Lady Winifred Maxwell, Countess of Nithsdale, lived from 1680 to 1749. She is remembered for helping her husband, William Maxwell, 5th Earl of Nithsdale, escape from the Tower of London in 1716. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Winifred Herbert was the daughter of William Herbert, 1st Marquess of Powis. Her parents accompanied James VII/II into exile in 1688 and her mother became governess of the young Prince of Wales, James Francis Edward Stuart, later to be known as the "Old Pretender". Winifred herself became a lady-in-waiting at the Jacobite Royal Court. On 2 March 1699, at the age of 27, she married William Maxwell, 5th Earl of Nithsdale, a member of a Scottish Catholic family.
Winifred returned with William to his family home at Terregles Castle near Dumfries. She went on to have a son and a daughter, along with a number of miscarriages and stillbirths. During the early 1700s , William Maxwell worked hard to dispel suspicions of him in Scotland because of his Catholicism and his links with the Jacobites. However, he did come out in support of the Jacobites in the 1715 Uprising, and joined with the Northumbrian Jacobites under General Thomas Forster at Hexham. He was captured with other Jacobites at Preston and sent to the Tower of London. He was subsequently found guilt of treason and sentenced to death.
Winifred, Countess of Nithsdale travelled to London to ask George I for clemency, but none was forthcoming. On the night of 23 February, the eve of the date set for her husband's execution, Winifred her maid, and two friends visited William at the Tower of London. Winifred distributed a generous amount of drinking money to the guards, and the women proceeded to come and go from William's cell, mingling with the wives of the guards and generally raising confusion about who was in the cell and who was not. Meanwhile, Winifred shaved William's beard and dressed him in spare women's clothing brought in for the purpose, including what has since become known as the "Nithsdale Cloak". William was then led from the Tower disguised as a woman by Winifred's maid, Evans, while Winifred herself covered the escape by carrying on a loud conversation with her - now departed - husband in an otherwise empty cell, before making good her own escape.
Winifred and William hid in London until he could be smuggled to France disguised as a servant of the Venetian Ambassador. Winifred herself then rode to Traquair House in Scotland to retrieve a number of family papers and arrange for their property to be cared for. She then, despite a huge search for her and her husband, returned to London, and travelled to the Continent. She eventually rejoined her husband at the exiled court of James Francis Edward Stuart in Rome. Winifred later became governess to Henry Benedict Stuart, the younger brother of Charles Edward Stuart. Winifred died in Rome in 1749.