1716: Earl of Nithsdale cross dresses to freedom

William Maxwell (1676-1744) was a Scottish-born nobleman and a supporter of the exiled Stuart king James II. Raised a Catholic, Maxwell became the 5th Earl of Nithsdale in 1696. Shortly after this he met Winifred Herbert, the daughter of a Welsh baron, when both were visiting France. They were married in 1699.

When the Jacobites rebelled in 1715 and attempted to restore the Stuarts, Maxwell equivocated for a time before eventually joining the uprising. He was captured by government troops during the Battle of Preston (November 1715) and sentenced to death for treason.

Like most aristocrats on death row, Maxwell was given conformable lodgings in the Tower of London, complete with servants and visitation rights. On February 22nd 1716, the day before Maxwell’s execution, he escaped from the Tower, thanks to a daring plot from his wife. Using items smuggled into the Tower on previous visits, the Countess had her husband disguise himself as a woman – not an easy feat, given that the Earl had a long dark beard:

“Her [Mrs Mills’] eyebrows were rather inclined to be sandy and my lord’s were very dark and very thick; however I had prepared some paint of the colour of hers to disguise his with. I also brought an artificial head dress [wig] 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 time to shave.”

By Winifred’s own admission the chance of this escape plan succeeding was “very improbable”. Nevertheless the Countess managed to smuggle her husband out of the Tower, noting that “the poor guards… were not so strictly on the watch as they usually had been”.

Once outside the gates she passed the incognito Earl to another accomplice, before returning to his room inside the Tower; there Winifred sat for an hour, buying time by holding an imaginary conversation with her non-existent husband.

The Earl, meanwhile, was being ferried to a hiding place in London. After several days underground he was secreted out of England, disguised as a Venetian coachman. Both the Earl and Countess of Nithsdale spent the rest of their days living in exile in Rome.

Source: Letter from the Countess of Nithsdale to her sister, Lucy Herbert, February 1716. Content on this page is © Alpha History 2019-23. Content may not be republished without our express permission. For more information please refer to our Terms of Use or contact Alpha History.