The Babington Plot was a Catholic plot in 1586 to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, a Protestant, and put Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic, on the English throne. It led to the execution of Mary. The long-term goal was an invasion by the Spanish forces of King Philip II and the Catholic League in France, leading to the restoration of the Catholic religion in England. The chief conspirator was Sir Anthony Babington (1561–1586), a young Catholic nobleman. The leading Catholics in England were loyal to Elizabeth and rebuffed overtures to support the plot. The actual designers were Don Bernardino de Mendoza in Paris and King Philip II in Madrid.
After Mary, Queen of Scots, the Catholic claimant to the throne of England, came into the custody of her cousin, Elizabeth I, a year after her abdication from the throne of Scotland in 1567, she became the focus of numerous plots and intrigues to restore England to the Catholic fold. Because of this threat, she was imprisoned for eighteen years in the charge of a succession of jailers, principally the Earl of Shrewsbury. In 1580 she was transferred to the control of Sir Amias Paulet.
Because of increasing concern surrounding Queen Elizabeth's safety, in 1584 Elizabeth's Privy Council signed a "Bond of Association" 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. As if to allay the Queen's suspicions, Mary likewise signed. 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. Whilst Mary had escaped formal reprimand as she had not actively participated in a plot, now she could be executed if a plot was initiated that could lead to her accession to the throne of England.
However, in the aftermath of the Throckmorton plot, in January 1586, Mary found herself in the strictest confinement she had experienced in her eighteen years' imprisonment by the English. She was confined to Chartley Hall in Staffordshire, placed under strict observation, under the control of Sir Amias Paulet. Paulet was a Puritan and, although Mary had been able to win over her previous jailers, Paulet resisted her charms and kept her in extremely strict conditions. Having been instructed to watch the comings and goings of Mary's servants and visitors, he stopped all open correspondence.
Although Elizabeth was reluctant to act against Mary, some within the English government feared her status as a figurehead for English Catholics. 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 Catholic 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's opportunity came when, in 1585, a Catholic exile named Gilbert Gifford (1560–1590) was arrested in Rye in Sussex. While being interrogated, he confessed to having been involved in a Catholic plot against Elizabeth. Walsingham then offered to release Gifford if he was willing to work as a double agent, to which Gifford agreed.
The plot grew out of two originally separate plans:
However, both plots were hatched under the guidance of two of Mary's chief agents in Europe, Thomas Morgan and Charles Paget. Ever since the issuance of the papal bull Regnans in Excelsis by Pope Pius V on February 25, 1570, Philip was prepared to assist English Catholics who plotted to overthrow the English queen. It was thus with the support of the papacy and Spain that Morgan and Paget sought to find those in England who would be prepared to meet this objective.
In 1585 Morgan met with Gilbert Gifford and enlisted the latter to re-establish a line of correspondence with Mary, which was severed by Walsingham in the wake of the discovery of the Throckmorton plot in 1584. It was when Gifford arrived in England that he was arrested and subsequently enlisted as a double agent. As such, Gifford was assigned the alias "No. 4" and used many others in his espionage work, such as Colerdin, Pietro and Cornelys.
While Walsingham was able to cut off all communication between Mary and her supporters because of the Throckmorton plot, he recognized that she could hardly be guilty of plots of which she was unaware and thus could not have approved. Thus Walsingham, with the help of Gifford, decided to establish a new line of communication, one which he could carefully scrutinize without incurring any suspicion from Mary or her supporters. For this they arranged for a local brewer to facilitate the movement of messages between Mary and her supporters by placing them in a watertight casing that could be placed inside the stopper of the barrel. Gifford then approached Guillaume de l'Aubespine, Baron de Châteauneuf-sur-Cher and the French ambassador to England and described the new correspondence arrangement and requested the first message that should be sent to Mary, who was, in turn, informed by another double agent named Thomas Philips in prison of this arrangement. All subsequent messages to Mary would be sent via diplomatic packets to de L'Aubespine, 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 by Mary was a nomenclator cipher, which was broken by trial and error by starting with letter substitutions and using the frequency of common characters until a readable text was found, and then the rest was guessed at by the message context from what was decoded until the entire cipher was understood. Phelippes, or any in Walsingham's spy school familiar with the cipher, 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 Mary. If 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 and machination for and from Mary, which in some ways were encouraged by Gifford and other agents provocateurs. He had only to wait for Mary to incriminate herself in one of her letters.
Paget began to consolidate the two plots. At the behest of Mary's French supporters, John Ballard, a Jesuit priest and Catholic agent, 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:
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 the crucial piece of evidence that would prove Mary's active participation in the plot.
Despite his assent in his participation in the plot, Babington's conscience was troubled at the prospect of assassinating the English queen. On June 28, encouraged by a letter received from Thomas Morgan, Mary wrote a letter to Babington that assured him of his status as a trusted friend. In reply on July, 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:
He also mentioned plans on rescuing Mary from Chartley as well as dispatching Savage to assassinate Elizabeth:
While it was not necessary for Babington to detail this to Mary, he did so probably because he was seeking rewards for the people involved in the plot, as well as serving his own vanity.
The letter was received by Mary on July 14 — after being intercepted and deciphered — and on July 17 she replied to Babington in a long letter in which she commended and praised all the aspects of the plot. She also stressed the necessity of foreign aid if the rescue attempt was to succeed:
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 Mary. In the new postscript an offer was made by Mary to take an active part in the assassination:
Phelippes then made another copy of the letter and sent it to Walsingham with a small picture of the gallows as a seal. Walsingham had his proof.
John Ballard was arrested on 4 August 1586, and presumably 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 while seeking a license to travel in order to see King Philip II of Spain, with the purpose of organizing a foreign expedition as well as ensuring his own safety. The identities of the six conspirators were nevertheless discovered, and they were taken prisoner by 15 August 1586.
Mary's two secretaries, Claude Nau de la Boisseliere (d. 1605) and Gilbert Curle (d. 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 September 20 along with the other men who had been tried with them. Such was the horror of their execution that Queen Elizabeth ordered the second group to be allowed to hang until dead before being disemboweled.
Queen Mary herself went to trial at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire and denied her part in the plot, but her correspondence was the evidence; therefore, Mary was sentenced to death. 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 1834.
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.
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