NOT many people have escaped from the Tower of London over the eight centuries of its existence. According to historian Nigel Jones there have been just 37 different escapees.

Most were recaptured, many were executed, but as far can be told, only one person escaped from the Tower and got clean away by cross-dressing. His name was William Maxwell, the fifth Earl of Nithsdale, and he had the very great fortune to be married to Winifred, the Countess of Nithsdale.

In an adventure that really should be in a Hollywood movie, in this week in 1716, the Countess “sprang” her husband from the Tower on the night before he was due to be executed. For daring, inventiveness and pure courage, the Countess has few equals in the history of Scotland.

She was actually English, born Winifred Herbert, daughter of the Marquess of Powis, a Catholic nobleman who spent six years on remand in the Tower of London after being falsely accused by Titus Oates of conspiring to kill King Charles II. He was freed in 1684, by which time Winifred was about four – in other words she was most probably conceived in the Tower.

Winifred met Maxwell at the Royal court in Paris and they were married in 1599, moving to live at Terregles Castle in Dumfriesshire. They had five children and she also suffered miscarriages and stillbirths. As prominent Catholics, they also suffered Presbyterian attacks before her husband, a staunch Jacobite, went off to fight for the Old Pretender, James Francis Edward Stuart, the son of King James VII and II, in the 1715 uprising.

The Earl proclaimed James VIII and III at Dumfries and Jedburgh before riding with his party of men across the Border to join the English Jacobite force at Hexham. Their general was Thomas Forster, and just like the Earl of Mar at the Battle of Sheriffmuir, Forster was not much of a soldier.

He led his force south to Preston where the final action of the 1715 Rising was fought in the streets of the town. The Jacobites “won” the Battle in terms of how many were killed, but Forster surrendered his army when it became clear they were surrounded.

Among those captured was the Earl of Nithsdale who was one of several Jacobite nobles who were convicted of treason by an act of attainder. As a noble he was sentenced to be beheaded rather than hung, drawn and quartered, and he was taken to the Tower of London to await his execution, the date set for February 24, 1716, 305 years ago this week.

Enter the Countess. She rode south to London during bitterly cold weather, accompanied by her faithful servant Cecilia Evans. The Countess implored King George I for mercy in a petition he refused to receive. She then grabbed hold of the coat of the Hanoverian king, but he dragged her across the floor before breaking away.

All that was left to Winifred was to construct an audacious plan to free her husband. She visited him in the Tower and was careful to ensure the guards were given money and drink, so that when she arrived back the following evening, February 23, they were happy to see her and her companions, a Mrs Morgan and Mrs Mills, who arrived covering her face with a lace handkerchief.

Winifred had told the guards that her husband was to be freed so they were happy to let her into the Tower where the guards and their wives were quite happy to mingle with their visitors. Only one person other than his wife was allowed to visit the Earl at one time, and without raising suspicion, the over-dressed Mrs Morgan was allowed into the Earl’s cell.

We know from Winifred’s own account what happened next: “I brought an artificial head-dress of the same coloured hair as hers, and I painted his face with white and his cheeks with rouge, to hide his long beard, which he had not time to shave.”

The Earl quickly donned the extra clothing that Mrs Morgan had taken in while Winifred started the second part of her plan: “The poor guards, whom my slight liberality the day before had endeared me to, let me go quietly out with my company, and were not so strictly on the watch as they usually had been, and the more so as they were persuaded, from what I had told them the day before, that the prisoners would obtain their pardon.”

Mrs Morgan withdrew to be replaced by Mrs Mills which enabled Winifred to finish dressing her husband. Mrs Mills then left accompanied by Winifred through another room full of people. Then before the night-time candles could be lit, the cross-dressed Earl and she both went out, the chief guard having lost count of who was there. They made it outside where the Earl completed his escape wearing what is still known and preserved as the Nithsdale Cloak.

Then came the most amazingly courageous part. The Countess went back to the Earl’s prison chamber to show the guards all was well. As she wrote: “When I was in the room, I talked as if he had been really present: I answered my own questions in my lord’s voice as nearly as I could imitate it; I walked up and down as if we were conversing together, till I thought they had time enough thoroughly to clear themselves of the guards. I then thought proper to make off also. I opened the door, and stood half in it that those in the outward chamber might hear what I said, but held it so close that they could not look in. I bade my lord formal farewell for the night.”

The escape was soon discovered. With George I, enraged it became unsafe for them to stay in Scotland.

The couple moved to the Stuart court first in France and then in Rome, where Winifred was governess to Henry Benedict Stuart. She died in Rome in 1749, her husband having died five years before.