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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 due to a letter sent by Queen Mary who had been imprisoned for 18 years since 1568 in England by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth and in this letter Queen Mary consented directly to the murder of Elizabeth.
The long-term goal of the plot 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. The plot was discovered by Walsingham and he used it to entrap Queen Mary for the purpose of execution. Babington was used by Walsingham to be the agent submitting a letter to Queen Mary to entrap her into involvement in the plot.
The chief conspirators were 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; Gilbert Gifford, and Thomas Phelippes, a Walsingham spy agent and code decypherer. Fallen priest Gifford had been in Walsingham's service since the end of 1585 or 1586. 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 organised 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.
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. 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. 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. Queen Mary responded in code on 17 July ordering the would-be rescuers to assassinate Queen Elizabeth if that was necessary for her rescue. 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 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, that conflict was both political, religious and personal. It was not the first time that Mary conspired against Elizabeth who in return treated Mary in a very harsh way. Second Mary who was the queen of France and Scotland, who had a court of more than 1000 servants, who was considered the most beautiful woman in Europe and the darling of the Renaissance Period; lost all of that in her English captivity. In 1586, Mary was a prisoner for 20 years who lost her freedom, her son, her kingdom and her social life,she was a sick invalid very large woman who was unable to move without help, she was cut from any contact with her son who 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 this woman who lost everything saw a chance not only to escape this intolerant captivity who could have gone for another 20 years but also achieved her ideal for a Catholic Restoration in England which was the main aim in Mary's 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 focus of numerous plots and intrigues to restore England to its former religion, 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. 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.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.
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 became deathly ill due to the bad conditions of her captivity being always imprisoned in a very damp cold room with closed windows and with no access to the sun finally the privies stench system was directly operated below her barred windows. Queen Mary did not die but lost her health and she became an inspiration to a lot of Catholics like Babington.
In 1585, again in wintry weather, Queen Elizabeth ordered Queen Mary transferred in a coach 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.
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 after the trial which proved her connection with the Babington Plot. 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 used 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 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:
In March 1586 at the Plough Inn, priest Ballard encouraged Babington to join his rescue plot. Ballard travelled 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 and introduced him to Walsingham in June. 3 July Walsingham met with Babington again. Walsingham then sent Gifford to Babington to encourage him to write Queen Mary about the rescue and assassination plans.
Babington wrote Queen Mary on 7 July 1586. The letter was intercepted by Phelippes then sent to Queen Mary who has already seen Phelippes in one of her very rare recreation hours when she was taken in her coach due to her inability to walk under heavy guard. Queen Mary briefly wrote back on 13 July stating she would later provide a longer response. On 17 July 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 kill Queen Elizabeth, and agreed to be rescued. Spy Phelippes decoded the letter, drew a gallows sign on it and forwarded it to Walsingham. Walsingham 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 29 July. The following day Babington received another invitation from Walsingham to meet. 4 August 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 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 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.
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 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:
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.
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:
He also mentioned plans on rescuing Mary from Chartley as well as dispatching Savage to assassinate Elizabeth:
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:
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.
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 with a postscript. In the new postscript a sincere offer was made to take an active part in the assassination but Phelippes who have seen Mary many times describing her in his letters as a very big almost obese and tall woman with a double chin who was taken by her guards in a coach or in a big chair because of her invalidity and inability to walk alone and who in addition was not allowed by her guards to approach him or anybody else when she saw him sometimes when she was outside her room where 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; added a forged part focusing on the name of the conspirators:
Phelippes then made another copy of the letter and sent it to Walsingham with a small picture of the gallows as a seal.
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 Salusbury, 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.
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.