Jail Breaks Lord Nithsdale Escapes the Tower of London Part 1

About the famous jailbreak of Lord Nithsdale from the Tower of London, history of the prison break.



Lord Nithsdale's Escape From the Tower of London--1716

As defensive fortress, royal palace, and prison, the Tower of London has witnessed countless dramas, often bloody, in the course of guarding the north bank of the Thames River. One of its more cheerful episodes is also one of its most famous. It is the story of how, the night before he was due to die, a dissident Scottish aristocrat, muscular and bearded, cheated the executioner's ax by escaping from his cell dressed as a woman.

The aristocrat was William Maxwell, 5th Earl of Nithsdale, a Catholic and Jacobite who supported the Stuart claim to the throne after James II fled his alienated kingdom in 1688. Upon James's death in 1701, his son styled himself James III and encouraged Jacobite aspirations from France. When in 1715 the accession of a German Protestant, George of Hanover, sparked riots throughout Britain, Scots and northern Englishmen mustered an army, but the 1,200 strong force was compelled to surrender at Preston, Lancashire, in November. Among those captured and taken to the tower were 39-year-old Lord Nithsdale and six other nobles.

Bent on deterring others from fomenting trouble, Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole had the Jacobite lords impeached. They were told that the king was a just and merciful man, that it would be foolish to protest their innocence. Nithsdale, described by a contemporary as "a very honorable man," pleaded guilty.

When Winifred, Lady Nithsdale, heard that her husband had been captured, she feared the worst. She knew that he would never be pardoned and that a reprieve was unlikely. She decided to travel to London to help him. With Evans, her maid, she set out from Scotland in atrocious weather and rode 400 slow, hazardous miles across a bleak landscape chilled silent and morose by a deep covering of snow.

In London she drew up a petition and went to present it to the king. One seeing him, she threw herself at his feet and held out the document. King George brushed it aside and started to walk away, but Lady Nithsdale grabbed his coattails and held on grimly, begging to be heard. The king, enraged, refused to listen and strode off, dragging her halfway across the room. The resourceful Lady Nithsdale next lobbied the House of Lords, which eventually urged the king to reprieve deserving prisoners. Lady Nithsdale turned this to her advantage. When next she visited the tower, she told the guards that her husband would soon be freed.

She was on good terms with the sentries, warders, and guards by discreet tipping--sufficient for a polite gesture but not so generous as to arouse suspicion. She realized that security was extraordinarily lax. Women and children kept coming and going, and no pass system was operating.

It was now Thursday, Feb. 22, 1716. The next day the king would decide her husband's fate. It was her last chance to rescue him. So, on Friday afternoon, Lady Nithsdale, Evans, and two friends, Mrs. Mills and Miss Hilton, rode to the tower. Mrs. Mills, tall and pregnant, wore a loose-fitting riding cape big enough for Lord Nithsdale. The slender Miss Hilton wore two, her own and one for Mrs. Mills.

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