How the Towneleys were embroiled in rebellion

Richard Towneley of Towneley
Richard Towneley of Towneley
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This is the third and final part in the story of Burnley’s involvement in the 1715 Rebellion.

We have already noted the progress of the Rebellion and have seen that Burnley men played significant roles in the event.

It is known that three Burnley men – William Harris, Joseph Porter and Stephen Sagar - were tried at Liverpool for their parts in “The 1715” and executed at Manchester in 1716. A fourth, yeomen farmer James Appleton, who lived in the Burnley Wood area, was also present at the battle of Preston in 1715, but it is not known what happened to him.

This article deals with the most well known of the Burnley conspirators, Richard Towneley of Towneley. He was the older brother of John and Francis Towneley, both of whom were more involved in the Jacobite Rebellions than was Richard himself.

John, was essentially an exile from England living most of his life in France. He was the tutor of Bonny Prince Charlie who inspired the 1745 Rebellion in which John participated. Francis was one of the leaders of that rebellion and paid for it with his life. He was captured at Carlisle, sent to trial to London and executed there, his head displayed on Tower Bridge before it was returned to Burnley to be kept at Towneley. Later, it was transferred to the family chapel at St Peter’s, Burnley.

The Towneleys, as we have seen in previous articles, were incorrigible Jacobites, supporters of the Stuart family. Towneleys were involved, on the Stuart side, in almost all of the incidents from the English Civil War of the 1640s to the 1745 Rebellion.

Richard, himself, succeeded to the Towneley estates in 1712, three years before the 1715 Rebellion. It is thought he may have been involved, with his father and grandfather, in several minor incidents before the events of 1715 but we know he was present at the battle of Preston.

When he arrived, and what he did when he got there, is open to question but that he was there is not in doubt. In fact, it is more than likely he was involved, in some small way, in planning the campaign. His family connections would indicate this in that he was married to Mary Widdrington, whose father, William 3rd Baron Widdrington was a leading Jacobite. William Widdrington’s son, the fourth Baron, was sentenced to death for his part in the 1715 Rebellion but, later, he was reprieved though most of his estates were confiscated and his title forfeit.

Richard Towneley was captured at Preston and, while the common men were sent in large numbers to the Parish Church, he, along with other gentlemen, was detained at one of three inns, the Mitre, the White Bull and the Windmill.

It appears Richard had arrived with a force, known as “Mr Towneley’s Troop”, of about 20 men. Among them were Richard’s coachmen, his butler and postilion. They may have been the three men already mentioned and executed for their part in the proceedings.

Richard, however, when captured, was sent for trial to London where his lawyer argued that what had taken place at Preston did not amount to a rebellion, and nor did Richard take any part in it. The lawyer also indicated Richard had had no choice but to attend at Preston and his involvement, such as it was, had been exaggerated by those who were the leaders of the campaign. The argument was that using the name of “gentlemen of the best credit” was a common ploy in circumstances such as these.

However, it was acknowledged someone looking like Richard Towneley had been seen in Preston wearing a red waistcoat and carrying a blunderbuss at the head of a troop of men, but Richard’s lawyer said this man was one Lawrence, not head of the Towneley family.

When asked how it was that Richard had got to Preston, the story was revealed that he was so afraid of being arrested by the local militia that he fled to Rochdale where he hid in the house of one Mrs Ramsden. As the forces loyal to King George were expected to march that way, Mrs Ramsden asked Richard to leave, whereupon he decided to travel, with only one servant, to the west of Lancashire where, near Preston, he was seized by the rebels and made a prisoner in Preston.

The suspicion that there was a Towneley Troop in Preston was also referred to. This was explained away by a statement that they too had been sent away from Towneley as it was thought that they, too, were in danger of being arrested by the loyalist militia.

All of this was too much for the King’s Council who was acting as prosecutor in the case. He challenged almost everything given in evidence on Richard Towneley’s side, questioning, for example, why Richard had not given himself up to the Royalist forces in Rochdale? Towneley’s answer was a good one in that had he not been a Roman Catholic, this is something he might have considered. However, Catholics, in similar circumstances, were often arrested and confined, their horses and property seized. As to why he did not try to escape from Preston, Richard appears to have had no answer.

When all the evidence had been presented, the jury went out but returned within half an hour bringing Richard a verdict of “not guilty” to a charge of treason. According to some writers this, apparently, astonished the judge who rebuked the jury for their finding. Richard was set free and was a very fortunate man to find himself in this position. He had survived but at least three of the men who are likely to have been in his “Troop” were executed for their part in the Rebellion.

One theory, mentioned by Leslie Chapples in his book “Noblesse Oblige”, a history of the Towneley family, is that Richard was set free because the jury was aware of the brutal treatment meted out to prisoners in the hands of the supporters of George I. Whether, Richard was a victim while awaiting trial, I am not sure, but both the Towneleys and Widdringtons were subject to considerable harassment. Their estates were possessed by bailiffs and, in the case of the Widdringtons, the family lost the Barony and much of their estate.

The Towneley estates were restored to the family though there was a large legal bill to pay. Richard settled this by selling all but one of the great oaks at Towneley. So he survived, but it seems to me he was fortunate to do so. The family did not learn from this event, or, perhaps, it might be better to put it that Francis, Richard’s younger brother, did not learn from what had happened in 1715. Thirty years later Francis was not as lucky as Richard had been.

In the story of the Towneley family, this incident is merely an interesting side line. The involvement of the Towneleys in the Stuart cause had cost them at least two lives, and over 80 years or so, quite a lot of property. However, they retained their Lancashire estates which, as the Industrial Revolution progressed, were found to be among the best coal-bearing properties in the country.

Burnley might have lost three of its townsmen but, other than that, was hardly affected by the 1715 Rebellion. One point worth making is that it is exceptionally rare for the names of Burnley people to come down to us as victims of conflict or the revenge of the government. In this case we have three names of Burnley men executed for their involvement in the rebellion, but we appear to know no more than that.

For those living at the time, 1715 was a little too early to determine what might happen to the small town of Burnley within the next century or so. Of course, later, it was transformed into a significant centre of manufacturing industry. In 1715 the basics were already there – the coal, the textile know-how, the water power, etc.

All that was needed was the means to exploit these resources, and, perhaps, the failure of “The 1715” was important in this. The failure of the Rebellion meant Scotland remained in the Union, the so-called Scottish renaissance influenced the whole country and out of the differences of 1715 a gradual consensus was built up that would create what we currently understand as Britain.

Could it be that the failure of “The 1715” helped to create our modern world?

It is my opinion that it did, and, furthermore, it is likely that, had the Stuarts been restored, all of this would not have happened, at least in the same way.