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Love Will Find A Way, The Story of Winnifred Countess of Nithsdale,

Edited by Alfred H. Miles

 

Among the noblemen who, with many misgivings as to the wisdom of the attempt, yet felt it their duty to take part in the rising on behalf of the young Pretender, which took place in the year 1745, Lord Nithsdale was unhappily numbered.

It is unnecessary to detail here the progress of this ill-advised enterprise, which ended in general defeat and the capture of those principally concerned. Lord Derwentwater, Lord Nithsdale, and other noblemen, were immediately brought to trial, and condemned, without hope of mercy, to suffer the death of traitors.

Lady Nithsdale, when the first terrible news of her husband's apprehension reached her, was at Terreagles, their seat, near Traquhair in Peebleshire, and hearing that he much desired the consolation of seeing her, she resolved at once to set out for London. It was winter, and at that period the roads during this season were often almost impassable. She succeeded, however, through great difficulties, in reaching Newcastle, and from thence went to York by the stage; but there the increased severity of the weather and the depth of the snow would not admit of the stage proceeding farther—even the mail could not be forwarded. But Lady Nithsdale was on an errand from which no risks might deter her. She therefore pursued her way, though the snow was generally above the horse's girths, and, in the end, reached London in safety, and, supported both in health and spirits by firm resolution, she sustained no ill consequences from her perilous journey.

Arrived there, however, she learnt, to her dismay, that she was not to be allowed to see her husband, unless she would consent to be imprisoned with him in the Tower—a plan she could not consent to, as it would prevent her acting on his behalf by soliciting the assistance and intercession of friends, and, above all, incapacitate her from carrying out the plan of escape she had already formed, should the worst she apprehended come true. In spite of the refusal of the Government, however, by bribing the guard she obtained frequent interviews with her husband up to the day on which the prisoners were condemned; after which, for the last week, their families were allowed free admittance to take a last leave of them.

From the first moment of her arrival in London she laboured in her husband's cause, making application to all persons in authority, wherever there was the most distant chance of assistance; but from those in power she only received assurances that her cause was hopeless, and that for certain reasons her husband was especially reserved for vengeance.

Lord Nithsdale, for her sake more than his own, was anxious that a petition should be presented to the king in his behalf; trusting, by this means, to excite for her his sympathy and indulgence. It was well known that the king was especially incensed against Lord Nithsdale, so that he is said to have forbidden that any petition should be presented for him, or personal address made to him; but the countess, in obedience to her lord's wish, resolved to make the attempt, and accordingly repaired to court. In the narrative she wrote to her sister of her husband's escape, she has given the following account of the interview—very little creditable to the feelings of George I., either as a king or a gentleman:—

“So the first day that I heard the king was to go to the drawing-room, I dressed myself in black, as if I had been in mourning, and sent for Mrs. Morgan (the same who accompanied me to the Tower); because, as I did not know his Majesty personally, I might have mistaken some other person for him. She stayed by me, and told me when he was coming. I had another lady with me (Lady Nairn), and we remained in a room between the king's apartments and the drawing-room, so that he was obliged to go through it; and as there were three windows in it, we sat in the middle one, that I might have time enough to meet him before he could pass. I threw myself at his feet, and told him, in French, that I was the unfortunate Countess of Nithsdale, that he might not pretend to be ignorant of my person. But, perceiving that he wanted to go off without receiving my petition, I caught hold of the skirt of his coat, that he might stop and hear me. He endeavoured to escape out of my hands; but I kept such strong hold, that he dragged me on my knees from the middle of the room to the very door of the drawing-room. At last one of the blue ribbons who attended his Majesty took me round the waist, while another wrested the coat out of my hands. The petition, which I had endeavoured to thrust into his pocket, fell down in the scuffle, and I almost fainted away through grief and disappointment. One of the gentlemen in waiting picked up the petition; and as I knew that it ought to have been given to the lord of the bedchamber, who was then in waiting, I wrote to him, and entreated him to do me the favour to read the petition which I had had the honour to present to his Majesty. Fortunately for me it happened to be my Lord Dorset, with whom Mrs. Morgan was very intimate. Accordingly she went into the drawing-room and delivered him the letter, which he received very graciously. He could not read it then, as he was at cards with the Prince; but as soon as ever the game was over he read it, and behaved (as I afterwards learned) with the warmest zeal for my interest, and was seconded by the Duke of Montrose, who had seen me in the ante-chamber and wanted to speak to me. But I made him a sign not to come near me, lest his acquaintance might thwart my designs. They read over the petition several times, but without any success; but it became the topic of their conversation the rest of the evening, and the harshness with which I had been treated soon spread abroad—not much to the honour of the king.”

This painful scene happened on Monday, February 13th, and seems to have produced no result, unless it may be supposed to have hastened the fate of the prisoners; for, on the following Friday, it was decided in council that the sentence against them should be carried into effect.

In the meanwhile Lady Derwentwater and other ladies of high rank were strenuous in their efforts to avert the execution of the sentence. They succeeded in obtaining an interview with the king, though without any favourable issue. They also attended at both Houses of Parliament to present petitions to the members as they went in. These exertions had a decided influence on the feelings of both Houses. In the Commons a motion to petition the king in favour of the delinquents was lost by only seven votes, and among the Lords a still stronger personal feeling and interest was excited; but all proved unavailing, and Lady Nithsdale, after joining with the other ladies in this ineffectual attendance, at length found that all her hope and dependence must rest on her long-formed scheme of bringing about her husband's escape. She had less than twenty-four hours for arranging it in all its details, and for persuading the accomplices who would be necessary to her to enter into so hazardous a project. In these she seems to have been peculiarly fortunate; but the history of this remarkable escape can only be given in her own words, taken from the interesting and spirited narrative she wrote of it:—

“As the motion had passed generally (that the petitions should be read in the Lords, which had only been carried after a warm debate) I thought I would draw some advantage in favour of my design. Accordingly I immediately left the House of Lords and hastened to the Tower; where, affecting an air of joy and satisfaction, I told all the guards I passed that I came to bring joyful tidings to the prisoner. I desired them to lay aside their fears, for the petition had passed the House in their favour. I then gave them some money to drink to the lords and his Majesty, though it was but trifling; for I thought that if I were too liberal on the occasion they might suspect my designs, and that giving them something would gain their good humour and services for the next day, which was the eve of the execution. The next morning I could not go to the Tower, having so many things on my hands to put in readiness; but in the evening, when all was ready, I sent for Mrs. Mills, with whom I lodged, and acquainted her with my design of attempting my lord's escape, as there was no prospect of his being pardoned, and this was the last night before the execution. I told her that I had everything in readiness, and that I trusted she would not refuse to accompany me, that my lord might pass for her. I pressed her to come immediately, as we had no time to lose. At the same time I sent for Mrs. Morgan, then usually known by the name of Hilton, to whose acquaintance my dear Evans (her maid) had introduced me—which I looked upon as a very singular happiness. I immediately communicated my resolution to her. She was of a very tall and slender make; so I begged her to put under her own riding-hood one that I had prepared for Mrs. Mills, as she was to lend hers to my lord, that in coming out he might be taken for her. Mrs. Mills was not only of the same height, but nearly the same size as my lord. When we were in the coach I never ceased talking, that they might have no leisure to reflect. Their surprise and astonishment when I first opened my design to them had made them consent, without ever thinking of the consequences.

“On our arrival at the Tower, the first I introduced was Mrs. Morgan; for I was only allowed to take in one at a time. She brought in the clothes that were to serve Mrs. Mills when she left her own behind her. When Mrs. Morgan had taken off what she had brought for my purpose, I conducted her back to the staircase; and, in going, I begged her to send me in my maid to dress me; that I was afraid of being too late to present my last petition that night if she did not come immediately. I despatched her safe, and went partly downstairs to meet Mrs. Mills, who had the precaution to hold her handkerchief to her face—as was very natural for a woman to do when she was going to bid her last farewell to a friend on the eve of his execution. I had, indeed, desired her to do it, that my lord might go out in the same manner. Her eyebrows were rather inclined to be sandy, and my lord's were dark and very thick; however, I had prepared some paint of the colour of hers to disguise his with. I also bought an artificial head-dress of the same coloured hair as hers; and I painted his face with white and his cheeks with rouge, to hide his long beard, which he had not had time to shave. All this provision I had before left in the Tower.

“The poor guards, whom my liberality the day before had endeared me to, let me go quietly with my company, and were not so strictly on the watch as they usually had been; and the more so as they were persuaded from what I had told them the day before that the prisoners would obtain their pardon. I made Mrs. Mills take off her own hood and put on that which I had brought her. I then took her by the hand and led her out of my lord's chamber; and in passing through the next room, in which there were several people, with all the concern imaginable I said, 'My dear Mrs. Catherine, go in all haste and send me my waiting-maid; she certainly cannot reflect how late it is; she forgets that I am to present a petition to-night, and if I let slip this opportunity I am undone; for to-morrow will be too late. Hasten her as much as possible; for I shall be on thorns till she comes.' Everybody in the room, who were chiefly the guards' wives and daughters, seemed to compassionate me exceedingly; and the sentinel officiously opened the door.

“When I had seen her out I returned back to my lord and finished dressing him. I had taken care that Mrs. Mills did not go out crying, as she came in, that my lord might the better pass for the lady who came in crying and afflicted; and the more so because he had the same dress she wore. When I had almost finished dressing my lord in all my petticoats excepting one, I perceived that it was growing dark, and was afraid that the light of the candles might betray us, so I resolved to set off. I went out, leading him by the hand; and he held his handkerchief to his eyes. I spoke to him in the most piteous and afflicted tone of voice, bewailing bitterly the negligence of Evans, who had ruined me by her delay. Then said I, 'My dear Mrs. Betty, for the love of God run quickly and bring her with you. You know my lodging, and, if ever you made despatch in your life, do it at present. I am distracted with this disappointment.' The guards opened the doors, and I went downstairs with him, still conjuring to make all possible despatch. As soon as he had cleared the door, I made him walk before me, for fear the sentinel should take notice of his walk; but I still continued to press him to make all the despatch he possibly could. At the bottom of the stairs I met my dear Evans, into whose hands I confided him.[3]

[Footnote 3: Thus one more person left Lord Nithsdale's prison than had entered it. Three had gone in, and four came out. But so long as women only passed, and these two at a time, the guards probably were not particularly watchful. This inevitable difficulty in the plan of the escape makes Lady Nithsdale's admirable self-possession of manner in conducting it the more conspicuous. Any failure on her part would have awakened the suspicions of the bystanders.]

“I had before engaged Mr. Mills to be in readiness before the Tower to conduct him to some place of safety, in case he succeeded. He looked upon the affair as so very improbable to succeed, that his astonishment, when he saw us, threw him into such consternation that he was almost out of himself; which Evans perceiving, with the greatest presence of mind, without telling him (Lord Nithsdale) anything, lest he should mistrust them, conducted him to some of her own friends on whom she could rely, and so secured him; without which we should have been undone. When she had conducted him, and left him with them, she returned to find Mr. Mills, who by this time had recovered himself from his astonishment. They went home together, and having found a place of security, they conducted him to it.

“In the meanwhile, as I had pretended to have sent the young lady on a message, I was obliged to return upstairs and go back to my lord's room in the same feigned anxiety of being too late; so that everybody seemed sincerely to sympathise with my distress. When I was in the room, I talked to him as if he had been really present; and answered my own questions in my lord's voice as nearly as I could imitate it. I walked up and down as if we were conversing together, till I thought they had time enough thoroughly to clear themselves of the guards. I then thought proper to make off also. I opened the door, and stood half in it, that those in the outward chamber might hear what I said; but held it so close that they could not look in. I bid my lord a formal farewell for that night; and added, that something more than usual must have happened to make Evans negligent on this important occasion, who had always been so punctual in the smallest trifle; that I saw no other remedy than to go in person; that if the Tower were still open when I finished my business I would return that night; but that he might be assured that I would be with him as early in the morning as I could gain admittance to the Tower; and I flattered myself I should bring favourable news. Then, before I shut the door, I pulled the string through the latch, so that it could only be opened on the inside. I then shut it with some degree of force, that I might be sure of its being well shut. I said to the servant as I passed by, who was ignorant of the whole transaction, that he need not carry candles in to his master till my lord sent for him, as he desired to finish some prayers first. I went downstairs and called a coach, as there were several on the stand. I drove home to my lodgings, where poor Mr. Mackenzie had been waiting to carry the petition, in case my attempt failed. I told him there was no need of any petition, as my lord was safe out of the Tower and out of the hands of his enemies, but that I did not know where he was.

“I then desired one of the servants to call a chair, and I went to the Duchess of Montrose, who had always borne a part in my distresses. She came to me; and as my heart was in an ecstasy of joy, I expressed it in my countenance as she entered the room. I ran up to her in the transport of my joy. She appeared to be exceedingly shocked and frighted, and has since confessed to me that she apprehended my trouble had thrown me out of myself till I communicated my happiness to her. She then advised me to retire to some place of security, for that the king was highly displeased, and even enraged, at the petition I had presented to him, and had complained of it severely, and then said she would go to court and see how the news of my lord's escape was received. When the news was brought to the king, he flew into an excess of passion, and said he was betrayed; for it could not have been done without some confederacy. He instantly despatched two persons to the Tower to see that the other prisoners were secure, lest they should follow the example. Some threw the blame upon one, some upon another. The duchess was the only one at court who knew it.

“When I left the duchess, I went to a house which Evans had found out for me, and where she promised to acquaint me where my lord was. She got thither some few minutes after me, and took me to the house of a poor woman, directly opposite to the guard-house, where my lord was. She had but one small room, up one pair of stairs, and a very small bed in it. We threw ourselves upon the bed, that we might not be heard walking up and down. She left us a bottle of wine and some bread, and Mrs. Mills brought us some more in her pocket next day. We subsisted on this provision from Thursday till Saturday night, when Mrs. Mills came and conducted my lord to the Venetian ambassador's. We did not communicate the affair to his excellency; but one of his servants concealed him in his own room till Wednesday, on which day the ambassador's coach-and-six was to go down to Dover to meet his brother. My lord put on a livery, and went down in the retinue, without the least suspicion, to Dover, where M. Michel (the ambassador's servant) hired a small vessel and immediately set sail for Calais. The passage was so remarkably short that the captain threw out this reflection, that the wind could not have served better if his passengers had been flying for their lives, little thinking it to be really the case.

“For my part,” continues Lady Nithsdale, “I absconded to the house of a very honest man in Drury Lane, where I remained till I was assured of my lord's safe arrival on the Continent. I then wrote to the Duchess of Buccleugh and entreated her to procure leave for me to go with safety about my business. So far from granting my request, they were resolved to secure me, if possible. After several debates it was decided that if I remained concealed no further search should be made, but that if I appeared either in England or Scotland I should be secured.”

On first hearing of her husband's apprehension, she had thought it prudent to conceal many important family papers and other valuables, and having no person at hand with whom they could be safely entrusted, had hid them underground, in a place known only to the gardener, in whom she could entirely confide. This had proved a happy precaution, for, after her departure, the house had been searched, and, as she expressed it, “God only knows what might have transpired from those papers.” In addition to the danger of their being discovered, there was the imminent risk of their being destroyed by damp, so that no time must be lost in regaining them before too late. She therefore determined on another journey to the north, and, for greater secrecy, on horseback, though this mode of travelling, which was new to her, was extremely fatiguing. She, however, with her maid, Mrs. Evans, and a servant that could be depended on, set out from London, and reached Traquhair in safety and without any one being aware of her intentions. Here she ventured to rest two days, in the society of her sister-in-law and Lord Traquhair, feeling security in the conviction that, as the lord-lieutenant of the county was an old friend of her husband's, he would not allow any search to be made after her without first giving her warning to abscond. From thence she proceeded to Terreagles, whither it was supposed she came with the permission of Government; and to keep up that opinion, she invited her neighbours to visit her. That same night she dug up the papers from their hiding-place, where happily they had sustained no injury, and sent them at once, by safe hands, to Traquhair. This was accomplished just in time, for the magistrates of Dumfries began to entertain suspicions of her right to be there, and desired to see her leave from Government. On hearing this, “I expressed,” she says, “my surprise that they had been so backward in paying their respects; 'but,' said I, 'better late than never: be sure to tell them that they shall be welcome whenever they choose to come.' This was after dinner; but I lost no time to put everything in readiness, but with all possible secrecy; and the next morning, before daybreak, I set off again for London, with the same attendants, and, as before, I put up at the smallest inns, and arrived safe once more.”

George I. could not forgive Lady Nithsdale for the heroic part she had acted: he refused, in her case, the allowance or dower which was granted to the wives of the other lords. “A lady informed me,” she says, “that the king was extremely incensed at the news; that he had issued orders to have me arrested, adding that I did whatever I pleased, despite of all his designs, and that I had given him more trouble than any woman in all Europe. For which reason I kept myself as closely concealed as possible, till the heat of these rumours had abated. In the meanwhile, I took the opinion of a very famous lawyer, who was a man of the strictest probity: he advised me to go off as soon as they had ceased searching for me. I followed his advice, and, in about a fortnight after, I escaped without any accident whatever.”

She met her husband and children at Paris, whither they had come from Bruges to meet her. They soon afterwards joined the Pretender's court at Avignon; but, finding the mode of life there little to their taste, shortly after returned to Italy, where they lived in great privacy.

Lord Nithsdale lived, after his escape, nearly thirty years, and died at Rome in 1744. His wife survived him five years: she had the comfort of having provided a competency for her son by her hazardous journey to Terreagles, though his title and principal estates had been confiscated by his father's attainder. He married Lady Catherine Stewart, daughter of the Earl and Countess of Traquhair. Her daughter, the Lady Anne Maxwell, became the wife of Lord Bellew.

 
 
 

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