The Babington Cypher

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The Babington Plot

The Babington plot arose from the fires of a politically and religiously volatile Europe. The French Wars of Religion had at first seemed likely to strengthen the Protestant Church in Europe but in actuality had an opposing effect. With the House of Guise now allied to the Spanish under the banner of the Catholic League, the Dutch provinces fractured, and the Holy See issuing Papal Bulls of excommunication, England was forced to become increasingly insular. Walsingham had realised that England possessed a fragility such that with the death of Elizabeth it was almost certain to be cast back under the control of Catholic forces. While Mary, Queen of Scots lived, those fears were well supported.

Domestic plots then were of critical concern for the administration. Since Elizabeth's coronation there had been many, mostly of insignificant nature, but some had exposed the discernable lack of ability in uncovering them and dealing with the sentiment behind them. While Elizabeth's Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity legally set the religious precedent, there is, historically, a general feeling that England was not as quick to take up Anglicanism as was believed, and that for a large part of her reign England was considered to be "popularly irreligious" [1].

Such a vacuum could easily be filled by a Catholic monarch returning England to its Catholic past, healing the rifts with the See of Rome, and becoming a much stronger political force in a Catholic Europe. Aware of this, Walsingham's need was to secure the execution of Mary, something Elizabeth refused to do unless in possession of unequivocal evidence of Mary's desire to usurp the throne and have her assassinated.

The Babington Plot grew out of the seeds of two originally separate plans. The first, a Spanish invasion of England which would depose Elizabeth and raise Mary to the Monarchy, and the second, a plot by English Catholics to assassinate Elizabeth known as the Savage Plot. Both plots however were formulated in France by two of Elizabeth's staunchest enemies, Paget and Morgan. In 1585 Morgan met with Gilbert Gifford and arranged for him to re-establish the links of communication between Mary and her supporters in France, which had been cut when Walsingham discovered the Throckmorton Plot. Gifford was taken upon his arrival in England and turned into a double agent. The lines of communication were opened between Mary and France, with each letter being intercepted, deciphered, passed to Walsingham, and then sent on its way. Exactly how much of the actual correspondence was "worked" by Walsingham, it is impossible to say, and there are two school of thought on the plots development - much like the two schools of thought on the Gunpowder Plot. Some believe that Walsingham was able to completely dictate what was passed back and forth and that he set up the conspirators in order to implicate Mary, whereas another belief is that Walsingham acted purely as a channel through which the letters passed, deciphered yet unchanged.

Paget began to draw the two plots together. At the behest of Mary's French supporters, John Ballard, a Catholic priest of Rheims, had undertaken many journeys to England in the year Babington returned from Rome. Ballard had secured many promises of aid from the northern Catholic gentry who were now willing to accept a tumultuous change and Paget secured his assistance in assembling the Catholics in England under a common banner. Babington, who had been drawn into this clandestine circle by virtue of the help he had given Ballards associates, looked upon Ballard as a guiding light, and willingly accepted the responsibility of helping to mastermind the plot that generally bears his name. Ballard told Babington that the plan in general had already been given the blessing of the Spanish government, and that upon its completion, a large invasion force would assist them in returning Mary to the monarchy.

Babington selected as his main group those who had formed the secret society and travelled with him to Rome. Being members of the court and having free access to the Queen, they were charged with the assassination of Elizabeth, while he charged himself with the rescue of Mary from the custody of Sir Amias Paulet at Chartley.

On 12 May 1586, Don Bernardino de Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador in Paris, who had placed the utmost reliance on Babington and his close circle of friends, wrote to his government declaring that the death of Elizabeth might soon be expected. In the weeks that followed, Babington grew over-confident, although he still managed to exhibit some form of concern over possible treachery, he and his conspirators frequently dined and received mass together. Many historians have commented on the 'foolish vanity' of Anthony Babington, and his desire more for Mary's recognition and reward, than for the true cause behind what they were hoping to achieve.

Babington acted like a jealous child, and became more and more angered as Mary granted favours to others. From Paris, Morgan informed Mary of Babington's state of mind and that it would be wise to send him some token of gratitude, which she did in a note of 28 June. Babington replied in a long and provocative letter describing all the means to be taken for the murder of Elizabeth and the deliverance of Mary. Five days later, Mary returned his letter, favourably replying to the news of the plot, and seeking to know more. On 3 August, Babington informed her that one of Ballard's aides had turned traitor, but not to worry or falter in her desire to see Elizabeth dead.

Babington's constant fear of treachery was certainly well founded. Almost from the outset of the plot, Walsingham was aware of the activities thanks to his extensive network of spies. Godfrey Gifford, one of Ballard's most trusted friends had been won over to the government very early on, and all correspondence between Babington, Ballard, and Mary passed subsequently through Walsinghams hands. Although they were always either in cipher, or French, Walsingham, with the help of Thomas Phelipes, the master forger, knew exactly what was unfolding.

In July of 1586, warrants for the arrest of Ballard and Babington were prepared, but Walsingham, as shrewd as ever, was in no hurry to round them up, but rather wanted to wait and see what further revelations there would be. At the end of the month, detail in the letters began to escalate, and on 4 August, Ballard was siezed after a meeting between the conspirators in London. Babington, who had become almost paranoid by now, had earlier applied to Walsingham for a passport to travel overseas, where he had promised to act as a spy against Elizabeth's enemies. He had apparently told his friends that a journey to France was necessary to complete the final plans of the proposed invasion. Walsingham refused the request, and Babington immediately informed Walsingham that in return for granting the passport, he could reveal damning evidence against a plot to assassinate Elizabeth. Walsingham was still unrepentant in his refusal. Unwittingly, Babington continued to dine with Walsingham's spies, and on one of these occasions he caught sight of a memorandum in Walsingham's own hand regarding his fate. On trivial pretence he hurried from the premises, and made his way to St. John's Wood, where he was joined by some of his associates. He remained at large for almost three weeks, until finally captured and sent to the Tower.

Within days, the remaining conspirators were captured and on 13-14 September, Babington, Ballard and five others (the poet Chidiock Tichbourne, Thomas Salisbury, Robert Barnewell, John Savage and Henry Donn) were placed on trial. Babington confessed all, but placed all the blame on Ballard, who graciously admitted that he wished the spilling of his blood could save his young friend. Two days later, seven more conspirators (Edward Habington, Charles Tilney, Edward Jones, John Charnock, John Travers, Jerome Bellamy, and Robert Gage) were similarly tried and sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered.

On 19 September, Babington wrote to Elizabeth begging her to employ mercy and spare him. On the same day, he offered a friend 1000li if he could secure his release. The following day, the first seven were drawn on hurdles from Tower Hill to St Giles. Ballard suffered at the hands of the executioner first, undergoing terrible torture before his life was extinguished. Babington followed and suffered a similarly barbaric execution, being still alive as the executioners knife went to work on disemboweling him. Elizabeth was horrified at the revolting cruelty of their death, and ordered that those to be executed the following day were to be left hanging until dead before being cut down. And so it was that on 21 September, the remaining seven conspirators were put to death.

The historical importance of the plot lies in the complicity of Mary Stuart. Because of her involvement, Walsingham and the Privy Council were able to eventually have Mary brought to the executioner's block at Fotheringay Castle. Many claim that the incriminating letters were forgeries, and that Mary was unjustly executed, but there is no doubt Babington believed in their authenticity, and was reputed to have fully translated the cipher used, on the day of his execution in a last ditch attempt to gain clemency.

Selected Bibliography

[1] Guy, John, "Tudor England", Oxford University Press, 1988
[2] "Dictionary of National Biography", 1895 and 2004 [Online Edition]
[3] Fraser, Antonia, "Mary Queen of Scots", Delacorte Press, New York 1969
[4] Read, Conyers, "Mr. Secretary Walsingham and the Policy of Queen Elizabeth. Volumes I-III", Clarendon Press, 1925
[5] Haynes, Alan, "The Elizabethan Secret Services", Sutton Publishing, 2000
[6] Budiansky, Stephen, "Her Majesty's Spymaster", Viking, 2005

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