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The Babington Plot gave the appearance of a plot in 1586 to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, a Protestant, and put the rescued Mary, Queen of Scots, her Roman Catholic cousin, on the English throne. It led to the execution of Queen Mary Stuart of Scotland due to a letter forged by agents of English spymaster Walsingham. By then Queen Mary had been imprisoned for 18 years since 1568 in England by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth.
The long-term goal of the plot reputedly was an invasion by the Spanish forces of King Philip II and the Catholic League in France, leading to the restoration of the old religion in England. However King Phillip II had declined to be involved in the plot. The plot was designed by Walsingham to entrap Queen Mary for the purpose of execution. Babington was targeted by Walsingham to be the agent submitting a letter to Queen Mary to entrap her into involvement in the plot.
The chief conspirators were Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's spymaster; Sir Anthony Babington, a young recusant nobleman targeted by both Walsingham and Ballard; John Ballard, a Jesuit priest who desired to rescue the Scottish Queen; Robert Poley, a double agent spy assigned by Walsingham to influence and to track Babington; Gilbert Gifford, an English double agent, assigned by Walsingham as a courier; and Thomas Phelippes, a Walsingham spy agent and code decypherer. Fallen priest Gifford had been in Walsingham's service since 1583. He was sent by Walsingham to Paris to contact Thomas Morgan incarcerated in the Bastille and win his confidence. Gifford obtained a letter of introduction to Queen Mary from Morgan. Walsingham then placed double agent Gifford and spy decipherer Phelippes inside of Chartley Hall where Queen Mary was imprisoned. Gifford organized the Walsingham plan to place Babington's and Queen Mary's coded communications into a beer barrel cork which were then intercepted by Phelippes, decoded and sent to Walsingham.
Babington also appears to have been a double agent, operating on the English side with Walsingham and Poley; and with the Catholic side with priest Ballard. Ballard was attempting to recruit Babington in an undeveloped scheme to rescue Queen Mary and place her on the throne of England. Meanwhile, at his own residences, Walsingham met with Babington at least three times. At one meeting Walsingham offered to introduce Babington to Queen Elizabeth, conceivably to improve recognition for assassination. Poley befriended Babington posing as a Catholic sympathesizer while actually being a Walsingham agent provocateur encouraging the reluctant Babington to become an assassin of the English queen. Babington sent a coded letter to the imprisoned Queen Mary which gave his name to the complicated multiple-sided plot.
On 7 July 1586, the only Babington letter that was sent to Queen Mary was decoded by spy Phelippes to include the phrases "dispatch the usurper" and "undertake that tragical execition" in reference to Queen Elizabeth. The decoding also stated an intention to rescue Queen Mary from her decades long imprisonment. Queen Mary responded in code on 17 July ordering the would-be rescuers not to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and removing herself from the accession to the throne, with the words: "Maintain her (Queen of England) and her lawful heirs, unnaming me". The response letter also included decyphered phrases indicating her desire to be rescued: "The affairs being thus prepared" and "I may suddenly be transported out of this place". At the Fotheringay trial in October 1586, Queen Elizabeth's agents William Cecil and Walsingham paired the Babington letter "dispatch the usurper" phrase with the Queen Mary's rescue phrase "affairs thus being prepared" to create false evidence against Queen Mary for an execution conviction. There was no agreement to assassination in Queen Mary's letter and no mention of Queen Elizabeth except to protect her, to maintain the Queen of England.
Mary, Queen of Scots, a Roman Catholic, was a legitimate heir to the throne of England. In 1568 she escaped imprisonment by Scottish rebels and sought the promised aide of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, a year after her forced abdication from the throne of Scotland. The issuance of the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis by Pope Pius V on 25 February 1570, granted English Catholics authority to overthrow the English queen. Queen Mary became the focus of numerous plots and intrigues to restore England to its former religion. Rather than the promised aide, Queen Elizabeth imprisoned Queen Mary for nineteen years in the charge of a succession of jailers, principally the Earl of Shrewsbury. In April 1585 she was transferred to the control of Sir Amias Paulet. In February 1587 Queen Elizabeth executed her rival to the English throne, her cousin, Queen Mary Stuart of Scotland and France.
In 1584 Elizabeth's Privy Council signed a "Bond of Association" designed by Cecil and Walsingham which stated that anyone within the line of succession to the throne on whose behalf anyone plotted against the Queen, even if the claimant were ignorant of the plot, would be excluded from the line and executed. This was agreed upon by hundreds of Englishmen, who likewise signed the Bond. Queen Mary also agreed to sign the Bond. The following year, Parliament passed the Act of Association, which provided for the execution of anyone who would benefit from the death of the Queen if a plot against her was discovered. Queen Mary had not actively participated in any plot to endanger Queen Elizabeth. However due to the Bond, Queen Mary could be executed if a plot was initiated by others that could lead to her accession to England's throne. In her response to the Babington letter, Queen Mary stated she "unnamed" herself as an heir to the English throne, thus prohibiting herself from accession should rescue occur.
After the Bond was signed, Queen Elizabeth ordered Queen Mary transferred back in the wintry weather of Christmas Eve 1584 to the ruined Tutbury Castle. Queen Mary and her companion Marie Seton became deathly ill. However Queen Mary did not die and thus a new approach was taken.
In 1585, again in wintry weather, Queen Elizabeth ordered Queen Mary transferred and placed under the strictest confinement at Chartley Hall in Staffordshire, under the control of Sir Amias Paulet. She was prohibited any correspondence with the outside world. Puritan Paulet was chosen by Queen Elizabeth in part because he abhorred Queen Mary's Catholic faith.
Queen Elizabeth had designed a death warrant for her cousin Queen Mary a decade before the Babington plot was conceived. However she was reluctant to sign the warrant that would directly link her to the act, though later she did give orders to Paulet to murder the Scottish Queen. Paulet refused to comply. Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I's Secretary of State and spymaster, together with William Cecil, Elizabeth's chief advisor, realised that if Mary could be implicated in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth, she could be executed and the "Papist" threat diminished. As he wrote to the Earl of Leicester: "So long as that devilish woman lives, neither Her Majesty must make account to continue in quiet possession of her crown, nor her faithful servants assure themselves of safety of their lives."
Walsingham initiated the Babington plot to ensnare Queen Mary by sending Gifford to Paris to obtain the confidence of Morgan then locked in the Bastille. Morgan previously worked for George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, an earlier jailor of Queen Mary. Through Shrewsbury, Queen Mary became acquainted with Morgan. Queen Mary sent Morgan to Paris to deliver letters to the French court. While in Paris Morgan became involved in a previous plot designed by Cecil's double agent William Parry, which resulted in Morgan's incarceration in the Bastille. In 1585 Gifford was arrested returning to England through Rye in Sussex with letters of introduction from Morgan to Queen Mary. Walsingham released Gifford to work as a double agent, in the Babington Plot. Gifford was assigned the alias "No. 4" and used many others in his espionage work, such as Colerdin, Pietro and Cornelys. Walsingham assigned Gifford to function as a courier in the entrapment plot against Queen Mary. Babington was discovered later though Walsingham's agent Poley who had infiltrated priest Ballard's conspiracy group. Babington was then targeted by Walsingham to write Queen Mary with a proposal of rescue.
The Babington plot was related to several separate plans:
- solicitation of a Spanish invasion of England with the purpose of deposing Protestant Queen Elizabeth and replacing her with Catholic Queen Mary;
- a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth;
- a plot by Walsingham attempting to entrap Queen Mary into agreeing to an assassination of Queen Elizabeth.
In March 1586 at the Plough Inn, priest Ballard encouraged Babington to join his rescue plot. Ballard traveled to Paris and met with Spanish ambassador Bernardino de Mendoza who seemed interested in, but not committed to the plot. Ballard returned to England in May and gave his plot supportors the false information that Spain was committed to the plan. John Savage was recruited by Ballard and the only plotter who agreed to be an assassin. Poley befriended Babington on Walsingham's orders and introduced him to Walsingham in June. July 3rd Walsingham met with Babington again. Walsingham then sent Gifford to Babington to encourage him to write Queen Mary about the rescue and assassination plans. Poley wrote to Walsingham stating that Babington despite the Papal Bull, questioned the legality of killing the English Queen.
Babington wrote Queen Mary on 7 July 1586. The letter was intercepted by Phelippes then sent to Queen Mary. Queen Mary briefly wrote back on July 13 stating she would later provide a longer response. On July 17 Queen Mary wrote a long letter to Babington advising him of requirements for a successful rescue, stating that he must secure Mendoza's concurrence, ordered him to protect Queen Elizabeth, unnamed herself as an heir to England's throne and agreed to be rescued. Spy Phelippes decoded the letter, drew a gallows sign on it and forwarded it to Walsingham. Walsingham showed it to Queen Elizabeth who ordered Phelippes to add a forgery to Queen Mary's letter, which he did.
Twelve days after the interception of Queen Mary's response letter it was forwarded to Babington on July 29. The following day Babington received another invitation from Walsingham to meet. August 4th Ballard was arrested. Babington sought Poley's advice. Walsingham sent his agent John Scudamore with an invitation for dinner to Babington. At the meal Babington suddenly stood and fled. He was captured, tortured, then interviewed again by Walsingham who wrote a confession for him to sign. Both Babington and Ballard were executed in September, 1586.
Walsingham and Cecil realized that the July 1584 decree by Queen Elizabeth after the Throckmorton plot that prevented all communication to and from Queen Mary, also impaired their ability to entrap her in another plot. They needed evidence of another plot for which she could be executed based on their Bond of Association tenets. Thus Walsingham established a new line of communication, one which he could carefully control without incurring any suspicion from Queen Mary. Gifford approached Guillaume de l'Aubespine, Baron de Châteauneuf-sur-Cher, the French ambassador to England and described the new correspondence arrangement that had been designed by Walsingham. Gifford and jailor Paulet had arranged for a local brewer to facilitate the movement of messages between Queen Mary and her supporters by placing them in a watertight casing that could be placed inside the stopper of the barrel. Phelippes was then quartered at Chartley Hall to receive the messages, decode them and send them to Walsingham. Gifford submitted a code table that had been supplied by Walsingham to Chateauneuf and then requested the first message be sent to Queen Mary.
All subsequent messages to Queen Mary would be sent via diplomatic packets to Chateauneuf, who then passed them on to Gifford. Gifford would pass them on to Walsingham, who would confide them to Thomas Phelippes, a cipher and language expert in his employ. Phelippes was previously employed by Amias Paulet when the latter was Elizabeth's ambassador to France. The cipher used was a nomenclator cipher. Phelippes would decode and make a copy of the letter. The letter was then resealed and given back to Gifford, who would pass it on to the brewer. The brewer would then "smuggle" the letter to Queen Mary. If Queen Mary sent a letter to her supporters, it would go through the reverse process. In short order, every message coming to and from Chartley Hall was intercepted and read by Walsingham, who became aware of every plot, which in some ways were encouraged by Gifford and other agents provocateurs.
Firmer plans and a developing plot: John Ballard and Anthony Babington
At the behest of Mary's French supporters, John Ballard, a Jesuit priest and agent of the Roman Church, went to England on various occasions in 1585 to secure promises of aid from the northern Catholic gentry of the imprisoned Queen who would accept an insurrection against Elizabeth and replace her with Mary. In March 1586, he met with John Savage, an ex-soldier who was involved in a separate plot against Elizabeth and who had sworn an oath to assassinate the queen. Later that same year, he reported to Charles Paget and Don Bernardino de Mendoza and told them that English Catholics were prepared to mount an insurrection against Elizabeth, provided that they would be assured of foreign support. While it was uncertain whether Ballard's report of the extent of Catholic opposition was accurate, what was certain that he was able to secure assurances that support would be forthcoming. After this he returned to England, where he persuaded a member of the Catholic gentry, Anthony Babington to lead and organize the English Catholics against Elizabeth. Ballard informed Babington about all the plans that had been so far proposed. But Babington's confession made it clear that Ballard had exaggerated the support of the Catholic League:
- "He toulde me he was retorned from Fraunce uppon this occasion. Being with Mendoza at Paris, he was informed that in regarde of the iniuries don by our state unto the greatest Christian princes, by the nourishinge of sedition and divisions in their provinces, by withholding violently the lawful possessions of some, by invasion of the Indies and by piracy, robbing the treasure and the wealthe of others, and sondry intolerable wronges for so great and mighty princes to indure, it was resolved by the Catholique league to seeke redresse and satisfaction, which they had vowed to performe this sommer without farther delay, havinge in readiness suche forces and all warlike preparations as the like was never scene in these partes of Christendome. ... The Pope was chief disposer, the most Christian king and the king Catholic with all other princes of the league concurred as instruments for the righting of these wronges, and reformation of religion. The conductors of this enterprise for the French nation, the D. of Guise, or his brother the D. de Main; for the Italian and Hispanishe forces, the P. of Parma ; the whole number about 60,000.
Despite this assurance of foreign support, Babington was hesitant as he thought that no foreign invasion would succeed for as long as Elizabeth remained, to which Ballard answered that the plans of John Savage would take care of that. After a lengthy discussion with friends and soon to be fellow conspirators, Babington consented to join.
Unfortunately for the conspirators, Walsingham was certainly aware of all the aspects of the plot, based on reports by his spies, most notably Gilbert Gifford and Robert Poley, who kept tabs on all the major participants. While he could have shut down the plot and arrested all those involved within reach, he still lacked any piece of evidence that would prove Queen Mary's active participation in the plot.
The fatal correspondence
Despite his assent in his participation in the plot, Babington's conscience was troubled at the prospect of assassinating the English queen. On 28 June 1586, encouraged by a letter received from Thomas Morgan, Queen Mary wrote a letter to Babington that assured him of his status as a trusted friend. In a reply in 7 July 1586, Babington wrote to Mary about all the details of the plot. He informed Mary about the foreign plans for invasion as well as the planned insurrection by English Catholics:
- "First, assuring of invasion: Sufficient strength in the invader: Ports to arrive at appointed, with a strong party at every place to join with them and warrant their landing. The deliverance of your Majesty. The dispatch of the usurping Competitor. For the effectuating of all which it may please your Excellency to rely upon my service.... Now forasmuch as delay is extreme dangerous, it may please your most excellent Majesty by your wisdom to direct us, and by your princely authority to enable such as may advance the affair; foreseeing that, where is not any of the nobility at liberty assured to your Majesty in this desperate service (except unknown to us) and seeing it is very necessary that some there be to become heads to lead the multitude, ever disposed by nature in this land to follow nobility, considering withal it doth not only make the commons and gentry to follow without contradiction or contention (which is ever found in equality) but also doth add great courage to the leaders. For which necessary regard I recommend some unto your Majesty as fittest in my knowledge for to be your Lieutenants in the West parts, in the North parts, South Wales, North Wales and the Counties of Lancaster, Derby and Stafford: all which countries, by parties already made and fidelities taken in your Majesty's name, I hold as most assured and of most undoubted fidelity.
He also mentioned plans on rescuing Mary from Chartley as well as dispatching Savage to assassinate Elizabeth:
- "Myself with ten gentlemen and a hundred of our followers will undertake the delivery of your royal person from the hands of your enemies. For the dispatch of the usurper, from the obedience of whom we are by the excommunication of her made free, there be six noble gentlemen, all my private friends, who for the zeal they bear to the Catholic cause and your Majesty's service will undertake that tragical execution.
The letter was received by Mary on 14 July 1586 — after being intercepted and deciphered — and on 17 July she replied to Babington in a long letter in which she outlined the components of a successful rescue. She also stressed the necessity of foreign aid if the rescue attempt was to succeed:
- "For I have long ago shown unto the foreign Catholic princes, what they have done against the King of Spain, and in the time the Catholics here remaining, exposed to all persecutions and cruelty, do daily diminish in number, forces, means and power. So as, if remedy be not thereunto speedily provided, I fear not a little but they shall become altogether unable for ever to rise again and to receive any aid at all, whensoever it were offered. Then for mine own part, I pray you to assure our principal friends that, albeit I had not in this cause any particular interest in this case... I shall be always ready and most willing to employ therein my life and all that I have, or may ever look for, in this world."
Queen Mary in her response letter, advised the would-be rescuers to maintain, thus protect, the Queen of England.
- "These precepts may serve to found and establish among all associations, or considerations general, as done only for your preservation and defense, as well in religions as lands, lives and goods, against the oppressions and contempts of said Puritans, without directly writing, or giving out anything against the Queen, but rather showing yourselves willing to maintain her, and her lawful heirs after her, unnaming me."
The letter was again intercepted and deciphered by Phelippes. But this time, Phelippes, who was also an excellent forger, kept the original and made a forged copy of the letter with a postscript and possibly other alterations or additions that would incriminate Babington and queen Mary. In the new postscript a forged offer was made to take an active part in the assassination:
- "I would be glad to know the names and quelityes of the sixe gentlemen which are to accomplish the dessignement, for that it may be, I shall be able uppon knowledge of the parties to give you some further advise necessarye to be followed therein; and even so do I wish to be made acquainted with the names of all such principal persons [&c.] as also from time to time particularlye how you proceede and as son as you may for the same purpose who bee alredye and how farr every one privye hereunto.
Phelippes then made another copy of the letter and sent it to Walsingham with a small picture of the gallows as a seal.
Arrests, trials and executions
John Ballard was arrested on 4 August 1586, and under torture he confessed and implicated Babington. Although Babington was able to receive the forged letter with the postscript, he was not able to reply with the names of the conspirators, as he was arrested. Others were taken prisoner by 15 August 1586.
Mary's two secretaries, Claude Nau de la Boisseliere (died 1605) and Gilbert Curle (died 1609), were likewise taken into custody and interrogated.
The conspirators were sentenced to death for treason and conspiracy against the crown, and were sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. This first group included Babington, Ballard, Chidiock Tichborne, Sir Thomas Salisbury, Robert Barnewell, John Savage and Henry Donn. A further group of seven men, Edward Habington, Charles Tilney, Edward Jones, John Charnock, John Travers, Jerome Bellamy, and Robert Gage, were tried and convicted shortly afterward. Ballard and Babington were executed on 20 September 1586 along with the other men who had been tried with them. Such was the public outcry at the horror of their execution that Queen Elizabeth changed the order for the second group to be allowed to hang until dead before being disemboweled.
October 1586 Queen Mary of Scotland was sent to trial at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire by 46 English Lords, Bishops and Earls. She was not permitted legal counsel, not permitted to review the evidence against her and not permitted to provide witnesses. Portions of spy Phellipes' letter translations were read at the trial. Queen Mary's letter in which she ordered the would-be rescuers to maintain the Queen of England was not read. As the Scottish Queen, Mary was convicted of treason against the foreign country of England. One English Lord voted not guilty. Elizabeth signed her cousin's death warrant, and on 8 February 1587, in front of 300 witnesses, Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed by beheading.
Mary Stuart (German: Maria Stuart), a dramatised version of the last days of Mary, Queen of Scots, including the Babington Plot, was written by Friedrich Schiller and performed in Weimar, Germany in 1800. This in turn formed the basis for Maria Stuarda, an opera by Donizetti, in 1835.
The story of the Babington Plot is dramatised in the novel Conies in the Hay by Jane Lane. (ISBN 0-7551-0835-3), and features prominently in Anthony Burgess's A Dead Man in Deptford. Episode Four of the television series Elizabeth R (titled "Horrible Conspiracies") is devoted to the Babington Plot, and the movie Elizabeth: The Golden Age deals substantially with the Plot as well. A more fictional account is given in the My Story book series, The Queen's Spies (retitled To Kill A Queen 2008) told in diary format by a fictional Elizabethan girl, Kitty.
The Babington plot is also the subject of the children's novel A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley, who grew up near the Babington family home in Derbyshire.
Notes and references
- Read, Conyers (1925). Mr Secretary Walsingham and the Policy of Queen Elizabeth, Volume II. Clarendon Press. p. 342. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2281.2006.00396.x., as quoted by Ristau, Ken. "Bringing Down A Queen". Archived from the original on 12 January 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-10
- He was resolved in this plot after consulting with three friends, Dr. William Gifford, Christopher Hodgson (priest) and Gilbert Gifford, the same one who was arrested by Walsingham and agreed to work with the latter. While it is certain that Gifford was already in Walsingham's employ by the time Savage was going ahead with the plot, according to Conyers Read (Read, Conyers (1925). Mr Secretary Walsingham and the Policy of Queen Elizabeth, Volume III. Clarendon Press. pp. 27–28. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2281.2006.00396.x.) Gifford was playing a double game, working for Walsingham in one hand, while aiding and abetting Savage at the same time.
- Pollen, John Hungerford (1922). Publications of the Scottish Historical Society Third Series, Volume III: Mary Queen of Scots and the Babington Plot. T & A Constable Ltd. pp. 53–54.
- Pollen, p. 54.
- For the full text of the letter, see Pollen, pp. 18-22. The spelling is modernised for clarity.
- Pollen, p. 21.
- For the full text of the letter, see Pollen, pp.38-46. The spelling is modernised for clarity.
- "National Archives (UK) transcript of the forged postscript". Archived from the original on 2 March 2007. Retrieved 2007-02-09.
- Cf. Pollen, pp. 45-46.
- Francis Edwards, S.J., Plots and plotters in the reign of Elizabeth I. (Dublin: Four Courts, 2002), p. 164.
- Guy, John A. Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart (2005)
- Lewis, Jayne Elizabeth. The trial of Mary Queen of Scots: a brief history with documents (1999)
- Pollen, J.H. ""Mary Queen of Scots and the Babington plot," The Month, Volume 109 online (April 1907) pp 356–65
- Read, Conyers. Mr Secretary Walsingham and the policy of Queen Elizabeth 3 vols. (1925)
- Shepherd, J.E.C. The Babington Plot: Jesuit Intrigue in Elizabethan England. Toronto, Ont.: Wittenburg Publications, 1987. 171 p. Without ISBN
- Smith, A. G. The Babington plot (1936)
- Williams, Penry. "Babington, Anthony (1561–1586)",Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004) accessed 18 Sept 2011
- Military Heritage August 2005, Volume 7, No. 1, pp. 20–23, ISSN 1524-8666.
- Pollen, J. H. "Mary Queen of Scots and the Babington plot," Scottish Historical Society 3rd ser., iii (1922), reprints the major documents.