The Revolt of the Northern Earls (1569)

Why did the Northern Earls revolt in 1569?


  • The north of England was far away from London and Elizabeth’s court. The majority of people living in the north remained Catholic, and were loyal only to the ancient noble families who had governed the north for centuries.

  • Elizabeth did not want to persecute Catholics, but she did want their religion to die out gradually. The Earls claimed that they knew this and that they were religiously motivated and wanted to act against England’s ‘newfound religious heresy’.

  • Elizabeth appointed James Pilkington, a committed Protestant, as archbishop of Durham in 1561. By doing this, Elizabeth hoped to lessen the influence of Catholicism in the North. Pilkington was very unpopular and his appointment angered many of the Northern Catholics.


  • Under Mary I, the Catholic earls of Northumberland and Westmorland had been very influential, both at court and in the north of England. They missed this position of power.

  • When Elizabeth came to power Elizabeth introduced Protestantism and promoted ‘new men’ from the gentry and lower ranks of nobility to some of the most important government positions.

  • The Northern Earls resented the newcomers Elizabeth promoted. Men such as William Cecil and Robert Dudley (Elizabeth’s favourites) did not come from ancient noble families. The Northern Earls viewed their high favour with contempt.

  • Elizabeth favoured Sir John Forster, a rival of Northumberland. She promoted Forster to the task of looking after the borders with Scotland. Northumberland felt as his own status was undermined. He never forgave Elizabeth.

Unclear succession

  • Elizabeth refused to name an heir or to marry and have a child, creating uncertainty about England’s future.

  • People were worried that if Elizabeth died without an heir a possible civil war might start over who should be the next monarch.

  • Mary, Queen of Scots and the Duke of Norfolk had planned to marry. This is because it would solve the problem of what to do about Mary, and any children they would would provide heirs to the throne.

Mary, Queen of Scots

  • Mary, Queen of Scots, was in captivity in England. She was a figurehead who could potentially replace Elizabeth. If she did replace Elizabeth, the issues the Earls had would be restored.

Key players in the Revolt

__- Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland. __Percy was Catholic and held an important position under Mary I, but lost his influence under Elizabeth. He also lost his rights to a valuable, newly discovered copper mine found on his lands in 1567.

__- Charles Neville, Earl of Westmorland. __Neville was from an important Catholic family in the North.

__- Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk. __Howard was one of England’s senior nobles. Despite being Protestant, he had close links to old northern Catholics. He resented newcomers at Elizabeth’s court. A central part of the plot was for him to marry Mary, Queen of Scots, but he later backed down and urged the earls to call off the rebellion.

__- Mary, Queen of Scots. __Mary had met the Duke of Norfolk once after fleeing to England from Scotland in 1568. She supported the plan to marry him.

__- Jane Neville. __The wife of Charles Neville and the Duke of Norfolk’s sister . She encouraged her husband to rebel.

__- Ann Percy. __The wife of Thomas Percy. She also encouraged her husband to rebel.

What happened once Elizabeth discovered the plot?

  • Spain’s supporting troops never arrived to support the Earls and Elizabeth managed to raise an army of 14,000 men for her cause.

  • After the revolt was crushed, approximately 450 rebels were executed throughout the villages of northern England. Elizabeth wanted to terrify the population and for this harsh punishment to act as a deterrent. Westmorland escaped, but Northumberland was captured. He was executed in York in 1572, and his head was put on a spike above the City’s gates. The Privy Council called for Norfolk’s execution, too: however, Elizabeth released him.

  • Mary, Queen of Scots remained imprisoned for the next 14 years.

  • Although Elizabeth acted harshly against so many rebels, she hesitated when it came to the Duke of Norfolk and especially Mary, Queen of Scots. The Scots had overthrown their rightful queen and executing Mary would imply that Elizabeth accepted what they had done. Elizabeth did not agree with this as she believed no God’s anointed monarch should be overthrown by their subjects. Elizabeth especially did not want this to happen to her. Elizabeth’s reluctance to deal with Mary once and for all frustrated her Privy Council.

  • The failed revolt led the pope to take action against Elizabeth I. In 1570 he issued a papal bull__*__ that excommunicated Elizabeth and called upon all loyal Catholics to overthrow her. Elizabeth retaliated by asking parliament to meet. In April 1571 parliament passed Acts widening the definition of treason. It became treasonable to claim that Elizabeth was a heretic, was not the queen and also to bring in, or print, the Pope’s papal bull into England. Any acts of this kind could be punishable by death.

__Glossary: ____Papal bull - A written order issued by the Pope.

Explain why the Northern Earls revolted against Elizabeth in 1569. (12 marks. Suggested structure: 3 PEE Paragraphs.)
Your answer should include: Politics / Influence / Religion / Pilkington