Lord Dewentwater’s Lights

Lord Derwentwater's Lights.1716

You yet in groves round Dilston Hall
May hear the chiding cushat's call;
Its true-love burden for the mate
That lingers far and wanders late.

But who in Dilston Hall shall gaze
On all its twenty hearths ablaze;
Its courteous hosts, its welcome free,
And all its hospitality;

The grace from courtly splendour, won
By Royal Seine, that round it shone;
Or feel again the pride or power
Of Radcliffe's name in hall and bower;—

As when the cause of exiled James
Filled northern hearts with loyal flames,
And summers wore their sweetest smile
Round Dilston's Courts and Derwent's Isle;

Ere Mar his standard wide unrolled,
And tower to tower the rising told,
And Southwards on the gathering came,
All kindling at the Prince's name?—

The glory and the pomp are shorn;
The banners rent, the charters torn;
The loved, the loving, dust alone;
Their honours, titles carved in stone.

On Witches' Peak the winds were laid:
Crept Glenderamakin mute in shade:
El-Velin's old mysterious reign
Hung stifling over field and plain.

Around on all the hills afar
Had died the sounds foreboding war.
Only a dull and sullen roar
Reached up the valley from Lodore.

Through all the arches of the sky
The Northern Lights streamed broad and high.
Wide o'er the realm their shields of light
Flung reddening tumults on the night.

Then dalesmen hoar and matrons old
Look'd out in fear from farm and fold:
Look'd out o'er Derwent, mere and isle,
On Skiddaw's mounds, Blencathra's pile.

They saw the vast ensanguined scroll
Across the stars the streamers roll:
The Derwent stain'd with crimson dyes:
And portents wandering through the skies.

And prophet-like the bodings came—
"The good Earl dies the death of fame;
For him the Prince that came in vain,
A King, to enjoy his own again."—

The sightless crone cried from her bed—
"'Tis blood that makes this midnight red.
I dreamed the young Earl heavenward rode;
His armour flashed, his standard glow'd."

The fearful maiden trembling spoke—
"The good Earl blessed me, and I woke.
The white and red cockade he wore;
He bade adieu for evermore."—

Far show'd huge Walla's craggy wall
The 'Lady's Kerchief' white and small,
Dropt when, pursued like doe from brake,
She scaled its rampart from the lake.

"I served my Lady when a bride:
I was her page:"—A stripling cried.
"I served her well on bended knee,
And many a smile she bent on me."—

—"Upon this breast, but twenty years
Are pass'd"—a matron spoke with tears—
"I nursed her; and in all her ways,
She was my constant theme of praise."—

Like flaming swords, that round them threw
Their radiance on the star-lit blue,
Flash'd and re-flash'd with dazzling ray
The splendours of that fiery fray.

—"When spies and foes watch'd Dilston Hall,
To seize him ere the trumpet-call"—
A yeoman spake that loved him well—
"I brought him mid our huts to dwell.

"We shelter'd him in farm and bield,
Till all was ready for the field,
Till all the northern bands around
Were arm'd, and for the battle bound.

"Then came he forth, and if he stay'd
A few short hours, and still delay'd,
'Twas for those priceless treasures near,
My lady and her children dear.

"I heard reproaches at his side!
—'Or take this jewelled fan'—she cried,
With high-born scornful look and word—
And I will bear the warrior's sword!'

"He called, 'To horse!'—his dapple grey
He welcomed forth, and rode away.
The white and red unstained he wore:
His heart was stainless evermore!"—

And thus the night was filled with moan.
And was the good Earl slain and gone?
For him the Prince that came in vain,
A King, to enjoy his own again.

From Derwent's Island-Castle gate,
In robe and coronet of state,
A phantom on the vapours borne,
Passed in the shadows of the morn.

Pale hollow forms in suits of woe
Appear'd like gleams to come and go.
And wreathed in mists was seen to rest
A 'scutcheon on Blencathra's breast.—

Full soon the speeding tidings came.
The Earl had died the death of fame,
By axe and block, on bended knee,
For true-love, faith, and loyalty.

And still, when o'er the Isles return
The Northern lights to blaze and burn;
The vales and hills repeat the moan
For him the good Earl slain and gone.

Notes to "Lord Derwentwater's Lights."

Lord's Island, in Keswick Lake, is memorable as having been the home of James Radcliffe, third and last Earl of Derwentwater, whose life and great possessions were forfeited in 1716, in the attempt to restore the royal line of Stuart to the throne, and whose memory is affectionately cherished in the north of England. An eminence upon its shores, called Castle-Rigg, which overlooks the vale of Keswick, was formerly occupied by a Roman fort, and afterwards by the stronghold of the Norman lords, who were called, from the locality of this their chief residence, de Derwentwater. Their early history is wrapt in obscurity; but their inheritance comprised the greater part of the parish of Crosthwaite, in addition to possessions in other parts of Cumberland, and in other counties. These became vested in the Radcliffe family in the reign of Henry the Fifth, by the marriage of Margaret daughter and heiress of Sir John de Derwentwater, with Sir Nicholas Radcliffe, of lineage not less ancient than that of his wife, he being of Saxon origin, and of a family which derived its name from a village near Bury in Lancashire. In later time the Norman tower on Castle-Rigg was abandoned, and its materials are said to have been employed in building the house upon that one of the three wooded islands in the lake, which is called Lord's Island, and upon which the Radcliffe family had a residence. This island was originally part of a peninsula; but when the house was built, it was separated from the main land by a ditch or moat, over which there was a draw-bridge, and the approaches to this may still be seen. Of the house itself, little more than the moss-covered foundations remain. The stones, successively, of the Roman Castrum, of the Norman Tower, and of the lord's residence, are said to have been subsequently used in building the town-hall of Keswick.

The estate of the Derwentwater family seems to have originally extended along the shores of the lake for nearly two miles, and for a mile eastward of the shore. On one side of it lies the present road from Keswick to Ambleside, on the other its boundary approached Lodore, whilst the crest of Walla Crag, divided it from the common. There, surrounded by a combination of grandeur and beauty which is almost unrivalled in this country, the Knightly ancestors of James Radcliffe, the third and last Earl of Derwentwater, whose virtues and whose fate have encircled his name with traditional veneration, had their paternal seat.

This chivalrous and amiable young nobleman was closely allied by blood to the Prince Edward, afterwards called "the Pretender," in whose cause he fell a sacrifice; his mother, the Lady Mary Tudor, a natural daughter of King Charles II. and Mrs. Davis, being first cousin to the Prince. He was nearly the same age as the Prince, being one year younger: and in his early childhood was taken to France to be educated, when James the Second and his consort were living in exile at St. Germain's, surrounded, however, by the noble English, Scottish, and Irish emigrant royalists, who followed the fortunes of their dethroned monarch. The sympathies of his parents having also led them thither, the youthful heir of Derwentwater was brought up with the little Prince, at St. Germain's, sharing his infantine pleasures and pastimes, and occasionally joining his studies under his governess the Countess of Powis. A friendship thus formed in youth, nurtured by consanguinity, strengthened by ripening age, and cemented by the extraordinary good qualities of the young nobleman, and his power to win affection and esteem, culminated in that attachment and devotion to the cause of his Prince and friend, which terminated only with his life.

The Earl appears to have visited Dilston, his ancestral home in Northumberland, for the first time in 1710, when he was in his twenty-first year; and in the spring of the same year he spent some time on the Isle of Derwent, where the ancient mansion of the Radcliffes was then standing. During a considerable portion of the two next succeeding years, his chief residence appears to have been at Dilston, where he lived in the constant exercise of hospitality, and in the practice of active benevolence towards not only the peasantry on his wide estates, but all who needed his assistance, whether known to him or not, and whether Papist or Protestant. He seems to have taken great delight in rural pursuits, and in the pleasures of the chase, and in the charms of nature by which he was surrounded.

On the 10th of July 1712, when he had completed his 23rd year, he espoused Anna Maria, eldest daughter of Sir John Webb, of Canford, in the county of Dorset, Bart. His acquaintance with this charming young lady began in the early springtime of their lives, when both were receiving their education in the French capital. The lady had been placed in the convent of Ursuline Nuns in Paris for instruction: and they had frequent opportunities of seeing each other at the Chateau of St. Germain's, where the exiled monarch took pleasure in being surrounded by the scions of his noble English and Scottish adherents, who were then living at Paris.

On the rising of the adherents of the house of Stuart under the Earl of Mar in August 1715, it was very well known to the government, that the Earl's religion, his affections, and sympathies, were all on the side of the exiled heir of that family, and that his influence in the north of England was not less than his constancy and devotion. A warrant was issued for the apprehension of the Earl and his brother, the government hoping by thus, as it were, gaining the move in the game, to prevent the exercise of the Earl's influence against King George. A friendly warning of the attentions which were being paid to him at Whitehall reached the Earl in time; and on hearing that the government messengers had arrived at Durham, on their way to arrest him and his brother, they withdrew from their home, and proceeded to the house of Sir Marmaduke Constable, where they stayed some days. The Earl afterwards took refuge in the home of a humble cottager near Newbiggin House, where he lay hidden some time. He remained in concealment through the latter part of August, and the whole of September. During this time of anxiety and surveillance, all the money, and even all the jewels of the Countess, are said by local tradition to have become exhausted: and to such straits was she reduced, that a silver medal of Pope Clement XI. struck in the 14th year of his Pontificate (1713), for want of money is said to have been given by her, when encompassed by the Earl's enemies, to a peasant girl, for selling poultry, or rendering some such trifling service.

Early in October it was represented to the Earl that the adherents of the exiled Prince were ready to appear in arms, and to be only waiting for him and his brother to join them. It would appear that at this critical moment, the Earl, influenced by many considerations, personal and domestic, as well as prudential, wavered in his resolution; and tradition avers that, on stealthily revisiting Dilston Hall, his Countess reproached him for continuing to hide his head in hovels from the light of day, when the gentry were in arms for their rightful sovereign; and throwing down her fan before her lord, told him in cruel raillery to take it, and give his sword to her. Something of this feeling is attributed to her in the old ballad poem entitled "Lord Derwentwater's Farewell," wherein the following lines are put into his mouth:—

"Farewell, farewell, my lady dear:
Ill, ill thou counselled'st me:
I never more may see the babe
That smiles upon thy knee."

The popular notion that the Earl was driven into his fatal enterprise by the persuasions of his lady is evidently here referred to. But the amiable and gentle character of the Countess, that affectionate and devoted wife, whom the Earl in his latest moments declared to be all tenderness and virtue, and to have loved him constantly, is a sufficient refutation of the popular opinion, which does so much injustice to her memory. Nevertheless there is historical reason for believing that the Earl did suddenly decide on joining the Prince's friends, who were then in arms; and his lady's persuasions may have contributed to that fatal precipitation. On the 6th of October, the little force of horse and men, consisting of his own domestic levy, was assembled in the courtyard of his castle; arms were supplied to them; the Earl, his brother, and the company, crossed the Devil's Water at Nunsburgh Ford; and the fatal step was irrevocably taken. Old ladies of the last century used to tell of occurrences of evil omen which marked the departure of the devoted young nobleman from the home of his fathers, to which he was destined never to return; how on quitting the courtyard, his favourite dog howled lamentably; how his horse, the well-known white or dapple gray, associated with his figure in history and poetry, became restive, and could with difficulty be urged forward; and how he soon afterwards found that he had lost from his finger a highly prized ring, the gift of his revered grandmother, which he constantly wore.

It is not necessary to dwell upon the details of this unfortunate and ill-conducted enterprise, in the course of which James III. was proclaimed in town and village, in Warkworth and Alnwick, in Penrith and Appleby, Kendal and Lancaster, to the final catastrophe of the little band at Preston. There, hemmed in by the government troops, the brave and devoted friends of the royal exiles, who had been led into this premature effort contrary to their better judgments, and went forth with a determined loyalty which good or bad report could not subdue, saw reason to regret, when too late, their misplaced confidence in their leaders. Already they saw themselves about to be sacrificed to the divided counsels of their comrades and the incapacity of Foster, their general. Defensive means imperfectly planned, and hastily carried out, enabled them to hold the approaches to the town for three or four days against the Brunswickers, whom they gallantly repulsed, in a determined attack upon their barricades. But overmatched by disciplined troops; out-generalled, and out-numbered; and finding resistance to be unavailing; on the morning of Monday the 14th of October they surrendered at discretion to the forces sent to oppose them. Being assembled in the market place to the number of 1700, they delivered up their arms, and became prisoners. The young Earl was sent to London, which he reached on the 9th of December, and was conducted to the Tower on the capital charge of high treason. Unavailing efforts were made by his wife and friends to save him. It appears that on the 20th of February his life was offered to him by two noblemen who came to him in the tower, in the name of the King, if he would acknowledge the title of George I. and conform to the Protestant religion: but these terms were refused by him. The offer of his life and fortune was repeated on the scaffold, but he answered that the terms "would be too dear a purchase." The means proposed to him, he looked upon as "inconsistent with honour and conscience, and therefore I rejected them." He went to the block with firmness and composure: and his behaviour was resolute and sedate. In an address which he delivered on the scaffold, he said "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." And the axe closed, by a "violent and vengeful infliction," the brief career of the beloved, devoted, and generous Earl of Derwentwater. He was twenty-seven years of age.

Lady Derwentwater, who had been unceasing in her efforts to save her husband, and solaced him in his confinement by her society and tender care, after his death succeeded eventually in having his last request in the Tower fulfilled. She had his body borne to its last resting place in the peaceful chapel at Dilston to be interred with his ancestors. She made a short sojourn at Dilston before leaving it for ever; and then repaired with her little son and daughter to Canford, under the roof of her parents.

Before leaving the North, the Countess visited the house and estates at Derwentwater; and while there her life seems to have been in some danger; for the rude peasantry of the neighbourhood, to whom her southern birth and foreign education, as well as the principles and attachments in which she was brought up, were doubtless uncongenial, blamed her, in the unreasoning vehemence of their grief, for the tragic fate of their beloved lord and benefactor. Accordingly, not far from the fall of Lodore, a hollow in the wild heights of Walla Crag is pointed out by the name of Lady's Rake,[1] in which the noble widow is said to have escaped from their vengeance. Her misfortunes needed not to be thus undeservedly augmented. A more pleasing version of the story of her flight is, that the Countess escaped through the Lady's Rake with the family jewels, when the officers of the crown took possession of the mansion on Lord's Island. No doubt this loving woman did her utmost for the release of her lord. And this steep and dangerous way has a human interest associated with it which has given a special hold upon the hearts of the Keswick people. In old times a large white stone in among the boulders used to be pointed out as the Lady's Pockethandkerchief, and that it still hung among the crags, where no one could get at it.

In June, 1716, the Countess was living at Kensington Gravel Pits, near London: whence she soon afterwards went to Hatherhope; and subsequently made a brief sojourn under the roof of her parents at Canford Manor; after which she took up her residence at Louvaine. Here she died on the 30th of August, 1723, at the early age of thirty; having survived her noble husband little more than seven years; and was interred there in the Church of the English regular Canonesses of St. Augustine.

The white or gray horse of the Earl is historical. Shortly before the rising, and when he was in danger of apprehension, the following short note was written by him:—

"Dilston, July 27th, 1715.

"Mr. Hunter,

"As I know nobody is more ready to serve a friend than yourself, I desire the favour you will keep my gray horse for me, till we see what will be done relating to horses. I believe they will be troublesome, for it is said the D. of Ormond is gone from his house. God send us peace and good neighbourhood,—unknown blessings since I was born. Pray ride my horse about the fields, or any where you think he will not be known, and you will oblige, Sir, your humble servant,


"He is at grass."

In the first sentence the reference is made to the jealous penal regulation, which forbade a Roman Catholic to possess a noble animal of height and qualities suited to military equipment.

From tradition preserved in the family of Mr. Hunter of Medomsley, the person addressed, there is every reason to believe that the gray horse mentioned in the above letter, was the identical steed which was brought by the son of Mr. Hunter to Bywell, and taken thence by Lord Derwentwater's servant to Hexham for his lordship's use; and upon which the devoted Earl rode from Hexham, with the gallant champions of the Prince's right, on the 19th of October following.

A man named Cuthbert Swinburn, then 90 years of age, who was born at Upper Dilston, and whose family resided there for some generations, related to a correspondent of W. S. Gibson, Esq., the author of Memoirs of the Earl of Derwentwater, that he remembered the young Earl, and saw him pass their house riding on a white horse, and accompanied by several retainers, on the morning when he joined his neighbours in the Prince's cause.

In a ballad relating to that fatal expedition it is said—

"Lord Derwentwater rode away
Well mounted on his dapple gray."

And in the touching verses well known as "Derwentwater's Farewell," his "own gray steed" is one of the earthly objects of his regard to which he is supposed to bid adieu.

Of the house on Lord's Island, itself, only some low walls now remain. A few relics of the mansion are preserved in the neighbourhood. The ponderous lock and key of the outer door, the former weighing eleven pounds, are preserved in Crosthwaite's museum. The door itself, which was of oak studded with knobs and rivets, was sold to a person named Wilson, of Under Mozzer, a place thirteen miles from Keswick. A bell, probably the dinner bell of the mansion, is in the town hall of Keswick, and is of fine tone. A fine old carved chair is preserved in the Radcliffe Room at Corby Castle, and known as "My Lady's Chair." In Crosthwaite's museum is preserved another ancient one of oak, which came from Lord Derwentwater's house, and has the Radcliffe arms carved upon it. And a stately and most elaborately carved oak bedstead which belonged to Lord Derwentwater was purchased at the sale of the contents of his house on Lord's Island, by an ancestor of Mr. Wood, of Cockermouth, in whose family it has remained, highly valued, ever since 1716.

Many articles of furniture, some family portraits, and other property, that once belonged to Dilston Hall, still linger in the vicinity of that place, where they are greatly treasured.

The Northumbrian and Cumbrian peasantry believed that miraculous appearances marked the fatal day on which the Earl of Derwentwater was beheaded. It was affirmed that the "Divel's Water" acquired a crimson hue, as if his fair domains were sprinkled with the blood of their gallant possessor; and that at night the sky glowed ominously with ensanguined streams. "The red streamers of the north" are recorded to have been seen for the first time in that part of England, on the night of the fatal 24th of February, 1716; and in the meteor's fiery hue, the astonished spectators beheld a dreadful omen of the vengeance of heaven. The phenomenon has ever since been known as "Lord Derwentwater's Lights." On the 18th of October, 1848, a magnificent and very remarkable display of aurora borealis was witnessed in the northern counties. The crimson streamers rose and spread from the horizon in the form of an expanded fan, and the peasantry in Cumberland and elsewhere said at the time, that nothing like that display had been seen since the appearance of "Lord Derwentwater's Lights," in February, 1716, which may therefore be presumed to have been of a crimson or rosy hue.'

[1]This hollow, in the summit of Walla Crag, is visible from the road below. Rake, the term applied in this country to openings in the hills like this, is an old Norse word, signifying a journey or excursion. It is now commonly applied to the scene of an excursion as the Lady's Rake in Walla Crag, and the Scot's Rake at the head of Troutbeck, by which a band of Scottish marauders is said to have descended upon the vale.