by Lynne Benton
Traquair House, in the Scottish Borders, is the oldest inhabited House in Scotland. It dates back to 1107, and although it was originally built as a hunting lodge for Scottish kings and queens, it has been lived in continuously by the Stuart family since 1491.
In the early 1700’s the political situation in Scotland was very unsettled, with the Catholic James II now exiled in France and deposed by his daughter Mary and her Protestant husband, William of Orange. Many Catholic Scots were fiercely against interference from the English Protestants, and remained loyal to James. Charles Stuart, the 4th Earl of Traquair, was a staunch Catholic, and became one of James’s band of supporters known as the Jacobites, who worked secretly to restore the Stuarts to the throne.
It was on a visit to Traquair House that I first learnt the fascinating story of Lady Winifred Nithsdale, Charles Stuart’s sister-in-law. I was so interested that I subsequently bought a book called “Lady Nithsdale and the Jacobites”, by Flora Maxwell Stuart, wife of the 20th Earl and mother of the current Lady Traquair, which tells in more detail the story of this remarkable lady.
In 1715 Lady Winifred’s husband, William Nithsdale, took part in the first Jacobite rebellion and was imprisoned in the Tower of London and sentenced to death. He was kept in solitary confinement on the second floor of the Lieutenant’s Lodgings, well-guarded by warders. It appeared that his only way out was going to be via the scaffold, but his wife did not intend to sit back and let this happen.
With the support, both moral and financial, of her brother-in-law, Charles Stuart, Winifred decided to go to London and find a way of getting William out. Leaving her young daughter at Traquair, she made her way, with only her faithful servant Cecilia Evans for company, to London, about 400 miles away. It was a bitterly cold December, with snow covering the whole country, but this did not deter her. They set off on horseback, avoiding the main roads for fear of being stopped by the government troops, and intending to join the London coach at Newcastle. This took a few days, stopping at wayside inns overnight, but when they reached Newcastle they discovered that the coach was already full. So they rode on to York, hoping to pick up another coach there. At York Winifred did get the last place on the coach, and with Evans riding behind they set off through a fierce blizzard. Their luck didn’t last, however. After about 60 miles the coach became stuck in a snowdrift and could go no further.
Undaunted, Winifred hired two more horses, and she and Evans rode the rest of the way to London, with snow sometimes so deep that the horses were almost buried. Arriving on the point of collapse after their journey, they went to stay with Winifred’s old friends, Mr and Mrs Mills in Duke Street. Despite her exhaustion Winifred went straight to the Tower to visit her husband, where, with a little judicious bribery she persuaded the warders to let her in. She found William pessimistic about her chances of setting him free, but she was still determined to get him out somehow. When she returned to Duke Street, although her hostess insisted on her going to bed for a few days to recover her strength, Winifred’s mind was busy with plans for her husband’s release.
As soon as she was well enough she decided her first port of call was to the king, George I, to beg a pardon for William.
Mrs Mills had a friend called Mrs Morgan who had been to the king’s court several times and knew her way around, so the two women accompanied Winifred.
Unfortunately George refused to listen to Winifred or to read her petition, and furthermore was extremely rude to her, so much so that his courtiers were shocked and told everyone about the incident, which caused his popularity to plummet. (Not surprisingly, he blamed Winifred for this rather than himself, and never forgot nor forgave her.)
That avenue closed to her, Winifred then devised a very daring, plan. She explained it to her hosts and Mrs Morgan, whose help she needed, and they agreed to play their parts. Then, two days before the date set for William’s execution, she returned to the Tower and, smiling at the warders, pretended that her petition for his release had been successful, and dropping a few coins in their hands urged them to drink to the king and the prisoners’ health. Once out of their hearing, she told William what had really happened, but said if he would trust her and do everything she said, she would get him out.
The following day she returned to the Tower for a “final visit” to her husband, this time accompanied by Mrs Morgan, who was wearing an extra petticoat and cloak which would not show. Once in William’s cell Mrs Morgan removed the extra clothes, had a few words with William and left. As Winifred saw her out she asked her in a loud, excited voice to find her maid quickly as she must present one final petition to the Lords that evening. She made certain the warders heard her.
Returning to William’s cell, Winifred begged him to do exactly as she said, and waited for Mrs Mills to come next. Mrs Mills duly arrived, sobbing and holding up a handkerchief to her face as she passed the warders. In William’s room she hastily took off her cloak and petticoat and put on those left by Mrs. Morgan. When Mrs Mills left she walked out with her face exposed and in her new clothes, looking like a different woman. Winifred accompanied her out, asking her loudly to hurry and remind her maid to come for her, so they could go to hear the petition that evening. Again she made certain the warders heard her.
Finally, returning to the cell, she helped William put on Mrs. Mills’ clothes, and told him to go out with her, holding his handkerchief to his face and sobbing as Mrs Mills had done, hoping that the warders would assume it was the same woman. Positioning herself between William and the warders, Winifred appeared to be very agitated as they walked out, and begged “Mrs Mills” to tell her maid to come without delay to accompany her to the Lords to hear the final petition. This gave her the excuse to be in a hurry to leave, and seeing her agitation the warders opened the door and let the disguised William out.
Through the doorway Winifred could see Mr Mills, who was to take William to a safe house, and Evans waiting for her as promised. But she still had the most difficult part of her plan to do.
Returning to William’s cell, she hurriedly shut the door behind her and talked to him as if he was still there, giving his replies in a gruff voice. She waited until she guessed enough time had elapsed for him to have been taken to the safe house, and then said goodnight, adding loudly that she was afraid something serious must have happened to delay her maid, so she would have to go on her own. She said she would come again to see him that evening, and hoped to have good news by then.
She then shut the door, carefully pulling the little string that lifted the latch through to the other side, so that it could only be opened from inside. She told the servant waiting to light the candles that her husband was saying his prayers and didn’t want to be disturbed, and then, bidding the warders goodnight and muttering frenziedly about the petition, she hurried down the stairs and outside, got into a hackney coach and left.
Having released William from the Tower, it was now imperative to get him away from London as quickly as possible. After a few days in hiding, with the help of Mr and Mrs Mills and other sympathetic friends, William was disguised as a footman and smuggled across the Channel to France, where the Nithsdales had friends and relatives. He begged her to go with him, but she insisted on returning to Scotland first, to collect their small daughter.
This was not quite as easy as it sounded, since she was well aware that George was furious that William had escaped and she was afraid she might be accused of helping him. However, since the weather had by now greatly improved, she was undaunted by the prospect of riding all the way back to Scotland, and this she did, once again taking a cross-country route to avoid being noticed.
There, having been reunited with her daughter and arranged for the contents of her house to be transferred to Traquair for safekeeping, she followed William to France and, ultimately, to Italy where they lived for the rest of their lives.
However, Winifred’s troubles were still not quite over, for although she knew William was profligate, it wasn’t until he died in 1744 that she realised he had left huge debts for her to deal with. But deal with them she did, and managed to pay them all off within one year.
A remarkable lady indeed.
She died peacefully in Rome in 1749.
A small postscript to this story: the guide at Traquair House told us that in 1739 the 5th Earl of Traquair, like his father a staunch Jacobite, had some splendid gates built at the top of the Avenue leading to the house. With statues of bears on each gatepost they were known as the Bear Gates. Six years later, however, after a visit from James's grandson, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Earl was so incensed by the behaviour of the next English Protestant king, George II, that he gave orders for the Bear Gates to be closed and locked, and swore that they would never be opened until a Stuart king sat on the throne again.
Accordingly they have been locked ever since 1745. However, the guide said, since Prince William is a Stuart through his mother’s line, when William becomes king the Bear Gates will once again be opened.