his, and a twist of the same coloured hair; and to hide a long beard that had not time to be shaved, white paint to cover it with . . . and red for the cheeks . . .”

Lady Nithsdale worked quickly, because it was nearly time for candles to be lit. At first her husband protested at the idea of having to wear one of her petticoats, and of having false ringlets added to his hair. But she insisted, and told him to keep his voice down.

Finally, satisfied that he would pass all but a close inspection, she led him into the passage outside his cell.

As they walked along, Lady Nithsdale chattered away all the time to her “female” companion, who buried his face in the handkerchief, as if overcome by grief. In this way they walked past the guards and out into the courtyard. There Lord Nithsdale was taken by the elbow by Cecilia Evans, and led quietly away.

The Earl was free, but Lady Nithsdale had not yet completed her deception. She wanted her husband’s absence to remain undetected as long as possible. She needed time to get her husband to a place of safety.

So – she walked coolly back into the deserted cell.

“When I got into my lord’s chamber,” she wrote, “I spoke to him as it were, and I answered as if he had, and imitated his voice as near as I could, and walked up and down the room.”

Then, holding the door in her hand, she took “a solemn leave of my lord for that night.”

As she passed the guards, she said, “I pray you – do not disturb my lord. He is at his prayers.”

The guards saluted, and took her at her word. They had come to like the Earl’s wife, during her visits to the Tower, and were grateful for the money she gave them “to drink the King’s health.”

Once she was safely clear, Lady Nithsdale hurried to Drury Lane, where her husband was hiding in an attic. Before his escape was discovered, he was moved secretly to the house of the Venetian Ambassador, who knew nothing of his being there. One of the ambassador’s servants kept the Earl in his room and then took him to Dover, disguised in the ambassador’s livery.

Thus, disguised this time as a coachman, William Maxwell, the 5th Earl of Nithsdale, escaped to France, where he spent the rest of his days in exile.

Before rejoining him, Lady Nithsdale rode back to Scotland, where she raised enough money for them to live on. Then, still accompanied by Cecilia, she met her husband in Lille, in September 1716.

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