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Northern Rebellion

Northern Rebellion

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Elizabeth I's feud with Mary, Queen of Scots is legendary. But why was Elizabeth so threatened by Mary? The answer lies scattered through several events of Elizabeth's reign, but one of the most important is the Northern Rebellion; a pivotal event which proved just how dangerous Mary was to Elizabeth's position on the throne and the continuation of the Tudor dynasty as a whole.

1569 Northern Rebellion summary

The 1569 Northern Rebellion, also known as 'The Rising of the North', was the first in a series of attempts to dethrone Elizabeth I and replace her with her cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. It was led by Charles Neville, Earl of Westmoreland and Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland, both influential English noblemen. The rising was ultimately unsuccessful, as it failed to gain enough support both inside and outside the country.


Date Event
1568Mary, Queen of Scots arrived in England.
September 1569Elizabeth I learned of Northumberland's plan to marry Mary Queen of Scots to his brother-in-law, the Duke of Norfolk. She demanded both the Earls come before her to face charges, but they refused. The earls began building their forces.
November 1569The Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland led a force of 4,500 troops and captured Durham Cathedral.
December 1569After failing to gain the support of other nobility and foreign rulers, the Northern Rebellion crumbled. The rebels dispersed and fled after hearing that the Earl of Sussex was raising a large army to intercept them.
January 1570The Earls of Westmoreland and Northumberland fled over the border in Scotland.
1572The Earl of Northumberland was captured, tried and executed for his part in the rebellion.

Causes of the Northern Rebellion

The Northern Rebellion was entirely a religious rebellion. However, the religious causes of this rebellion can be broken down into three sections.

Catholicism in England

There had been a huge amount of religious tension in England ever since the Reformation in the 1530s. Even though England was supposed to be a Protestant country after the break with Rome, Mary I (Elizabeth's older sister) had reintroduced Catholicism as the 'true' religion in England. Therefore, when the Protestant Elizabeth I took the throne after her, there was still a strong Catholic resistance to the Protestant Church of England.

The North of England was traditionally Catholic, and so belief in Catholicism was strong amongst both the people and the nobility. This is why the Northern Rebellion took place in the North of England because the leaders were themselves Northern and Catholic, and believed they would gain popular support in such a region.

1559 Religious Settlement

The 1559 Religious Settlement was an act which attempted to close the religious divide in England after the Reformation. It re-established Protestantism as the main religion in England, but compromised to accommodate some Catholic beliefs as well. Yet, although it was supposed to be a compromise, it was essentially just a more moderate Protestant Church. Since the foundations of each doctrine were fundamentally different, a full compromise would have been impossible to achieve.

Mary, Queen of Scots

Mary, Queen of Scots was a constant thorn in Elizabeth I's side. She was Elizabeth's cousin because she was the granddaughter of Margaret Tudor, Henry VII's sister. She had a claim to the throne of England, albeit a weak one.

northern rebellion mary queen of scots studysmarterFig 1. Mary, Queen of Scots by Francis Clouet, c.1558. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The issue with Mary is that she was seen as a viable alternative to Elizabeth I as queen of England. One of the big concerns of Elizabeth's reign was that she never married or had an heir, so the Tudor dynasty had little security on the throne of England. Mary had a claim to the throne, and she was Catholic. This meant she was the perfect person for the pockets of Catholic resistance in England to rally behind.

Thomas Percy, the Earl of Northumberland had planned to marry Mary to his brother-in-law, Thomas Howard, the Duke of Norfolk in order to strengthen the potential rebellion and his own power. However, his plans were changed when Elizabeth I found out, and promptly banned any such match from taking place.

Events of the Northern Rebellion

The Northern Rebellion began when Elizabeth I discovered the plan to marry Mary, Queen of Scots, to the Duke of Norfolk. Although Norfolk begged the Queen for forgiveness, the Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland refused to answer to charges in front of the Privy Council. They fled north and started to rally their troops.

The main event of the rebellion happened at the end of November 1569. The rebels took Durham Cathedral, in which they held a Catholic mass, also destroying the English prayer book and the Cathedral's Communion Table.

northern rebellion durham cathedral studysmarterFig 2. Durham Cathedral.

From Durham, the rebels marched south, but did not get very far. They failed to gain the support of the common people, and received no help or formal support from either Mary Queen of Scots or foreign Catholic rulers, as they had hoped. When the news came that the Earl of Sussex was raising an army in order to stop them, the rebels disbanded, fleeing back northwards; some went over the border into Scotland.

Why did the Northern Rebellion fail?

So, why was the Northern Rebellion so unsuccessful? Well, there were three main reasons:

  • Poor planning and leadership
  • Lack of foreign support
  • Popularity of Elizabeth I

Firstly, the leaders did not have a coherent plan for their rebellion beyond a vague aim of usurping Elizabeth I. When news reached them of an army being raised against them, the rebels quickly disbanded and the leaders fled, pointing to a lack of faith in their cause and their leaders.

Secondly, the Earls of Westmoreland and Northumberland were hoping for support from foreign Catholic leaders who might have a vested interest in a Catholic monarch sitting on the throne of England. However, no such support appeared, which would have been needed if the rebels were hoping to take London and defeat Elizabeth I's forces. Crucially, they did not even get the support of Mary Queen of Scots either!

Finally, the rebels severely underestimated how popular Elizabeth I actually was. They had hoped that those who were still Catholic would rise up and join them, but that didn't happen. The truth was, there was no real desire to replace Elizabeth I with Mary Queen of Scots nor to restore the Pope as head of the Church. A majority of the population of England was comfortably Protestant.

Consequences of the Northern Rebellion

When the rebellion broke down, many of the rebels were arrested, and over 800 rebels were executed. This was done in order to restore order and dissuade people from planning another rebellion. In addition, noble families who had been sympathetic to the rebellion had land confiscated.

In 1572, the Earl of Northumberland was caught, found guilty of treason and executed. The Earl of Westmoreland managed to flee to Europe, but he lived in exile for the rest of his life and died in poverty.

Elizabeth I

But what place does the Northern Rebellion occupy in the history of the Elizabethan Era? Although the rebellion did not pose much of a threat to Elizabeth I, it was still significant in other ways. It was the first of the major plots to try and put Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne of England, eventually culminating in Mary's execution in 1586, one of the most controversial and difficult decisions of Elizabeth's reign.

The onslaught of Catholic plots like the Northern Rebellion contributed to Elizabeth I's fear of being assassinated, which was made even worse when she was excommunicated by Pope Pius V in 1570. This fear led to the introduction of more anti-Catholic laws during Elizabeth I's reign. The Treason Act in 1571 made it an offence to deny that Elizabeth I was the Queen of England, and other laws fined people for not going to Protestant Church services.

Northern Rebellion - Key takeaways

  • The Northern Rebellion occurred in 1569, and was led by the Earl of Westmoreland and the Earl of Northumberland. It was a plot to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne of England.
  • The Earl of Northumberland had planned to marry Mary to his brother-in-law, the Duke of Norfolk - but Elizabeth found out and forbade the match. The two Earls refused to answer to the Privy Council and began raising troops.
  • The height of the rebellion was when the rebels took over Durham Cathedral - yet it did not last. When the rebels heard that an army was being raised against them, they dispersed and fled.
  • The Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland fled to Scotland. Northumberland was captured and executed in 1572, and Westmoreland went to the continent and died in 1601.
  • The Northern Rebellion increased Elizabeth I's paranoia about plots from Catholics and helped lead to the tightening of restrictions on Catholics in Elizabethan England.


  1. Fig 1. Mary Queen of Scots by Francis Clouet (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Mary_Stuart_Queen.jpg) Licensed in the Public Domain
  2. Fig 2. Durham Cathedral (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Durham_MMB_02_Cathedral.jpg) by mattbuck (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Mattbuck). Licensed by CC-BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/)

Frequently Asked Questions about Northern Rebellion

The Northern Rebellion of 1569, commonly referred to as "The Rising of the North," was the first of several efforts to dethrone Elizabeth I and install her cousin Mary Queen of Scots in her place. The uprising ultimately failed because it was unable to garner sufficient support both inside and outside of England.

The Northern Rebellion was led by Charles Neville, Earl of Westmoreland and Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland

The Northern Rebellion occurred in 1569.

The Northern Rising was important because it was one of the most serious threats to Elizabeth's rule, and it was an indication of the deep divisions in England between Protestants and Catholics.

The Northern Rebellion heightened Elizabeth I's suspicion of Catholic plots and contributed to the tightening of Catholic-related laws in Elizabethan England.

Final Northern Rebellion Quiz

Northern Rebellion Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


When did the Northern Rebellion take place?

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Which of these nobles was NOT involved in the Rebellion?

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Earl of Cumberland

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Which Cathedral did the main events of the Northern Rebellion take place in?

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Durham Cathedral

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When did Mary Queen of Scots arrive in England? 

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Why did local people in the North of England not support the Northern Rebellion

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They liked Elizabeth I as a monarch and didn't want any more upheaval after the mid-Tudor crisis.

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True or false? Mary Queen of Scots was fully in favour of the Northern Rebellion.

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What eventually happened to the leaders of the Northern Rebellion?

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Westmoreland and Northumberland initially fled to Scotland. Northumberland was captured and executed, Westmoreland fled to France.

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Why did the rebellion against Elizabeth happen in the North of England specifically?

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The North of England was traditionally Catholic, therefore it was thought the people would have more support for a Catholic monarch.

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When was the Elizabethan Religious Settlement passed?

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What did the Religious Settlement attempt to do?

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Re-establish Protestantism in England with some compromises made to be fairer to Catholics

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