1569: Northern Rebellion


Three months


Earls of Northumberland and Westmorland

Main causes

  • Defence of Catholic faith. Protestantism was strengthening its grip on the country
  •  Dynastic and factional: Mary Queen of Scots was available as a possible alternate ruler, and her cause was championed by factions who felt frozen out of power

Subsidiary causes

Resistance to the centre. Resentment of northern earls at increased interference from London


  • Rebellion has no organisation or clearly defined aims; quickly collapses. Northumberland is beheaded
  • Earl of Huntingdon, an energetic Puritan, made President of the Council of the North – his 23 years in charge ends Catholic threat in this region

Degree of threat

Low. Far from London, and plot was betrayed before it got underway. Neither earl showed determination. Bad timing – took place in midwinter


The Northern Rebellion can be seen as the first important attempt to destabilise the Protestant regime in England. It was the first of a long series of conspiracies. There are a couple of reasons why this began to happen at the end of the 1560s:

  • Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth’s Catholic cousin, had been deposed by a rebellion of Scottish lords and arrived in the north of England looking for support
  • Protestantism was still not completely established, but the Anglican church was stronger and felt more able to persecute Catholics
    • Fines for non attendance at Anglican churches and arrests of those secretly attending Mass
    • Interception of priests sent from Spain/by the Pope – these were often effectively “secret agents” sent to rouse the country against the queen. These men were often executed after show trials – seemed to presage
  • Deterioration of relations with Spain – in 1568, desperate for cash, Elizabeth authorised seizure of a Spanish treasure fleet taking bullion to the Netherlands. This made it more likely a strong foreign power would back rebellion in England
  • Elizabeth was unmarried and had not produced an heir, which meant doubt and instability
  • William Cecil was now the most influential of Elizabeth’s councillors. His power was resented by other factions who felt frozen out of the distribution of patronage, and some feared he might provoke a costly war with Spain

There were also moves to marry MQS to an English earl. This would mean that – if Elizabeth remained unmarried – the Catholic Mary could give birth to an heir to the throne.

One of those who paid court to the exiled MQS was the Earl of Northumberland, a Catholic. He and the Earl of Westmoreland conceived vague ideas for a rising that – with the help of southern nobles – might put MQS on the throne. But the Duke of Norfolk, who had appeared willing to rebel, backed down, meaning the northerners had no realistic hope of success.

While they wavered, the efficient Elizabethan intelligence operation got wind of the plot. The Earl of Sussex, head of the Council of the North, tried to raise forces to combat a rebellion, but few responded to his calls for men. He had only 400 badly equipped cavalry and, emboldened, the Northern earls went to Durham, tore down Protestant symbols in the Cathedral and celebrated Mass before heading – slowly – south with 5,000 men.

In the end it was the Northerners lack of determination that proved decisive. Hearing – false – rumours than a large royal army was marching north, knowing that Mary was under house arrest, and realising that neither Scotland nor the south were going to join the rebellion, they dispersed.

Had it been better organised, the Northern Rebellion could have been serious. As it was, the total number of deaths was only 5 killed.

Reasons for failure

  • Lack of clear and achievable aims
  • Bad timing – rebellion was in winter, from November 1569-January 1570.
  • Poor organisation meant the march south began before Northumberland had even raised his own tenantry – his contribution to the rebel army was just 80 men
  • Support was limited to the north, well away from all centres of power
  • Elizabeth’s intelligence service, organised by Sir Francis Walsingham, made sure it was well informed and she was able to take steps to secure MQS and prevent her becoming the focus for rebellion

Key stats, quotes & views

Although the real threat was low, Elizabeth did not feel secure. She ordered the execution of 700 rebels


2 thoughts on “1569: Northern Rebellion

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