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Elizabeth and the Revolt of the Northern Earls (GCSE Example Answer)


Last updated 11 Apr 2020

Here is an example answer to the following 16-mark question on the reasons for the failure of the revolt of the Northern Earls.

‘The biggest reason for the failure of the revolt of the Northern Earls was Elizabeth’s swift response’. How far do you agree?

Marks: 16 marks + 4 marks SPAG

Stimulus = Elizabeth raised an army of 14,000 / The capture of Northumberland

[Examiner commentary following each paragraph and at the end is provided in italics]


The 1569 revolt of the Northern Earls was a huge concern for Elizabeth. The rebellion involved a force of approximately 5500 men and for around a month the north of England (from Alnwick to Pontefract, east of the Pennines) was in the control of the northern earls. However, the revolt eventually failed due to a combination of reasons, namely the lack of support in the north by the general public, the failure of promised Spanish troops to arrive and support the rebellion, as well as the action of Elizabeth in raising 14,000 troops to crush the rebellion and capture one of the plot’s ringleaders. Ultimately, I disagree with the statement as if the general public of the Catholic north were prepared to fight with Northumberland and Westmorland, this could have mitigated both the threat from Elizabeth’s forces and the non-arrival of Spain’s forces. Moreover, it is wrong to state that Elizabeth’s action was swift. It took a month for troops to be raised and sent north, which although relatively quick, was not the decisive factor for the rebels’ eventual failure.

[Scrutiny of the wording of the question (in this case use of the word ‘swift’) can often be an excellent way of using criteria to form a judgement, although this requires secure understanding and detailed subject knowledge.]

One of the reasons the revolt failed was because of the failure of Spanish troops to arrive at Hartlepool, who were expected to support Northumberland and Westmorland. This was important because in anticipation of the Spanish, the rebels had divided their forces. Some had reached Hartlepool and others headed towards County Durham. This made them more vulnerable once Elizabeth did send forces from the south to crush the rebellion. It also meant their own force of 5500 was no match for Elizabeth’s force of 14,000 once it arrived, forcing the rebels to flee north as they were outnumbered by over 2:1. Crucially, it was following this rapid retreat that the rebel movement disintegrated. By 16th December 1569 the leaders fled from Hexham on the border, reaching Scotland around 20th December and leaving most of their followers to disband and fend for themselves. Westmorland fled to Flanders and Northumberland was captured on Christmas Eve. Arguably, all of this could have been averted with reinforcements from the most powerful country in the world at the time.

[Precisely selected details like this demonstrate the significance this point has to the overall argument.]

Another important reason was the lack of general popular support within the north. Despite loyalty to Catholicism, many were not prepared to join the rebellion against Elizabeth. This meant their force never grew above the 5500. Further weakness was also exposed during their retreat. In early December, the rebels reached out to Leonard Dacre, a fellow northern nobleman who had been an earlier collaborator, but were turned away. This demonstrated that many powerful Catholics were not prepared to risk their own personal wealth and status, even if it did mean replacing a Protestant monarch. Vitally, this can also be linked to the fact that the Pope had not yet excommunicated Elizabeth I, which freed the Catholic public from endangering their souls by choosing not to get involved. Interestingly, it was the failure of the rebellion that partly led to Elizabeth being excommunicated a year later in 1570.

[Much of Elizabeth’s relationship with Catholicism was dependent on the position of the Pope. This point therefore is a very important contributory factor to why English Catholics did not get involved and provides a key explanation for the reason cited in the introduction as most important for the revolt’s failure.]

The subject of general public apathy towards the rebellion is important, as people were also reluctant to help Elizabeth (which explains why the revolt was successful for as long as it was before an army of 14,000 was raised). Without question, the arrival of Elizabeth’s 14,000 troops helped bring the revolt to a quick end. The Earl of Sussex initially tried to raise troops to end the rebellion in the north, but there was reluctant participation. This then prompted him to write a letter to the Privy Council asking for assistance. It was an army raised in the south that then had to march north, which undermines the notion of how swift Elizabeth’s response really was. Whilst the rebels fled as soon as Elizabeth’s troops reached the River Tees, it does beg the question about what would have happened if the apathy in the north had turned to support for the rebels. It is clear they were not going to support Elizabeth and they had allegiance to Catholicism. Moreover, the public did not object to the actions of Northumberland and Westmorland as they made their way through Darlington, Hartlepool and Durham. For example, many had attended the Catholic mass that was said every night for two weeks at Durham Cathedral and many would have welcomed Mary, Queen of Scots, becoming Queen of England too (which partly explained why, during the revolt, Mary was moved further south to Coventry). Therefore, the inaction of the northern population was integral to the rebellion’s failure.

In all, the rebellion was successful for as long as it went unchallenged. It was always going to go unchallenged in the northern heartlands because of their allegiance to Catholicism. However, the lack of a widespread popular uprising (likely due to the inaction of the Pope, allowing people to act on their own self-interest), compounded by the no-show from Spanish reinforcements was the most important issue because it meant that Elizabeth was able to reverse the momentum gained by the rebels very quickly once she had assembled an army. It is for this reason why the army did not need to swiftly deal with the rebels. It was unable to do act quickly anyway because it had to march from the south! Ultimately therefore, I disagree with the statement because a larger rebellion force would have made Elizabeth’s task more difficult and this was not forthcoming.

[Clear conclusion, summarising the key characteristics of this event with sustained analysis on the overriding factors involved in supporting the initial judgement.]

Overall Examiner Comments:

Level 4, 13-16 (+3-4 marks SPAG)

All information in this answer is accurate and relevant to the question. It is supported by excellent, developed subject knowledge which highlights the key characteristics of this event. Analysis is supported by a coherent structure, frequent links back to the question and a powerful conclusion, which reaffirms the perceptive judgements made in the previous paragraphs.

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