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" .
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
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
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 Haynes, Alan, "The Elizabethan Secret Services", Sutton Publishing, 2000
 Budiansky, Stephen, "Her Majesty's Spymaster", Viking, 2005