The Farnley Wood Plot

Recent research has accidentally brought four strands of history together. The first two are the history of crime and punishment, featured in my previous article…and the Kingdom of Elmet (in “Who do you think you are?”). The third is the Fozzard family of West Ardsley, WR Yorkshire, from whom I am directly descended. The fourth strand is the Farnley Wood Plot, which I stumbled upon accidentally.


Map 1662-1665

After the English Civil War, King Charles I was executed for treason by the Parliamentarians, led by Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell, who had been one of the signatories to the execution of the King in 1650, then became “Lord Protector” of the Commonwealth of England. Cromwell died of natural causes in 1658, after which the Royalists came back into power by invitation to the throne of King Charles II, in 1660. This is called the “Restoration of the Monarchy“. The Royalists, now back in power, soon had Cromwell’s body exhumed and hung in chains to rot away and then beheaded his remains, as an insult and a warning to his many followers.

After the restoration of the monarchy, an underground of non-conformist activists still existed, especially in the north of England. They wanted to destroy the Royalist Government and with it, the Crown itself. This article is about a plot that took place in the West Riding in the summer and autumn of 1663 as part of a more widespread planned Northern Rebellion…and about its aftermath.

The Northern Rebellion of 1663

The Cavalier Parliament passed the Act of Uniformity of 1662, restoring the Book of Common Prayer as the official liturgy. About 2,000 ministers resigned or were ejected from their positions in the Church of England, refusing to conform to this law and afraid of the re-introduction of “Popist” practices. They had fought and won a war to stop this, twenty years ago.

Many non-conformist ministers continued to preach in other locations than churches, including private homes (these meetings were called “conventicles”). However, a strong feeling of unrest among the population grew into a determination to bring about a return to the ways of the Commonwealth. The Puritans (or non-conformists, as they became known) wanted the freedom to choose their own way of worship. To this end, groups of dissenters met during the summer of 1663 to organise an armed uprising.

Many of the rebels were former soldiers in the Parliamentarian army, along with non-conformist landowners, merchants and farmers. The plot had probably been conceived in February 1663. The plot’s leaders met during the spring and summer at Harrogate, in the house of the independent minister and physician, Dr. Edward Richardson, who had been ejected as Dean of Ripon in 1660. The activists included Jeremiah Marsden (Independent Minister of West Ardsley), Joshua Greathead of Gildersome and Robert Atkinson (leader of the Westmorland rebels).

Over the next year they plotted to mount co-ordinated attacks against important towns in the West and North of Yorkshire and in other northern counties. One muster was to take place at Farnley Wood, near Leeds.

The Farnley Wood Plot


East and West Ardsley, Batley, Morley and Gildersome lie today in the parish of Morley, the heart of which is situated about 5 miles to the south west of Leeds City centre. Historically they were in the Wapentake of Morley and Farnley Wood was in the Parish of Batley until the 1870s. What remains of the wood today lies to the south and east of New Farnley just north-west of Gildersome, but in 1663, the woodland would have been much more extensive. The map extract below shows the wood in 1775.

1775 Map West Yorkshire - this edited section copyright © Christine Widdall
Showing Farnley Wood and the principle places mentioned in this article. From the 1775 Map of West Yorkshire – this edited section copyright © Christine Widdall


Joshua Greathead recruited his own cousin, Captain Thomas Oates (now a schoolmaster) as his co-leader of the West Yorkshire (Farnley Wood) rebels. The two leaders both lived in Batley Parish. During the English Civil War, 20 years earlier, men from this parish had been among the first to muster against the Royalists and they still held a grudge. Greathead was a hero of the English Civil War who, with his brothers, had led 250 soldiers of the Parliamentarian army, to capture nearby Howley Hall from the Saviles. Greathead had been promoted to the office of Major and his cousin Thomas Oates had served as a Captain.

Greathead and Oates enlisted other men of their persuasion, including merchants, yeoman farmers and clothiers, to their rebel group. These men, some from neighbouring Gildersome, Dewsbury, Alverthorp, Dunningley and Woodchurch (now called Woodkirk, West Ardsley), included former soldiers of the Parliamentary Army. Many were now in their late middle age, twenty years older than they had been at the time of the Civil War. Most were now heads of their families, but some would encourage younger men, including their sons, to join them. Thomas Oates was supported by his own son, Ralph, a clergyman.

On the 12th October 1663, the various rebel groups gathered across the northern counties of England, intending to launch synchronised attacks against the government, by storming positions at Northallerton, Leeds and York.

The West Yorkshire rebels had arranged to meet at Farnley Wood, near Gildersome. Their plan was to capture Leeds and their expectation was that they would then fortify themselves with more horses and arms from captured royalist gentry, as they has done 20 years before. They had hoped that Thomas, Lord Fairfax, hero of the Parliamentarian cause and now in his early 50s, would lead them, but that was not to happen. Fairfax, after serving as a Member of Parliament, was now increasingly incapacitated by his war injuries and lived in quiet retirement at his Yorkshire home of Nunappleton.

Farnley Woods in 1847. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.

Day of the Proposed Attack

Unknown to the Farnley Wood rebels, the overall plan had already been compromised. By the 10th October 1663, around 100 suspected rebels and their leaders in the north, including Dr Richardson and Joshua Greathead himself, had already been arrested and detained at York Castle and elsewhere in the county. In spite of this (or perhaps still ignorant of it), on Monday 12th October, the Farnley Wood plan was still to go ahead and Thomas Oates awaited his troops in the wood.

Unfortunately, on the morning of 12th October 1663, torrential rain was a deterrent to some and others were cut off by floods. Therefore, a poor turnout of only thirty men, including Captain Oates, actually reached Farnley Wood. A further eleven rebels, en route to Farnley, were apprehended by the militia between Leeds and Holbeck. These rebels were well armed and mostly on horseback and they were expecting another 150 mounted soldiers and up to 400 foot soldiers to join them near Leeds, including a possible 20 mounted and 80 foot soldiers promised from Dewsbury.

At Farnley Wood, the commander, surprised and disappointed by the low turnout, dismissed the assembled rebels. Some of the men simply returned home, perhaps assuming that nobody knew of their failed undertaking; others fled the area in fear of reprisals.

These northern uprisings were potentially the beginning of a large-scale rebellion which could have brought a return to civil war, but it seemed this episode was over before it began…only leaving a little ripple in the pond of discontent…or maybe a storm in a teacup?

Why the Plot failed

Why the uprising failed soon became clear. Informers had been infiltrated into the various dissident groups. These included Joshua Greathead himself and a man named George Smithson. They had notified the High Sheriff of Yorkshire, Sir Thomas Gower of Stittenham, that an uprising was on the way. Consequently, the authorities had rounded up many suspects all over the north of England on the days before the 12th October.

It has even been suggested that the Royalists had orchestrated the plot themselves, to flush out Parliamentarian activists and crush a potentially more serious uprising before it could even begin.

Arrest and trials

Over the next few days, more suspects were rounded up by the authorities. Those believed to be the ringleaders were imprisoned at York Castle, to await trial.

Their leaders were, Captain Thomas Oates, of Morley, an old officer in the parliament army; Ralph Oates, his son; John Nettleton, of Dunningley: John Nettleton (his son), Joseph Crowther, of Gildersome; Timothy Crowther; Robert Oldred, of Dewsbury; Richard Oldred, commonly called the Devil of Dewsbury; Israel Rhodes, of Woodkirk; John Locock, of Bradford; William Dickenson and Thomas Westerman, of Gildersome; Robert Scott, of Alverthorp; Joshua Cardmaker, alias Sparling, of Morley; Luke Lund, John Ellis, William Westerman, and John Fossard, of the same; John Holdsworth, of Churlwell; Edward Webster, a servant at Gildersome.

“A New and Complete History of the County of York” by Thomas Allen: 1851

Joshua Greathead had even betrayed his own cousin, Thomas Oates, and while Greathead was to receive a full pardon for helping to foil the plot, Oates was brought to trial. Captain Oates’ friend, the wealthy Huddersfield clothier George Blackburne, cut his own throat on the night of his arrest. Some of the rebels fled the country, but many were to be caught and to suffer punishment.

Was this really what Greathead intended or expected when he turned traitor? Further research indicates that Joshua Greathead was involved in the “Morley Chapel Protest”, six months earlier, when a group of 200 non-conformists “did riotously, tumultuously and illegally assemble and gather themselves for the disturbance of the peace of the said Lord King”. It is likely that Greathead was arrested at this time and very possibly turned against his fellow rebels in order to spare his own life and/or on the promise of a reward.

All the prisons in Yorkshire were now so full that the king thought it necessary to send four or five judges to York with “commissions of oyer and terminer“. These were judges who travelled around the judicial circuits of England and Wales, setting up court and summoning juries at the various assize towns (and authorised to hear and determine criminal cases).

In total, twenty-six men were convicted of treason and sentenced to death in October 1663.

The Executions

Twenty six men of the Farnley Wood Plot were tried and sentenced to death. Of those, 21 were to pay the ultimate price.

A unique and dreadful method of execution was customary for treason, when the convicted person was sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.  The hanging was done on a scaffold, which in those days was a short drop which did not break the neck but strangled the victim. Before death occurred, the prisoner would be taken down, restrained, disembowelled and castrated, inflicting the most unimaginable pain. Finally, the prisoner would be beheaded with an axe and then dismembered. His head would be displayed on a spike in a prominent position, where the public could see it and hopefully be deterred from carrying out the same crime…or to be martyred as religion allowed.

This method of execution had first been used for Welsh leader Dafydd ap Gruffydd in 1283 and famously for William Wallace in the Scottish Rebellion in 1305. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was used for the Babington Plot and the Gunpowder Plot, but the Farnley Wood Plot was an occasion when more men than ever before, or afterwards, were hanged, drawn and quartered for a single crime.

The twenty-one men “disposed of” in this way were:  Thomas Oates, Samuel Ellis, John Nettleton snr, John Nettleton jnr, Robert Scott, William Tolson, John Forster, Robert Oldroyd, John Asquith, Peregrine Corney, John Snowden, John Smith, William Ash, John Errington, Robert Atkins(on), William Colton, George Denham (“The Grand Agitator”), Henry Watson, Richard Wilson, Ralph Rymer and John Carre. Eighteen were executed at York. Those who went first to their execution would be spared having to watch the death of the others.

The quarters of two of the men were displayed at several gates of the city along with four heads at Micklegate Bar, three on Bootham bar, one at Walmgate bar and three over the castle gates

Congregationalism in Yorkshire; a chapter of modern church history; Miall; 1868.

Three of the condemned (Robert Atkins, John Errington and Henry Wilson) had managed to escape to Leeds and took refuge at an inn. However, they were arrested three months later and a gallows was erected at Chapeltown Moor. The three men were hung up in chains, before being hanged, drawn and quartered in January 1664 which attracted one of the largest ever crowds within the town. The executioner, a local joiner named Peter Mason, cut off the three heads and preserved them. The heads were then stuck on the railings of the Moot Hall (? at Briggate) and remained there until a gale finally dislodged them in 1677.


Of the many other men who had been accused, Dr Richardson, the former Dean of Ripon, emigrated to Holland and Jeremiah Marsden was driven from place to place, changed his name to Ralphson and eventually died, a pauper, at Leeds Newgate. James Fisher was acquitted and released along with a number of men from Sowerby and Halifax. (see Congregationalism in Yorkshire; a chapter of modern church history; Miall; 1868). Afterwards, Joshua Greathead was paid £100 for his information, which was recorded in the State Papers:

“Whitehall: Warrant to pay Major Greathead £100, as the King’s free gift, out of the £2000 for secret services.”

State Papers December 1663

This was a great deal of money, the value of which can be calculated on the “Measuring Worth” website.

Relative value of £100 in 1663 and 2017:
In 2017, the relative price worth of £100 0s 0d from 1663 is: £14,500.00 using the retail price index

Five Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a UK Pound Amount, 1270 to Present; MeasuringWorth, 2019.

The Royalist press would afterwards report:

Gentlemen; after all this Noyse, and Busle, was there really a Plot, or no, do ye think? That’s the Plot now my Masters, to persuade the People that there was no Plot at all; and that all this Hurly-burly, and Alarme, was nothing in the whole World but a Trick of State.


A Leeds Intelligencer newspaper report on the bi-centenary of the event stated:

The infamous treachery of Major Greathead to the cause in which he had involved himself, was of the highest service to the Government… Greathead saw his victims dragged off to the scaffold, and quaked with fear lest too he should be called upon to follow them. He, John Dickinson, and Joseph Crowther petitioned the King to pardon them, and their petition was successful. After a time, when he was established in the royal favour, a desire to turn his position to the best advantage soon discovered itself. He sought for further remuneration in the shape of a Government appointment, and soon obtained it. On the 21st of December the King orders Lord Treasurer Southampton to grant him the collectorship of excise in Yorkshire, when that office should be vacant. Before many months, perhaps weeks, had expired, the office fell to him, and we afterwards find him a diligent supporter of an institution he had once borne arms to destroy.

 Although the strength of the rebels was thus broken, the bitterness of their hatred was increased rather than diminished. As soon as they became dispersed, fugitives they also became, thieves and robbers, not indeed of the common sneaking cut-purse type, nor that class of romantic highwaymen who stopped ladies’ carriages, plundered the occupants and then invited them a dance upon the soft greensward ere they bade them adieu. Their depredations were committed in the spirit of the deepest malignity. They hated the man whom they robbed infinitely more than they lusted for his goods. And yet they did not seek their revenge solely in the abuse of his person. His barn or his money-bags offered them a chance of injuring him which they were incapable of throwing away.

For three years after the dispersion of the plotters, their intrigues and depredations continued a source of serious alarm to the Government. Leeds was their home and head-quarters, the place where rich, devoted, and influential friends were to be found, and towards Leeds the authorities cast a sharp and watchful eye. In September 1666 arrests were made at Leeds, but instead of crushing, this course seems to have been the means of increasing the feeling of hatred towards the Government. Two months later it became necessary to garrison Leeds, and an order was issued by the Lord General for foot and a troop of horse to secure the town, which was reported to be the most dangerous part Yorkshire.

From the Leeds Intelligencer 12th Sept 1863;

Joshua Greathead’s reputation as an informer caused him to flee the district and take up residence at Stank Hall, Beeston, South Leeds. In 1666, Greathead was appointed as collector of the new Hearth Tax imposed by King Charles II. This required every owner of a hearth (fireplace) to pay 2 shillings each year to the Crown and Greathead was to receive 2 pence per pound that he collected. He died in 1684.

The Conventicle Act and the Five Mile Act

Soon after the failure of the Farnley Wood Plot, the Conventicle Act of 1664 was to forbid religious assemblies of more than five people, other than an immediate family, outside the auspices of the Church of England. The law clamped down on the non-conformists and gave the Government the authority to punish any person over 16 years of age found attending “conventicles”, or any religious meeting not conducted according to “The Book of Common Prayer”.

Persons convicted must pay a fine of £5 – equivalent to about £725 in 2019 – or three months imprisonment. For a second offence, the penalty was doubled. For a third offence, the penalty was transportation to the Americas for seven years or a £100 fine (equivalent to 4 years wages for a skilled worker or £14,500 in today’s money).

The Conventicle Act was quickly followed by the “Five Mile Act” of 1665 with the long title “An Act for restraining Non-Conformists from inhabiting in Corporations”, which required non-conformist ministers to live at least five miles outside any town or city sending Burgesses to Parliament. The Act prohibited all education by ministers and the prescribed penalty was £40 for each offence, the informer to receive a third. Bailiffs scoured the country in search of suspected men and informers, naturally, were many. It was not repealed until 1868.

However, even this was not to discourage the non-conformists, who would secretly meet in the open air or in the house of one of their congregation and many good people shielded them from the authorities.

Reign of William – the Act of Toleration

On 24th May, 1689, early in the reign of King William III, a Protestant himself, an Act of Parliament was passed, which was to bring the freedom to worship to the non-conformists, so long as they undertook certain oaths of allegiance. This officially allowed the formation of non-conformist chapels, such as the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Calvinists and, later, the Methodists, Unitarians, Quakers, Plymouth Brethren and the English Moravians. However, it would be many years before toleration of Roman Catholicism and the Jewish religion also became the law.

Kirklees Cousins family surname connections

Early West Yorkshire Congregations

Between 1662 and 1689, there is evidence of very early non-conformist congregations (mostly Presbyterian and Congregationalists), some of the earliest in Yorkshire, held at Batley, Morley, Leeds, Pudsey (near Leeds), Gomersall and Hopton (both now in Kirklees) and Wakefield. (Congregationalism in Yorkshire by J Miall; 1868). The majority of them arose in the communities inhabited by the Farnley Wood rebels.

On Sundays from the late 1600s, some Ossett families walked to Wakefield to worship in the Presbyterian Chapel in Westgate, a round trip of seven miles. Among them could have been my 7x great grandfather, John Archer, and his family. Soon, the Ossett families formed their own congregation, in the year 1717. At first, the meeting place was a pressing-shop in the township, but, along with other families, John Archer subscribed to the building of a new non-conformist chapel on the Green at Ossett, which was opened in 1733. It was to become Ossett Green Congregationalist Chapel and John had “Pew number 1”, which he bequeathed in his will to his daughter Sarah, so he must have either been an early subscriber or a major one.

Many of my Ossett ancestors were baptised and married at Ossett Green Chapel. After its first 24 years, the church had increased from 90 members to about 200. In 1849 a new chapel was erected, to accommodate nearly 1,000 worshippers. In 1864 spacious school-rooms were added at a cost of £3000. It is now a United Reformed Church.


I have no evidence of a family connection to any of the Farnley Wood plotters. The closest possible association is that of the rebel John Fossard, from the parish of Batley. My earliest known ancestor is a John Fossard (Fozzard) of West Ardsley, parish of Batley, who would have been a child at the time of the plot. His father was probably also a John and he may or may not have been the John actually involved in the plot. Fossard (Fozzard) is an uncommon name of Old French origin and one which arises in Yorkshire, having been introduced there after the Norman Conquest of 1066. Its name is derived from the word “fosse” meaning “ditch”. The surname in my own family has at least four variant forms, including Fos(s)ard and Foz(z)ard. In the mid 1600s, a small number of Fossards were living at West Ardsley and Batley and were probably all related to each other, living only about two or three miles apart. The family name was linked, in decades previously, to transactions within Morley, Gildersome and West Ardsley and some of these deeds, in the Yorkshire feet of fines, link my West Ardsley Fossard family to that of the “Greathead” family.

Land transactions – records from the Yorkshire Feet of Fines from 1545-1558:

1545-MICHAELMAS TERM, 37th year of the reign of HENRY VIII. John Fossart and Katherine his wife to James Morley, 4 messuages and a cottage with lands in Morley, Wystow, and Gilderson.

1546-MICHAELMAS TERM, 38th year of the reign of HENRY VIII. Thomas Wentworth de Northelmesall, esq. to Ralph Beston de Beston, clerk, and Ralph Beston, esq., son and heir apparent of Ralph Beston and Mary his wife, Manors of Morley and Holey als. Houghley and lands in the same and in Smerlstye, Scolcrofte and Holden Cloughe, and the knight’s service, homage, fealty, and rents issuing from the lands of Thomas Greatehedd in Smerlstye and Scolcrofte, and from those of John Fossard, Richard Morley, William Thompson, John Sotyll, William Smyth, Robert Greathedd, John Naylor, William Myrfeld, John Rotherfyld, John Souche, and the aforesaid Thomas Wentworth in Morley.

1549-EASTER TERM, 3rd year of the reign of EDWARD VI. John Webster  to John Fossart  2 messuages with lands in Morley, West-ardysley, and Tyngley.

1552-MICHAELMAS TERM, 6th year of the reign of EDWARD VI. Thomas Wentworth de Goxhill, esq.  John Fossard and Katherine his wife, 2 messuages and a cottage with lands in Morley and Gildersom.

1558-EASTER TERM, 4th & 5th year of the reign of PHILIP (of Spain) & MARY. Robert Forster, senr., de Tadcaster  to John Fossard, senr., and John Fossard, junr.  Messuage and 2 cottages with lands in West Ardyslawe (West Ardsley), Tynglawe (now Tingley), and Westerton.

Fast forwarding more than 100 years, we find my own Fozzard family in Westerton, West Ardsley. My 6th Great-grandfather was Jonathan Fozzard and was born in 1700, lived in West Ardsley and had a large family there. Three Foss(zz)ard men were having children baptised at Wakefield in the late 17th century and the early 18th centuries and would probably have been related to each other…John, William and Thomas Fossard. Jonathan’s probable father was John, who married Alice Burnhill in 1681. A farm in West Nook, West Ardsley, was associated with the Fozzard family until the 1900s.

Other names

Surnames of other men identified in the Farnley Wood Plot which I also find on my family tree are: Oates, Nettleton, Oldroyd, Smith, Rhodes, Westerman, Scott, Ellis, Holdsworth, Tolson, Wilson, Carr and Blackburne. People of those names married into my own family in Ossett and beyond.

This does not imply descent or even near relationship to the rebels, but I think it does show how many of those names have been grounded in West Yorkshire history, probably since surnames began to be used. Those families spread out their branches, right up to the present day, and we folk of the West Riding are descended from the original bearers of those names.

That is entirely consistent with the fact that West Yorkshire people have been found to have unique DNA, due to their descent from a common tribe…the ancient dwellers of the Kingdom of Elmet, one of the last Celtic strongholds in Britain…whose capital had been Loidis (Leeds) and which was still deemed, in 1666, to be “the most dangerous part of Yorkshire”.

© Christine Widdall updated 2021