Maxwell, Winifred (1672–1749)

views updated

Maxwell, Winifred (1672–1749)

Countess of Nithsdale . Name variations: Winifred Herbert; Lady Winifred Nithsdale. Born Winifred Herbert in 1672; died in 1749; daughter of William Herbert (1617–1696), 1st marquis of Powis or Powys, 3rd baron Powis or Powys, and Elizabeth Somerset ; married William Maxwell (1676–1744), 5th earl of Nithsdale, in 1699; children: William Maxwell, 6th earl of Nithsdale; Anne Maxwell .

The name Winifred Maxwell might have been lost to history had it not been for her daring rescue of her husband William Maxwell from the Tower of London, where he was imprisoned while awaiting execution for his participation in the Jacobite rebellion of 1715. The Jacobites supported James Francis Edward, the Old Pretender, in his claim to the British throne after the death of Queen Anne . Winifred not only hatched the elaborate scheme to save her husband, but assumed a major role in its execution, risking her life to do so. Her efforts, however, were not rewarded to any great extent. William Maxwell, never noted for his intelligence (Ian Fellows-Gordon referred to him as "one of the stupidest men in Scottish history"), made little of his second chance at life, and although Winifred certainly contributed her share to the family coffers, the couple suffered many years of poverty.

Winifred Maxwell was the beautiful and intelligent daughter of English lord William Herbert, 1st marquis of Powis, and Lady Elizabeth Somerset , and an ancestor of the duke of Norfolk. She married Scotsman William Maxwell, 5th earl of Nithsdale, in 1699, and lived an un-eventful life until 1715, when William became involved in the first of the two Jacobite uprisings. Captured at the Battle of Preston, William was tried with six of his compatriots, all of whom were convicted of treason and sentenced to die. The prisoners were housed in the formidable Tower of London to await execution.

News of her husband's plight reached Winifred at the family home in Scotland on December 8, and she immediately set off for London on horseback, taking along her devoted Welsh maid, Cecilia Evans . The journey, over a month in duration, was made almost entirely on horseback, and was frequently slowed by excessive cold and snow. "I must confess that such a journey I believe was scarce ever made, considering the weather, by a woman," Winifred wrote to her sister-in-law Mary Maxwell , countess of Traquair, on Christmas Day, without making reference to the holiday. "However, if I meet my dear lord well, and am so happy as to be able to serve him, I shall think all my trouble well re-paid." The two women arrived in London sometime in January, but Winifred was so weak and ill that she could do nothing until February.

After filing a petition for mercy with King George I to spare her husband's life, Winifred and Cecilia took rooms in Drury Lane. Winifred had already made several trips to the Tower to visit William, who was imprisoned in a small cell with a single window overlooking Water Lane approximately 60 feet below. At first, she had been denied permission to visit her husband, but she both charmed and paid off the guards, who eventually befriended her and gave her free access to William's room during daylight hours. This, of course, was all part of her plan, which was already taking shape. The day before the escape, Winifred would tell the guards that the petition for mercy had been granted and that the prisoners were free. She would also give them money to drink to the king, hoping that their celebration would occupy the greater portion of the next 36 hours. On the following afternoon, she would visit the Tower again, disguise her husband as a woman visitor, and walk him past the guards, down the staircase, and out of the Tower to a waiting stagecoach.

In execution, however, the plan was not quite so concise. In fact, when it was later related in a letter to her sister-in-law Mary Maxwell, Winifred used a thousand words to describe the intricacies of what seemed more an elaborate bedroom farce than a deadly serious rescue operation. After setting things in motion with her lie to the guards, and enlisting the help of her maid Cecilia as well as of her landlady, Mrs. Mills, and another boarder, Miss Hilton, Winifred arrived at the Tower late the following afternoon. While Cecilia stayed out-side, Winifred took each of the other two women separately into her husband's room with her, where each relinquished the garments they had piled on themselves to aid in William's disguise. She dismissed the women with a loud and urgent order to go out and get "my woman" (Cecilia, of course). Winifred then quickly transformed her

husband, using white paint to cover his growth of beard and tying false ringlets into his hair. Then, bulking him up with the contraband petticoats and wrapping him in a riding cloak, she opened the door and escorted him through the corridor and down the stairs, all the while keeping up a barrage of chatter as a distraction. Once outside, she handed him off to Cecilia, the maid, and hurriedly made her way back to his room. "When I got into my lord's chamber, I spoke to him as it were, and I answered as if he had, and imitated his voice as near as I could and walked up and down the room," she later related. When she felt she had made it clear that William was still in residence, she left, telling the guards that her husband was at prayers and should not be disturbed. She then made her way back to Drury Lane, where her husband was safely hidden in the attic.

With some further aid, William was seen safely to Dover and then to France, while Winifred, now pregnant, made an arduous journey back to Scotland to retrieve family papers and to sell whatever she could of the household items to raise money. On her way to France to join her husband, she suffered a miscarriage and almost died "in a cabin in the boat in which were seven other persons sleeping," as Cecilia related in a letter home. Upon reuniting with William in Lille, in September 1716, Winifred found little sympathy, merely a stack of unpaid bills. It was only through the help of her sister-in-law Lady Traquair that the Maxwells were able to keep afloat.

By 1718, Winifred and William were living in James Francis Edward's Court-in-Exile in Rome, where they received a modest allowance from the Old Pretender, who had since married the somewhat unstable Princess Clementina Sobieski from Poland. Winifred later became governess to their offspring, Bonnie Prince Charlie, the Young Pretender, and Prince Henry, which greatly enhanced the family income as well as bringing stability into the lives of her young charges. Winifred also had two children of her own, Anne Maxwell and William Maxwell. While little is known of Anne, William the Younger, who was 12 when his father escaped the Tower, eventually returned to Scotland and took over the family estate. William the Elder died in 1744, and Winifred lived on in exile until her death in 1749. The story of her courageous rescue was handed down from generation to generation and was immortalized by the Scottish author John Buchan (1875–1940).


Fellows-Gordon, Ian. Famous Scottish Lives. Watford: Odhams, 1967.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

About this article

Maxwell, Winifred (1672–1749)

Updated About content Print Article