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A beginner’s guide to the Babington Plot


The Babington Plot, Mary Queen of Scots’ final conspiracy against Elizabeth I, is so convoluted that even today it is impossible to understand quite fully who was tricking who, who was on what side, and so on and so forth. Separate plots to assassinate Elizabeth and free Mary were sewn together under Sir Francis Walsingham’s watchful gaze, making one large terrible tapestry, one that even Mary, with her enthusiastic needle, might have wished she’d shied away from.

Mary’s correspondence had been cut off for almost a year by the time the plot began, so when her backdated mail began arriving at Chartley, with the possibility of further correspondence in a secret pipeline via the beer barrels from Burton, she naturally jumped at the chance. Via the secret pipeline her messages were sent to London to be deciphered, or even decoded on the spot by Phelippes, Walsingham’s expert codebreaker; Phelippes was secreted at Chartley for a time and had even been spotted by Mary, who rather cattily passed comment on his bad skin whilst she took the sun in her coach.

Down in London, correspondence was also arriving from Anthony Babington, a well-to-do young Catholic gentleman who had been recruited by Thomas Morgan whilst in France. Babington was to receive encouraging signs from eminent figures such as the former Spanish ambassador Bernardino de Mendoza; Mendoza had been involved in the Throckmorton Plot and expelled from England when his role was revealed. Thomas Morgan, like Babington, had also worked for the Earl of Shrewsbury whilst Mary and her household were in his custody. Babington brought with him his plotting pals, among them the poet Chidiock Tichbourne, John Ballard the priest, would-be assassin John Savage, and various other young disaffected – i.e. bored – Catholic gentlemen. They were foolish enough to commission a portrait of themselves for posterity, now presumed lost at the point when the plot went pear-shaped.

Ballard had come over from the Continent and essentially stirred things up among them; Savage was at the spearhead of the proposed assassination plot, the actual enactment of which caused the young Catholic conspirators considerable soul-searching. They had grown up in an England where Catholicism, driven underground, became something of a forbidden fruit; they were young, good-looking, and they had money. The lure of the controversial Catholic religion, combined with the seductive legend of the imprisoned Scots queen, may have fuelled their impressionable young minds.

In case he wavered in his resolve, Babington was poleaxed on a personal level by Robert Poley, a Catholic agent of Walsingham’s, whilst Gifford encouraged the flow of counterfeit correspondence up at Chartley, eventually fleeing to the Continent when it came time to swoop on the conspirators. When Babington laid the plot before Mary, Phelippes added a postscript to her reply so that it appeared that she had asked him to name the ‘six gentlemen’ who were to carry out the assassination of Elizabeth. Babington and the rest of the plotters were rounded up and confessed to the entire affair. Some of them were certainly tortured, Ballard the priest so badly that he had to be carried to his execution in a chair, his limbs having been torn out of their sockets by the rack.

Whilst awaiting death in the Tower of London, Chidiock Tichbourne wrote a piece of poetry that has passed down through history as ‘Tichbourne’s elegy’, a lament on a life cut tragically short; some reports say that he read either part or all of it at his execution.

When the time came to reveal the Babington Plot, Babington himself and all his associates were arrested to great rejoicing and pealing of bells throughout the capital. Beforehand Babington had been made aware of his imminent arrest when one of Walsingham’s agents invited him to dinner and accidentally left a note from his master on the table in front of him; Babington promptly scarpered to St John’s Wood, but there was no escape.

Extracted from The Little Book of Mary Queen of Scots by Mickey Mayhew

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