Dismal Dan: Daniel Finch, 2nd Earl of Nottingham and Secretary of State to Queen Anne

My third historical novel, The Running Wolf, is about the Shotley Bridge swordmakers who defected from Solingen, Germany in 1687. The book focuses mainly on Hermann Mohll, who was imprisoned in Morpeth Gaol in 1703/4 for smuggling a large number of blades from Solingen into England. Many swordmaker authors suggest that he was suspected of high treason because he returned to England aboard a ship with twenty Scottish and Irish soldiers.

Cover of the book by Helen Steadman, The Running Wolf. Black background with gold lettering. The 'o' of Wolf is molten gold with an etched wolf running through it. Above is a Dutch warship beneath a sunray of 9 swords.
The Running Wolf by Helen Steadman

New research findings

While carrying out research for my book about the Shotley Bridge swordmakers, I uncovered a considerable amount of material that has not, so far, been mentioned in any of the existing books about the swordmakers. For example, I have found the deposition of one of the soldiers, Sergeant John Ross from Morpeth in Northumberland, who gives the names of five other soldiers and confirms that there were only six soldiers aboard the ship and that the only other passengers were the Mohlls. Of the other five soldiers, only one was from Scotland and one from Ireland – the remaining four are from the north east of England. (For more information about the soldiers, please see my article, ‘Redcoats or Jacobites’, or my full research article, published by Northern History journal.)

I have also found correspondence revealing the fate of the missing swords and correspondence that explains how Mohll was released. Lord Nottingham, secretary of state to Queen Anne, wrote to Sir William, saying that Mohll was not suspected of treasonable design and could be released, but left it up to the local justices to decide.

I thought it might be worth considering Lord Nottingham’s career and background, in light of Mohll’s sudden release from prison.

Some of the authors who have written about the Shotley Bridge swordmakers have discussed whether Hermann Mohll was working with Jacobite rebels because, when he returned to England with the swords he’d smuggled from Solingen in Germany, he sailed alongside a number of Scottish and Irish soldiers, said to number twenty.

Mohll’s smuggling trip

Mohll sailed aboard the Eufro Angelique from Rotterdam to Tynemouth in December 1703, alongside some soldiers, said to be Scottish and Irish. (Most primary sources state Eufro Angelique, but there are also references to Saint Anne, Sinta Anna and Eufro Angonata). Mohll was subsequently imprisoned at Morpeth Gaol, at worst, guilty of high treason, and at best, of smuggling. (For more details about this, please see my full research findings, which have been published in Northern History journal.)

The soldiers’ nationalities

The soldiers’ nationalities have often been used to connect Mohll and the Jacobites. For instance, Richard H. Bezdek states, ‘because there were many Scottish and Irish soldiers on the ship, he was also accused of attempting to sell sword blades to the Jacobites.’[1] David Richardson argues ‘because most of the passengers were soldiers (about twenty), a Jacobite conspiracy was suspected in high quarters’, but concedes ‘no plots were uncovered’.[2] I can now reveal that there were only six soldiers aboard the ship and that of them, only one was Scottish and one Irish, with the other four coming from County Durham and Northumberland.

Regardless, the soldiers’ nationalities do not prove they were Jacobites as many Scottish and Irish soldiers served the English Army. During the War of the Spanish Succession, recruitment was high on Queen Anne’s agenda and in December 1703, she concluded a treaty with the King of Prussia to obtain troops to assist the Duke of Savoy.[3] There were also plans to recruit from enemy armies, which I say more about below.

Daniel Finch, 2nd Earl of Nottingham and Secretary of State to Queen Anne

In terms of Mohll’s acquittal, I have uncovered correspondence between Daniel Finch, 2nd Earl of Nottingham, Secretary of State to Queen Anne; and Sir William Blackett, first Baronet of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, dated 1 February 1704, which has not been mentioned in the existing books about the Shotley Bridge swordmaker, ‘Moll and others concerned in the sword blades probably came over for trade, and though the swords are liable to be seized he does not himself appear guilty of any treasonable design.’[1] The letter is quite relaxed and Nottingham’s reliance on words like ‘probably’ and ‘appears’ indicate some doubt over Mohll’s innocence, which may be why Queen Anne and her secretary of state leave it up to the local justices in the end.

The justice acting in Mohll’s trial was Colonel Henry Villiers, Governor of Tynemouth Castle, who was himself convicted of two smuggling charges shortly after the trial. His fellow smuggler was a known Jacobite, Captain Thomas Gordon… For more on this curious tale, see either my full research article in Northern History journal, or read my short post on Henry Villiers.

Nottingham recruiting soldiers from enemy armies

The soldiers travelling with Mohll were not, as popularly described all Scottish and Irish, and there weren’t twenty of them. Instead, there were six soldiers in total, with four of them from the north east of England and one each from Scotland and Ireland. Now that I have uncovered their names, ranks and service, they give the appearance of being loyal to the queen. However, Queen Anne and Lord Nottingham were quite laid back about recruiting Scottish and Irish soldiers because they had a great need for soldiers and arms during the War of the Spanish Succession. Nottingham wrote to Sir Richard Hill, Envoy Extraordinary to the Duke of Savoy, on 14 March 1704, saying, ‘there are several of our subjects, of our kingdom of Ireland and other [of] our subjects who now serve in the armies of our enemies who, we are informed, are willing to quit that service, provided they may be assured of our pardon.’[2]

Nottingham triggered the hunt for Hermann Mohll

It was Nottingham who triggered the hunt for Hermann Mohll when he sent a circular seeking Mohll to the commanders of Newcastle, Durham, Carlisle and Berwick on 18 December 1703.[3] On 24 December 1703, Blackett replied, ‘We have as yet heard of no one answering your description of either person’ but he reported arresting a man who had been found in a Newcastle inn, John Burke, describing him as: ‘having the accent of a Scot though he pretends to be an Irishman; and having about him some unintelligible papers […] he being a big fatt man about 45 years old, wearing a short fair peruke.’[4]

After examining Burke’s paperwork, Nottingham wrote to Blackett on 8 January 1704, saying, ‘The pocket book and papers taken from John Burke may be returned to him, and he is to be released.’[5] So it looks as though Burke spent several weeks in prison just because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time, using a fake accent and sporting a blond wig.

The King of Spain, the Duke of Marlborough and the diamond sword from Düsseldorf

The timing of Mohll’s trip to Solingen is of interest because, on 6 November 1703, Richard Hill wrote to Nottingham, saying that the Duke of Marlborough had had an audience with the King of Spain in Düsseldorf, where the king gave Marlborough a sword set with diamonds alleged to be worth over two-thousand pounds.[6] On 10 March 1704, Sir George Rooke, Admiral of the Fleet, complained to Hill that the diamond sword ‘was a damned true jest’ worth only £250, and that the queen took ‘away all the plate’ that was due to him, leaving him £1,000 out of pocket.[7] (As for the fate of this sword, Gregg reports Queen Anne giving Prince Eugene of Savoy a sword set with diamonds in 1712.)[8]

Mohll was fortunate to find passage in late 1703 because Hill advised Nottingham he was struggling to get enough ships from Rotterdam to escort the King of Spain and his entourage (some 450 people and their horses): ‘The wind is so very fair for the King of Spain that it is a pity to lose it; but we have only three English and three Dutch ships at Helvoetsluys.’ [9] Enough ships were eventually found as Hill wrote to William Aglionby, the English envoy in Berne, on 29 November 1703, saying that the king had embarked at the Briel,[10] and Gregg reports him surviving the great storm to land at Spithead on 26 December 1703, arriving at Windsor three days later to banquet with Queen Anne.[11]

Why Dismal Dan?

Geoffrey Holmes states that Daniel Finch was ‘a solemn, excessively moral, pillar of the Anglican Church, whom Wharton unforgettably christened “Dismal”.’[12] This may well be unduly harsh since Thomas Wharton (1st Marquess of Wharton) was notorious for outrageous behaviour, reputedly defecating in a church pulpit and urinating on an altar while drunk. [13] As well as being inclined towards the Tories and frowning on Whigs generally, Queen Anne so disapproved of Wharton’s ‘licentious and ungodly modes of life’ that she stripped him of his post and awarded it to a Tory (Seymour) in his presence.[14] According to Riley, Nottingham was a High Tory and the Tories were ‘notoriously averse from wars with the French and although ‘firm to the Hanoverian succession but concerned, as he had always been, about the fate of Scottish episcopalians.’

The Earl himself did associate with well-known Jacobites, including fêting the exiled Thomas Bruce, second earl of Ailesbury in Flanders in 1705. And, of course, there were Jacobites working in parliament, as Riley states, ‘Even the jacobites, although they had their sticking point, were prepared to snatch at official salaries given the chance’ and some had ‘taken the oaths to qualify for election and a number of Jacobite peers had decided to attend parliament.’ Nottingham fell victim in the Lords to, attempts by Lord Tarbat inter alia, to vilify him, in this case by Tarbat falsifying minutes, something he had done on three occasions.[15]

The ‘Scotch Plot’

The so-called ‘Scotch Plot’ involved conspiracy by Scottish rebels to enable an invasion by France. (This ‘plot’ needs to be treated with a degree of scepticism as it was seemingly made up by Lord Lovat and then used by Whig politicians to discredit Nottingham and others). In a speech in the House of Lords, Queen Anne stated ‘I have unquestionable Informations of very ill Practices and Designs carried on in Scotland, by Emissaries from France; which might have proved extremely dangerous to the Peace of these Kingdoms, as you will see by the Particulars, which shall be laid before you’.

There were attempts to implicate Nottingham in the ‘Scotch Plot’ wherein the Opposition were allegedly involved in a Jacobite conspiracy and his behaviour was debated at length in Parliament. In 1703/4, the Whigs complained about ‘jacobite conspiracy passing unnoticed or, worse still, disregarded, under the noses of ministers, to say nothing of the alleged concealment of treachery by the court and, in particular, by Nottingham’, suggesting that ‘Nottingham’s report on the seizure and examination of persons coming from France being so unsatisfactory. […] Evidence of clandestine trafficking between France and parts of Britain came to light,’ and: ‘In December 1703 the whig majority began to order the seizure of persons supposedly connected with the ‘plot’ and set up a committee consisting entirely of whigs to question them. Rumour was used to prejudge the issue. Even before the investigation was properly begun the junto lords were letting it be known that there had been a ‘plot’,[16] although no evidence had so far appeared to justify this belief. […] the lords then passed a vote of censure on Nottingham for his alleged remissness in not having properly examined Sir John MacLean nor having prosecuted Ferguson ‘the plotter’. Soon afterwards Nottingham resigned and went into opposition.’[17]

William Wallace says that Nottingham, ‘unable to obtain from the queen the dismissal of the dukes of Somerset and Devonshire from the council, –resigned his office while the parliament still sat’ and also reports Sir William Whitlock, MP as casting serious aspersions on the cabinet by saying, ‘If an angel from heaven was a privy councillor, I would not trust my liberty with him one moment’. [18]

Did Nottingham resign or was he sacked?

Conversely, Nottingham was reputedly sacked, rather than resigning: ‘Further, the Commons inquiry early in 1704 into the ‘Scotch Plot’ (of 1703) and the Whigs’ bungling attempt to accuse Nottingham of protecting Jacobite agents only served to make the Tories less manageable. […] The Tories were now openly blocking essential measures needed to press on with the war. Soon after the session ended, the Queen dismissed Nottingham and his High Tory colleagues, angered at their arrogance and obstructiveness. Nottingham was replaced by Harley as secretary of state, and other moderate Tories – such as Henry St. John II and Thomas Mansel I – were also given office.’[19]

Nottingham did try to protect himself against these attacks and protested against the Master of the House (Somerset) who had openly attacked him during Lords enquiries into the ‘Scotch plot’ and he complained to Queen Anne that ‘keeping the Duke of Somerset in the Cabinet Council after what had past would render the Government contemptible’. Following parliamentary enquiries by both houses into the ‘Scotch plot’, and the implication of Nottingham, the ensuing attacks and counter-attacks led to Parliament becoming deadlocked and eventually being ‘prorogued in April 1704 in an atmosphere of constitutional crisis’ along with the ‘Fall of the High Tory ministers, Nottingham, Seymour and Jersey’[20] (with Jersey being, of course, Edward Villiers, brother of Colonel Henry Villiers). The House of Lords found the examination of John MacLeane by Nottingham to be ‘very defective’ and also censured him for not prosecuting ‘Ferguson the plotter’.[21]

The Earl of Nottingham was thrice blocked from ministry in 1710/11, not so much for his high-handed actions in 1704 but for offending Anne in 1705 in respect of the Electress Sophia. ‘Tories who accepted high office in the early years of the Revolution monarchy, among them Danby, Nottingham and Sir Edward Seymour, had been required to do violence to their consciences by swearing allegiance to William as their “rightful and lawful King” […] or even by abjuring the exiled James.’[22]


Some of this article is based on my research article published by Northern History journal. The Version of Record of this manuscript has been published and is available in Northern History, September 2020, http://www.TandFonline.com <doi 10.1080/0078172X.2020.1802548>. If using this article, or parts of it, in an article of your own, please cite the following source:

Steadman, Helen, ‘The Shotley Bridge Swordmaker, Hermann Mohll: A simple case of smuggling, or getting away with High Treason in 1704?’, Northern History, September 2020, doi 10.1080/0078172X.2020.1802548.

Thank you to the publishers, Taylor & Francis, who have kindly permitted me to share this manuscript on my personal website, helensteadman.com.


[1] London, National Archives, State Papers of Queen Anne, NA/SP/44/104, pp.404–05.

[2] William Blackley (ed), The Diplomatic Correspondence of the Right Hon. Richard Hill (London: John Murray, 1845), pp.90–91.

[3] NA/SP/44/104, p.385.

[4] NA/SP/34/3/67, fols.100–101.

[5] NA/SP/44/104, pp.489.

[6] Blackley, pp.279–81.

[7] Blackley, pp.87–88.

[8] Edward Gregg, Queen Anne (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), p.354.

[9] Blackley, pp.286–288.

[10] Blackley, p.290.

[11] Gregg, p.178.

[12] Geoffrey Holmes, British Politics in the Age of Anne, (London and Ronceverte: Hambledon Press, 1987 [1967]), p.273.

[13] Anne Somerset, Queen Anne: The Politics of Passion, (New York, NY: HarperPress, 2012), p.197

[14] Gregg, p.156.

[15] Patrick WJ Riley, The Union of England and Scotland, (Manchester, Manchester University Press/Rowman and Littlefield, 1975), pp.13, 32–33, 39, 41, 48.

[16] Here, the junto refers to the faction of powerful Whig politicians: John Somers, Charles Montague, Thomas Wharton and Edward Russell. 

[17] Riley, pp. 63, 71–72.

[18] William Wallace, The History of England Volume IX, (London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1839), pp. 6, 166.

[19]  ‘The 1st Parliament of Anne (1702–1705)’ < https://www.historyofparliamentonline.org/volume/1690-1715/parliament/1702&gt; [accessed 15 September 2019].

[20] Holmes, pp. 348, 450.

[21] Riley, p. 72

[22] Holmes, pp. 62, 87–88, 200. (Holmes adds that ‘Bills designed to enforce an oath of abjuration on all office-holders were thrice blocked or defeated in the early 1690s.’)

Categories Shotley Bridge swordmakersTags , , , , , , , , ,
%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close