An English Jacobite: James Radcliff, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater and the ’15 Rising

Circumstances unhappily concurred to draw [Derwentwater] into this snare, to his destruction, and the utter ruination of the most flourishing family in that part of the country”.

     So said Robert Patten, an Anglican clergyman who had served alongside James Radcliff, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater (1689-1716) in the ill-fated Jacobite army whose defeat and capture precipitated the Earl’s unfortunate downfall. Patten, having recanted his previous loyalties to the pretender in return for a pardon had recorded a history of the uprising in which he gave a first hand account of the rebellion in which both he and Derwentwater had taken part.

     Derwentwater, his former comrade in arms, had refused an opportunity to do the same in return for a pardon, and so, on a cold day in February in 1716, the young Earl was driven in a hackney carriage to the scaffold on Tower Hill in London, and once more reaffirmed his loyalty to the Stuart cause and to its claimant, James Francis Stuart, as well as his Roman Catholic faith, he lay his head down upon the block to die.

An Englishman, a Nobleman, a Jacobite, and a Recusant…

      The Radcliff family had its origins in Lancashire, England, from a line of prominent gentry who in the 16th Century moved to what became their family seat at Dilston Castle in Northumberland. Following the Reformation, the Radcliff family remained loyal to the old Roman Catholic faith, becoming recusants alongside many of their fellow northern gentry and a sizable portion of the local population.

     The Earl’s ancestor, Sir Francis Radcliff, described as a ‘dangerous and obstinate, and not unlearned recusant‘ had seen his estate forfeited because of his stubborn refusal to convert from his Catholic faith, and although restored to his estates by James I, he was arrested some years later on suspicion of having taken part in the Gunpowder Plot, although the charges were eventually dismissed for lack of evidence.

     Thereafter, the Radcliffs remained staunchly loyal to the Stuarts, fighting for the Royalist cause during the English Civil War, following which their estates were briefly confiscated again, until Derwentwater’s grandfather, the first Earl, was able to recover them shortly before the restoration of Charles II.

     The First Earl, ever the ambitious man, arranged for his son, who would become the Second Earl to marry Lady Mary Tudor, who was the illegitimate daughter of Moll Davis, one of Charles II’s many mistresses. Thus James Radcliff, the future 3rd Earl of Derwentwater was the first cousin of James Francis Stewart, whose birth in 1688 had precipitated the ‘Glorious Revolution’ which saw the Catholic king James II usurped and overthrown by his protestant daughter Mary and her husband, William, Prince of Orange.

     James Radcliff was born the following year in 1689 at the family’s townhouse in London. His parent’s marriage was an unhappy one, as his mother Mary was as staunch a protestant as his father was a Catholic, and Mary’s refusal to convert to the Catholic faith eventually led to their separation when he was 11. A couple of years later, in 1702, The second Earl despatched James and his younger brother Charles to the court of St Germain, to act as a companion to his royal cousin, and the cousins formed an inseparable bond of friendship, familiarity and loyalty to which the future Earl remained faithful to for the rest of his life, and which ultimately led, in the words of Patten ‘to his destruction, and the utter ruination of the most flourishing family in that part of Britain’.

     In 1705, the Second Earl died, and James Radcliff succeeded as the Third Earl of Derwentwater, returning a few years later in 1709 to take charge of his estate, which was vast and encompassed mining interests as well as agricultural and pastoral lands and tenancies, making him one of the richest men in the north of England. The young Earl was a popular figure amongst his tenets (both catholic and protestant) and amongst the social elites in north country circles, well regarded by all he met for his affability, his charity his manners and his charm, which he used to woo the lady who would become his wife, Anna Maria Webb, an heiress from another prominent local recusant family.

     He also put these talents to good use encouraging the formation of Jacobite sympathising networks that gathered together in inns, taverns and social clubs to plot, scheme and drink to the health of James Francis Stuart, known as ‘The King Over the Water’ to his Tory supporters and ‘the Old Pretender’ to pro-Government, and predominantly Whig sympathisers.

     In 1715 the Earl of Mar, a Scottish Tory aristocrat and one time Secratary of State under Queen Anne, became disenchanted with the new Hanoverian King George I, due to his exclusion from office in common with other Tories in favour of the Whigs. In August of that year, he fled in disguise to Scotland and, declaring James Francis Stuart as King James VIII of Scotland, rallied the Scottish Highland clans and other Jacobite sympathisers to his banner.

     As a Roman Catholic, as well as a cousin to the Pretender, the government naturally (and correctly) assumed that Derwentwater was plotting to join the rebellion against George I, and a warrant was issued for his arrest. Derwentwater got wind of this however, and when the authorities tried to execute the warrant, they discovered that he had already fled Dilston Manor with several scores of retainers to join the rebellion.

     Derwentwater traveled through Northumbria, picking up recruits along the way until they reached Kelso, in the Scottish borders, where he linked up with a force of Scottish Highlanders commanded by William “Old Borlum” Mackintosh, Laird of Borlum.

     At a conference in Kelso, it was decided that they should cross the border into England and travel through Cumbria and Lancashire, from where they hoped to expand their army considerably by picking up recruits in an area which was predominantly Tory in its sympathies and in which as many as 20% of the local population was still Roman Catholic.

     In order to forestall any suggestion that theirs was an invading army of foreign Scots and ‘papists’ Derwentwater was overlooked for overall command in favour of Thomas Forster, a Northumberland squire and Tory Member of Parliament who was chosen largely because he was the most prominent English protestant taking part in the rebellion. It was felt that this was the best way of inspiring local High-Church Anglican Tories to come out in favour of the Pretender. Unfortunately for the Jacobites, Forster’s religion and nationality where his only advantages. He not only had zero military experience, but he was a deeply uninspiring, depressive and as it turned out cowardly leader. He had none of Derwentwater’s charm and charisma, nor any of Borlum’s military experience drawn from his days serving in the Army of James VII/II.

     Nevertheless, the army, despite losses from desertion of many of Scots who had refused to cross the border, marched through miserable late autumn weather through the Lake District, where they secured a large quantity of supplies and weapons from the local militia led by the Bishop of Carlisle sent to oppose them, who dropped their arms and fled when confronted with the sight of savage highlanders forming up for battle near Penrith. Pressing on into Lancaster, the Jacobites secured further supplies and recruits, including customs money and a few cannons from a ship in the local harbour.

     At Lancaster, it was suggested that they spent the winter holed up in that town, where they could continue to draw recruits and be resupplied via the sea from the local port. However, they decided to push on and attempt to reach Liverpool, which had a larger, and more easily defensible port, and which was much nearer to Manchester, where the Jacobites hoped to gain many more recruits and supporters

    On November the 9th The vanguard of the Jacobite Army reached Preston, to be joined the following day by the rest of the army marching down the Great Northern Road to the accompaniment of drums, fifes and bagpipes. Many of the local Whigs, including the town’s MP Sir Henry Hoghton had already fled and the townspeople welcomed the army into their town, where Derwentwater charmed the residents alongside all the other gentlemen in a series of balls and celebrations proclaiming James III as King of England.

     Delighted by the local townspeople’s hospitality, Forster made a fatal mistake by lingering too long in the town, and it was not until the 12th when he decided to carry on his journey south. Derwentwater and a troop of horse set out across the Ribble Bridge on the way to Wigan, but hurriedly retreated when they encountered a sizeable force of pro-government forces commanded by General Charles Wills, who was coming up from Manchester to check the rebel advance. Derwentwater made to secure the bridge in order to prevent Wills from crossing it, but on the advice of Old Borlum, retreated back into the city, as he considered it useless to attempt to hold the bridge when there was a fordable area of river just a few miles downstream which Wills could use to flank the Jacobite holding force.

     And so the Jacobite forces began to entrench themselves in the City, throwing up barricades on the main approaches into the town, reinforced by the cannons brought from Lancaster. Derwentwater himself led a detachment of English gentlemen volunteers securing the Churchyard just to the South and East of the Town centre. Stripping to his waistcoat, he encouraged his subordinates to follow his example by digging trenches and securing defences against the impending government attack.

     When the attack did come later that day, Derwentwater was stationed in the Churchyard near the Churchgate barricade, where the men under his command helped lay down a murderous fire into the flanks of the redcoats attacking Sir Charles Murray’s position near the barricade, whilst sending reinforcements led by Robert Patten to plug gaps elsewhere in the line.

     The Government forces that day were repelled with heavy losses, with as many as 300 killed or wounded for the loss of only 17 killed and 25 wounded on the Jacobite side. Despite this triumphant feat of arms, their situation was made much, much worse the following day when they discovered that more government troops had arrived led by General George Capenter. Upon realising the seriousness of this development, many of the English Jacobites deserted, following the ford across the river to the West of the town that Carpenter had neglected to secure. This reduced the size of the Jacobite army to less than 2,000, which was now trapped in Preston with nowhere to go other than to try and break out into the open and be slaughtered by the superior numbers of infantry and dragoons now facing them; and so Forster, Derwentwater and the other leading Jacobites decided to open negotiations to discuss terms of surrender.

     The Highlanders, when they found out what their leaders were proposing, were infuriated, causing some of them to go on a violent rampage through the town, attacking anyone who was caught trying to escape the siege or talking of capitulation. Patten himself was apparently forced to stop a disgruntled Highlander shooting Forster at their headquarters by diverting his discharging pistol into one of the room’s ceiling beams. Forster spent much of this time slinking off to bed in depressive despair at what had become a devastatingly and obviously hopeless situation, but Derwentwater courageously volunteered himself as a hostage, alongside Borlum Mackintosh to General Wills in order to ensure the good conduct of their army whilst the surrender negotiations were concluded, which was no small risk considering the volatile and unpredictable mood of the highlanders.

     The surrender terms were harsh, and General Wills, perhaps feeling angry and humiliated by the inglorious drubbing he had received before Carpenter had arrived, was in no mood to be generous, and his terms were unequivocal; Surrender or be crushed. And so, on the 14th of November, the Jacobite forces were drawn up in the town square to lay down their arms and surrender into captivity.

     As Derwentwater travelled South on horseback alongside the other noble prisoners, he couldn’t help expressing his frustration at the lack of support from the local high church tories, who had mostly turned out to be nothing more than ‘Tavern Tories’, eager to insult George I and proclaim their loyalty to the King over the Water, but not, as it turned out, to the extent that they were prepared, as he had been, to lay their life and fortune on the line to secure his throne. Of the 20,000 English recruits he and the other leaders had hoped to raise, no more than a few thousand had turned up, of whom a mere 463 were left by the time the army had surrendered. It was a crushing disappointment to a man who had gambled and lost everything for a cause which he had dedicated his entire life to.

     When he was indicted for treason in London, unable as he was to deny the material facts, he decided to plead guilty and throw himself at the mercy of the court. He was nevertheless sentenced to death by beheading as a traitor. His friend, an underground English Catholic prelate named Bonaventure Giffard offered him words of comfort in a final letter to the condemned earl shortly before his execution, hoping to inspire courage in him as he faced the inevitable:

     “His (Christ’s) fear merited all the courage which appeared in the martyrs, and will obtain for you all that firmness and fortitude of mind which will accompany you to the scaffold. His sadness will raise a holy grief and sorrow in you for your sins, and at the same time settle a most solid joy in your heart. In fine, all the circumstances of His most bitter agony will sweeten to you all that is most terrible in death…..God to your savior in his dolorous garden; kneel down with Him; join in prayers with Him, and shutting your heart up with His, pronounce with Him these great words: – Father, Thy will be done!….(These are) the poor thoughts of me, that truly loved you; who is continually with you in his prayers, and who hopes to join with you for all eternity in a canticle of praise to the infinite mercies of our great God.”

     Of the leading rebels, Derwentwater had been particularly unfortunate. Most of the other leading rebels, including Forster, Old Borlum and the Earl’s own brother Charles, had managed to escape prison and flee to France. Many of the others were eventually pardoned, but Derwentwater, who refused to renounce his loyalty to his royal cousin, was offered no clemency; in spite of the desperate entreaties of his wife the countess protesting his youth and the fact that he had an infant son, and so on the 24th of February 1716, he was led onto the scaffold on Tower Hill, in front of a large crowd.

     As was usual for the time, he gave a speech on the scaffold, during which he took the opportunity justify his actions, stating that although he was certainly guilty of being caught in arms against the House of Hanover, he did not consider himself truly guilty of the offence to which he had confessed to, as he had ‘never owned any other than King James the Third (of England) form my rightful and lawful sovereign’. He urged that the consequences of his ‘rash’ actions should not be visited upon the innocent, such as his family and tenets, finally he stated:

I die a Roman Catholic; I am in perfect charity with all the world, I thank God for it, even with those of the present government who are most instrumental in my death. I freely forgive such as ungenerously reported false things of me; and I hope to be forgiven the trespasses of my youth, by the Father of infinite mercy, into whose hand I commend my soul.”

     He then lay down upon the block, and upon a signal to the headsman, was senior insurgent captured at Preston to be executed for his involvement in the rebellion at the time. Though Derwentwater’s brother Charles eventually suffered the same fate after he returned to Britain to take part in the similarly doomed ’45 rebellion.

    As the coffin of the unfortunate earl travelled north up the road back to Dilston, the northern lights flashed brilliantly in the sky, which many locals took a sign of heaven’s sadness at the death of a popular and honourable man, who had sacrificed comfort, wealth, liberty and a life besides a beautiful wife and son in order to stay true to his principles, his faith and his King.

     The Earl was much mourned by his tenants and those local to Dilston Manor, both Catholic and Protestant. His erstwhile associate Rev Patten said of him: “He was very charitable to the poor, whether known to him or not, whether papists or protestants. Hist fate was a misfortune to many who had no kindness for the cause in which he died”.

     Even the staunchly Hanoverian, protestant, anti-catholic and pro-whig 18th century historian Tobias Smollet was forced to concede that he was ‘brave, open, generous, hospitable and human: his fate drew tears from the spectators, and was a great misfortune to the country in which he lived; he gave bread to the multitudes of people whome he employed on his estate; the poor, the widow and the orphan rejoiced in his bounty.”

     The sadness and regret felt by many at his fate inspired a famous lament known as ‘Derwentwater’s Farewell’ a tune that remained popular with English Jacobites for many years afterwards:


Farewell to pleasant Dilston,

My father’s ancient seat,

A stranger must now call thee his,

Which gars my heart to greet;

Farewell each friendly well known face

My heart has held so dear,

My tenants now must leave their lands,

Or hold their lives in fear.

No more along the banks of Tyne

I’ll rove in autumn grey,

No more I’ll hear at early dawn

The lav’rocks wake the day;

And who shall deck the hawthorn bower

Where my fond children strayed?

And who, when spring shall bid it flower,

Shall sit beneath the shade?

And fare thee well, George Collingwood,

Since fate has put us down,

  If thou and I have lost our lives,

Our King has lost his crown;

But when the head that wears the crown

Shall be laid low like mine,

Some honest hearts may then lament

For Radcliffe’s fallen line.

Farewell, farewell, my lady dear,

Ill, ill, thou councell’dst me,

I never more may see the babe

That smiles at your knee;

Then fare ye well brave Widdrington

And Foster ever true;

Dear Shaftsbury and Errington

Receive my last adieu.

And fare thee well my bonny grey steed

That carried me aye so free,

I wish I’d been asleep in my bed

Last time I mounted thee;

The warning bell now bids me cease,

My trouble’s nearly oer,

Yon sun that rises from the sea

Shall rise on me no more.

And when the head that wears a crown

Shall be laid low like mine,

Some honest hearts may then lament

For Radcliffe’s fallen line

Farewell to pleasant Dilston hall

My father’s ancient seat

A stranger now must call thee his,

Which gars my heart to greet.


Matthew Hill-Spur was born in the traditional county of Lancashire in The United Kingdom, but partially raised in The United States before returning to Britain. He has always taken a keen interest in history, particularly involving the county of Lancashire, the Jacobites and the history of Anglo-American relations. As a fascinating side-note, his grandfather was born in a pub which is alleged to have been a notorious haunt for English Jacobites. Having obtained a degree in Modern World History from the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, Matthew still maintains close links with the city through his interest in the martial arts club he joined whilst at University.