Patricia Bernstein

The Tragic Tale of A Young Earl Who Became the Hero of A Forlorn Ballad

In my novel, A Noble Cunning, my heroine Bethan Glentaggart entertains in her Scottish home a group of nobles planning a rebellion against the first German king on the British throne, George I. Bethan finds herself especially touched when she meets the youngest and most appealing of the rebels, 26-year old James Radclyffe, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater. Radclyffe is so young and earnest and honest that Bethan finds herself, despite her fervent support of the Jacobite cause, wanting to tell young James to please just go back home to his family and stay out of the rebellion.

Color Portrait James Radclyffe, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater
Color Portrait James Radclyffe, 3rd Earl of Derwentwater

James Radclyffe was the son of Edward Radclyffe, 2nd Earl of Derwentwater and Mary Tudor, the illegitimate child of King Charles II and one of his many mistresses, the actress Mary “Moll” Davies. The girl was granted the name “Tudor” by royal warrant to acknowledge her paternity.

Young Radclyffe came from a family that had long been Catholic and defenders of the Stuart monarchs. Catholics had been ruthlessly oppressed for so long in Britain that they hoped to depose King George I, a Lutheran, and put a real Englishman and a Catholic on the British throne, the young prince James Francis Edward Stuart.

James Francis Edward Stuart, known as “the Chevalier” and later “the king across the water,” was the son of King James II, who had been overthrown in 1688 in the so-called “Glorious Revolution.” The king had been forced into exile in France and lived with his retinue in the old palace of St. Germains near Paris. The prince was an infant at the time of the revolution and had spent his entire life in France. Since he was a Catholic himself, the rebels believed he would surely end the persecution of Catholics.

James Radclyffe spent most of his childhood in France as a childhood companion and playmate of James Francis Edward. Radclyffe was only 16 when his father died and he ascended to the title of third Earl of Derwentwater. He left Paris and returned home to Dilston Castle in Northumberland, to take charge of the Derwentwater estate. In 1712 Radclyffe married Anna Maria Webb, daughter of a baronet. They had two children, a son John Radclyffe and a daughter Mary.

Robert Patten, chaplain to the head of the Jacobite forces during the 1715 Rebellion, enthusiastically described James Radclyffe as follows: “He was a man formed by nature to be beloved; for he was of so universal a beneficence, that he seemed to live for others.” His charity to those in need was extended to Catholics and Protestants alike; Dilston Castle was known for its open-door policy to anyone in distress. It seems that Radclyffe was that rare man who had no enemies: everyone who knew him sang his praises.

But Radclyffe believed he could not avoid what he saw as his duty. On behalf of his religion and his conviction as to what was best for his country, he felt he was obliged to take up arms against the foreign despot, King George I. George had been imposed on Britain, not because he had any special virtues or talents, but only because he was the closest possible successor to Queen Anne, who was not a Catholic.

The ill-conceived and poorly executed 1715 Rebellion against George collapsed in only four months at the battle of Preston in Lancashire. Radclyffe surrendered to the British authorities. He was tried, as were the other nobles who led the rebellion, and was quickly convicted of committing treason and condemned to death. A handful of the convicted aristocrats were pardoned, but Radclyffe was not, despite Anna Maria’s personal plea to the king himself for mercy.

Standing on the scaffold on February 24, 1716, just before his execution, Radclyffe gave such a fine speech that it has been preserved to this day. In part he said:

I die a Roman Catholic: I am in perfect clarity 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 all such as ungenerously reported false things of me; and hope to be forgiven the trespasses of my youth by the Father of Mercies, into whose hands I commend my soul.  P.S. If that Prince who now governs had given me my life, I should have thought myself obliged never more to have taken up arms against him.

It was rumored that Radclyffe’s wife, disguised as a fishwife, drove a cart under Temple Bar, having bribed some people to remove her husband’s head from the spike on which it was placed and throw it down to her. She was determined to bury her husband and not leave his head to rot and be picked apart by birds.  And truly Lord Derwentwater’s head did not appear among those that decorated the iron spikes atop Temple Bar.

James Radclyffe had a brother named Charles who also fought with him in the 1715 Rebellion. Charles managed to escape to France, though he was condemned to death in absentia. Charles returned to Britain to fight in the 1745 Rebellion and was captured. The sentence passed against him 30 years earlier was then carried out: he was executed.

The story, however, does not end with the deaths of James and Charles Radclyffe. It had at least three intriguing sequels.

Anna Maria did not live at Dilston Castle again. There were persistent legends that the river near Dilston ran red with blood when Radclyffe was executed and the Northern Lights shone so brightly that locals began to call them “Lord Derwentwater’s Lights.”

Anna Maria moved to the Continent with her children and died in Brussels in 1723 of smallpox. Her son John died at the age of 19 following surgery for the removal of kidney stones or gallstones. Her daughter married and had four children.

Over time Dilston fell into a picturesque ruin visited by Victorians who found it romantic—especially with the added attraction of a legend that the ghost of the widowed Countess of Derwentwater haunted the place where she had once lived happily with her beloved husband. The ruin is on private land which is now part of the campus of Cambian Dilston College for students with learning difficulties.


The Museum of London Docklands recently put on display a heartbreaking item, preserved over the centuries, that perfectly expresses the profound sorrow of Anna Maria when her husband died. She embroidered on a linen sheet, using two different colors of hair, the following inscription:

“The sheet OFF my dear dear Lord’s Bed in the Wretched Tower of London February 1716. Ann C of Darwent=Waters+”

Linen sheet embroidered with hair.
Linen Sheet Embroidered with Derwentwater Hair.
The Museum of London Docklands

The poor woman was allowed to stay in Radclyffe’s Tower cell with him for several weeks before his execution. It’s even possible that their daughter Mary was conceived in the Tower. One can only imagine the anguish of spending time in a Tower cell with a beloved husband, knowing that he is about to be executed. 

Curators speculate that the hair used to embroider the sheet could be hers and his combined, and that his locks could have been cut from his severed head. The sheet is also embroidered more conventionally using thread with flowers, leaves and a heart-shaped wreath.


James Radclyffe has also lived on in a series of sad ballads in various forms, some using the name “Allenwater” instead of “Derwentwater,” undoubtedly because Allenwater is more euphonious and easier to braid into a lyric.

One variation is called “Derwentwater’s Good Night” or “Derwentwater’s Farewell” and features the following lyric:

Albeit that here in London town
It is my fate to die,
O carry me to Northumberland,
In my father’s grave to lie:
There chaunt my solemn requiem,
In Hexham’s holy towers,
And let six maids of fair Tynedale,
Scatter my grave with flowers.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, among others, collected a version of the ballad called “Lord Allenwater” which begins with these ominous verses,

The King has wrote a long letter
And sealed it up with gold,
And sent it unto Lord Allenwater
To read it if he could.
The first two lines Lord Allenwater read
They struck him with surprise,
And the next two lines Lord Allenwater read
Made tears fall from his eyes.

Lord Allenwater then informs his lady, who lies in childbed, that he must go to London and keeps repeating the line, “I’m sure there is great need.” But he knows he is doomed. On the way to London, his gold rings fall off his fingers, his nose bleeds and his horse catches a stone—all evil omens. At the conclusion of the ballad, Lord Allenwater is executed, after offering the executioner his black velvet coat and 85 pounds to distribute to the poor. The final verse represents Lord Allenwater’s rejection of the accusation that he is a traitor:

And he laid his head upon the block,
The man gave a mighty blow.
“Now there lies the head of a traitor,” he said.
But it answered and it said—“No!”

Thus James Radclyffe, Earl of Derwentwater, is remembered to this day, not as a traitor but as a man of rare nobility caught up in the difficult circumstances of a dark time.

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