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.


After the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell, who had been one of the signatories to the execution of King Charles I in 1650, 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, an insult to his many followers.

Oliver Cromwell with the dead King Charles I (Delaroche)

After the restoration of the monarchy, a radical 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. 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.

Locations and Map

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 lies to the south and east of New Farnley just north of Gildersome somewhere within the green disc on the map, but in 1663, the woodland would have been much more extensive.


The Northern Uprisings

In 1662, 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 their positions in the Church of England, refusing to conform to this law and afraid of the re-introduction of “popist” practices. The King had made a number of attempts to formalise the toleration of both Catholics and Puritans, but was forced to back down in the face of a strongly hostile Parliament.

Many ministers continued to preach in other locations, including private homes (the meetings were called “conventicles”). However, a feeling of unrest among the populace became a strong desire to force a return to the ways of the Commonwealth. The Puritans (Non-conformists, as they became known) now 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 uprising.

Many of the rebels were former soldiers in the Parliamentarian army, along with non-conformist landowners, businessmen 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. The activists included Jeremiah Marsden (Independent Minister of West Ardsley), Joshua Greathead of Gildersome and Robert Atkinson (leader of the Westmorland rebels).

Around July, Joshua Greathead recruited his own cousin, Captain Thomas Oates as his co-leader of the West Yorkshire rebels, but when they fell out over the timing of the uprising, Greathead secretly turned traitor and informed on the rebels. It is possible that was his intention all along.

By the 8th October, around 100 suspected rebel leaders in the north, including Dr Richardson himself, had already been arrested and detained at York Castle and elsewhere in the county, to await trial. In spite of this (or perhaps still ignorant of the extent of it), on Monday 12th October 1663, small rebel groups gathered across the northern counties of England, intending to launch synchronised attacks against the government, by storming positions at Northallerton, Leeds and possibly York. They had hoped that Thomas, Lord Fairfax, hero of the Parliamentarian cause, would lead them, but that was not to happen.

The Farnley Wood Plot

Farnley Woods in 1847

The two leaders of the Farnley Wood group, Joshua Greathead of Gildersome and his cousin Thomas Oates, 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 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 members of their persuasion, businessmen, merchants, gentlemen farmers and yeomen, to their rebel group. These men, mostly neighbours and former soldiers of the Parliamentary army, from Gildersome, Farnley, Morley and Batley, were twenty years older than they had been at the time of the civil war. Many were now in their late middle-age and some would encourage younger men, including their sons, to join them.

The West Yorkshire rebels arranged to meet on the 12th October at Farnley Wood, near Gildersome, about three miles to the south-west of Leeds to co-ordinate their attack with those of other groups, who were operating to the north and west.

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 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 150 mounted 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 commanders, 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?

Arrest and trials

Over the next few days, the main suspects were rounded up by the authorities. Those believed to be the ringleaders were imprisoned at York Castle, to await trial. Now they did need to feel afraid.

I have transcribed the next section from the book “A New and Complete History of the County of York” by Thomas Allen: 1851, which gives the names of those arrested.

After the Restoration, the old leaven of fanaticism still continued to work in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and on the 12th of October, 1663, a misguided and enthusiastic rabble met in Farnley Wood, for the purpose of overturning the existing government, though without any rational plan, and threw up a trench, the remains of which were lately visible, declaring for a ‘christian magistracy’ and a ‘gospel ministry.’

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.

All the prisons in the north 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 there authorised to hear and determine criminal cases).

In total, twenty-one men were convicted of treason and sentenced to death.

Why the Plot failed

Why the uprising failed is now clear. Spies and informers, including Greathead, had notified the government that an uprising was on the way. Consequently, Government forces had rounded up many suspects all over the north of England on the previous days. 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. Informers had been infiltrated into the various dissident groups. Afterwards, 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
£14,600.00 using the GDP deflator

In 2017, the relative wage or income worth of £100 0s 0d from 1663 is:
£192,000.00 using the average earnings
£337,000.00 using the per capita GDP

In 2017, the relative output worth of £100 0s 0d from 1663 is:
£3,410,000.00 using the GDP

Lawrence H. Officer and Samuel H. Williamson, “Five Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a UK Pound Amount, 1270 to Present,” MeasuringWorth, 2019.

A Royalist would afterwards write:

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.

The Executions

Twenty six men of the Farnley Wood Plot were tried and sentenced to death for treason. 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 horrific 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 whose executions were by hanging, drawing and quartering were:  Thomas Oates, Samuel Ellis, John Nettleton snr, John Nettleton jnr, Robert Scott, William Tolson, John Forster, Robert Olroyd, 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. Those who went first to their execution would be spared having to watch the death of the others.

Greathead had even betrayed his own cousin, Thomas Oates, and while Greathead was to receive a full pardon, his cousin was executed. Was this really what he intended or expected when he turned traitor? Further research indicated that 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 apprehended at this time and very possibly turned against his fellow rebels in order to spare his own skin or on the promise of a reward.


A 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

Kirklees Cousins family surname connections

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 one actually involved in the plot, but it is likely he was related.

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 are found at West Ardsley and Batley and are possibly 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 the 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 baptised in 1700 in Wakefield but 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 Fozz(ss)ard, 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 and Carr.

This does not imply descendency or even near relationship, 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 1663, to be “the most dangerous part of Yorkshire”.

© Christine Widdall 2019

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