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The Babington Plot was 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 as a direct result of a letter sent by Queen Mary (who had been imprisoned for 18 years since 1568 in England at the behest of Queen Elizabeth) in which she consented directly to the assassination of Elizabeth.
The long-term goal of the plot was the invasion of England by the Spanish forces of King Philip II and the Catholic League in France, leading to the restoration of the old religion. The plot was discovered by Elisabeth's "spymaster" Sir Francis Walsingham and used to entrap Queen Mary for the purpose of removing her as a claimant to the English throne.
The chief conspirators were Sir Anthony Babington, a young recusant nobleman targeted by Ballard; John Ballard, a Jesuit priest who desired to rescue the Scottish Queen; Robert Poley; Gilbert Gifford, and Thomas Phelippes, a Walsingham spy agent and cryptanalyst. The turbulent Catholic deacon Gifford had been in Walsingham's service since the end of 1585 or the beginning of 1586. Gifford obtained a letter of introduction to Queen Mary from a confidant and spy for her, Thomas Morgan. Walsingham then placed double agent Gifford and spy decipherer Phelippes inside Chartley Castle, where Queen Mary was imprisoned. Gifford organised the Walsingham plan to place Babington's and Queen Mary's encrypted communications into a beer barrel cork which were then intercepted by Phelippes, decoded and sent to Walsingham.
Ballard was attempting to recruit Babington in an undeveloped scheme to rescue Queen Mary and place her on the throne of England by killing Queen Elizabeth. 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 the spy Phelippes. Queen Mary responded in code on 17 July ordering the would-be rescuers to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. The response letter also included deciphered 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 Secretary of State William Cecil and Walsingham used the letter against Queen Mary who refused to admit that she was guilty. But she was betrayed by her secretaries Nau and Curle who confessed under pressure that the letter was mainly truthful, a fact not denied by Antonia Fraser, the most important modern biographer of Mary. (Fraser is in general a big defender of Mary Stuart but not in this case.) To understand Mary's decision to accept the murder of Elizabeth, a few facts should be taken into account. First there was a conflict of 20 years between the two women, a conflict that was both political, religious and personal. It was not the first time that Mary had conspired against Elizabeth who in return treated Mary in a very harsh way. Second, Mary was the queen of France and Scotland, had had a court of more than 1000 servants, was considered the most beautiful woman in Europe and was the darling of the Renaissance Period, all of which she lost because of her English captivity. In 1586, Mary was a prisoner for 20 years who had lost her freedom, her son, her kingdom and her social life. She was a sick invalid, a very large overweight woman with a double chin who was unable to move without help; she was cut from any contact with her son who had betrayed her; her social life was mainly confined to her bed and room, where she spent almost all her time because of her health problems, under heavy guard with no outside contact; finally, if she was taken to another prison, it was in a closed litter under heavy guard to cut her from any interaction with the people of England. To understand Mary's frame of mind, we must consider, as Antonia Fraser put it, that a woman who lost everything saw a chance not only to escape her intolerant captivity, which could have continued for another 20 years, but also to achieve her ideal of a Catholic Restoration in England. Such a restoration was Mary's main aim in life, at least in her captive years.
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 aid 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 focal point of numerous plots and intrigues to restore England to its former religion, Catholicism, and to depose Elizabeth and even to take her life. Rather than the promised aid, Queen Elizabeth imprisoned Queen Mary for nineteen years in the charge of a succession of jailers, principally the Earl of Shrewsbury.
Queen Elizabeth ordered Queen Mary transferred back to the ruined Tutbury Castle in the wintry weather of Christmas Eve 1584. Queen Mary became ill due to the bad conditions of her captivity, imprisoned in a very damp cold room with closed windows and with no access to the sun.
In 1585, Queen Elizabeth ordered Queen Mary to be transferred in a coach and under heavy guard 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.
In October 1585 Gifford, initially a supporter of Mary, went from Rheims, where he had been ordered deacon, to Paris to obtain the confidence of Morgan, then locked in the Bastille. Morgan had previously worked for George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, an earlier jailer of Queen Mary; through Shrewsbury, Queen Mary had become acquainted with Morgan, whom she had sent to Paris to deliver letters to the French court; while in Paris, Morgan had become involved in a previous plot designed by William Parry, which had resulted in Morgan's incarceration in the Bastille. In December 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.
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;
Walsingham and Cecil realised 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 the French ambassador to England, Guillaume de l'Aubespine, Baron de Châteauneuf-sur-Cher, and described the new correspondence arrangement that had been designed by Walsingham. Gifford and jailer 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.
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 the Spanish Ambassador to France Don Bernardino de Mendoza (who had been expelled from England due to his involvement in a previous anti-Elizabeth conspiracy, the Throckmorton Plot), 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 is 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 organise 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 was sure of 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 and to lead the conspiracy.
Unfortunately for the conspirators, Walsingham was certainly aware of some of the aspects of the plot, based on reports by his spies, most notably Gilbert Gifford, who kept tabs on all the major participants. While he could have shut down some part of the plot and arrested some of those involved within reach, he still lacked any piece of evidence that would prove Queen Mary's active participation in the plot and he feared to commit any mistake which might cost Elizabeth her life.
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, who was in a dark mood at that period of time because she received the news that her son betrayed her in favour of Elizabeth, 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 and the need to assassinate Elizabeth if her rescue had any chance to be successful. 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 confront the Puritans and to link her case to the Queen of England as her heir.
- "These precepts may serve to found and establish among all associations, or considerations general, as done only for your preservation and defence, 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". Mary was clear in her support for the murder of Elizabeth if that would have led to her liberty and Catholic domination of England. In addition, Queen Mary supported in that letter, and in another one to Ambassador Mendoza, a Spanish invasion of England.
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 copy of the letter in which Mary supported the murder of Elizabeth. In the letter Mary not only consented to the assassination but also made clear (because of her hate of Elizabeth, her ambition and her desire to be free from her intolerable captivity which was a living hell for her) that she was prepared to take an active part in the assassination. Phelippes, who had seen Mary many times, described her in his letters as a very sad, angry and desperate woman, and, as far as her physical appearance was concerned, a very tall woman (she was almost 6 feet tall without heels, 20 to 30 cm taller than the average man living in the 16th century) who had become obese, with a double chin and a massive presence. Mary's status as a martyred and charismatic queen, and the remains of her once much-admired beauty, explain Elizabeth's jealousy and fears, and her determination not to allow her cousin any social or political interaction with any person. Mary was taken by her guards in a coach, a litter or a big chair because of her invalidity and inability to walk alone, and in addition she was not allowed by her guards to approach Phelippes or anybody else: she usually spent almost all her time in bed due to her invalidity, with no social contact, in a cold damp room with barred windows which even kept the sun from reaching her, not to mention the fact that the privies stench system was directly operated below her room, contributing to the destruction of her health, all of which explains her decision to be rescued even if it meant the killing of Elizabeth. Phelippes added a forged part focusing on the name of the conspirators:
- "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 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 Havington, 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 disembowelled.
In 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. 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 with an axe in a very painful manner since it took three strikes to cut her head; her hands put forcefully behind her back like a traitor who sponsored the Babington Plot.
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: although the Babington Plot occurs before the events of the opera, and is only referenced twice during the opera, the second such occasion being Mary admitting her own part in it, in private, to her final confessor (a role taken by Lord Talbot in the opera, although not in real life).
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
- Somerest, Anne (1991). Elizabeth One. pp. 545–548.
- Fraser, Antonia (1985). Mary Queen of Scots. pp. 575–577.
- Fraser pp. 522–532
- Fraser pp. 578–580
- 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 on 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.
- Fraser pp. 577–578
- "National Archives (UK) transcript of the forged postscript". Archived from the original on 2 March 2007. Retrieved 9 February 2007.
- Cf. Pollen, pp. 45–46.
- Francis Edwards, S.J., Plots and plotters in the reign of Elizabeth I. (Dublin: Four Courts, 2002), p. 164.
- Fraser p. 635
- 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 pp. 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.