Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Notorious Babington Plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, 1586

Machiavellian political plots are as much a feature of medieval life as they are today. Queen Elizabeth I faces so many threats to her life that her advisors decide radical action is needed. In 1584 her Privy Council sign a "Bond of Association" stating that any one within the line of succession to the throne on whose behalf anyone plots against the queen, even if the claimant is ignorant of the plot, will be excluded from the line and executed. Hundreds of prominent Englishmen sign the Bond including her rival, the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots.

The following year, Parliament also passes the Act of Association, which demands the execution of anyone who benefits from the death of the Queen if a plot against her is uncovered. This makes the position of Mary much worse as now she can be executed for ascending to the throne of England irrespective of any involvement in any intrigue.

Such action is a reaction to the loathing that Catholics have for her. One day Queen Elizabeth is walking through Richmond Park and encounters a man who will later be a conspirator in the Babington plot to overthrow her. She happens to recognize him from a portrait shown to her by Walsingham so she approaches the man and says, “Am I not well guarded today, with no man near me who wears a sword at his side”. At this the man loses his nerve and flees. If indeed this actually happened then it amply illustrates just how precarious her regal position really was.

The most famous plot against the Queen is the Babington Plot. Its key figures are Queen Mary of Scots (a cousin of Elizabeth I) and her fellow conspirator Anthony Babington. They aim to overthrow Elizabeth I and make Mary the Queen of England. In the process they hope to restore Catholicism and rid the country of Protestantism.

Elizabeth though is well served by her chief advisors, Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I's Secretary of State and spymaster, together with William Cecil, Elizabeth's chief advisor. Together they create a formidable spy network. They foresee the obvious threat from Mary. As Walsingham writes 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.’

Entrapment is used. When Walsingham arrests a Catholic plotter called Gifford he manages to turn him into a double agent who encourages Mary to plot against Elizabeth. He also establishes a secret system of communication between Mary and Thomas Morgan, her chief cipher expert. This is achieved by using a brewer to hide messages in a water tight casing and sending them to Thomas Phelippes another double agent who is inside the prison with her and happens to be a cipher expert of Walsingham. 

Later, Babington hears of a plan from Charles Paget, another agent of Mary to overthrow Elizabeth and he decides to forward details of this plot to her. Phelippes deciphers all of this information, sends a translation to Walsingham and then passes the letter on to Mary.

Mary seals her fate when in one of her letters of correspondence she writes ‘I wold be glad to know the names and quelityes of the sixe gentlemen which are to accomplish the dessignement, for that it may be, I shall be able uppon knowledge of the parties to give you some further advise necessarye to be followed therein’. This statement is clear enough to ruin her prospects.

Queen Elizabeth’s advisors pounce on her and subsequently all of the Catholic conspirators are arrested, tried and executed. Queen Mary herself is put on trial at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire but denies any knowledge of the plot. However her correspondence proves otherwise and so Mary is sentenced to death. Elizabeth expresses her feelings by saying to Mary in a letter ‘You have planned in divers ways and manners to take my life and to ruin my kingdom”. Elizabeth reluctantly signs her cousin's death warrant and on 8 February 1587, in front of 300 witnesses, Mary, Queen of Scots, is executed.

If you liked that story then remember there are new stories on this site every week that can be found at my Secret History Stories homepage and also there is a similar story that can be found at

The Cambridge Spy Ring Scandal, 1951

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Gerald Ratner and his Catastrophic 'Midas Touch' in 1991

If Thatcherism is epitomised by hard work, graft, determination and unbridled success then Gerald Ratner in the 1980’s is definitely its personification. A famous British businessman, he mixes with the British elite in business and politics and is known throughout the land for his jewellery company Ratners Group. He holds such a high profile even Margaret Thatcher occasionally invites him to lunch. Gerald glories in all his achievements and is happy to be rewarded and feted for them whilst still enjoying life to the full as an adventurer.

Unsurprisingly all this achievement goes to his head and gives him such an inflated sense of self-importance even Icarus would have seen him as arrogant. To be fair he isn’t the only one or the first to feel this way. Famously the home computer genius, Clive Sinclair tried to sell the C5, a small battery powered tricycle that was compared to the K9 robot dog in the BBC science fiction series called ‘Doctor Who’. It was so unpopular that he lost £8 million of his fortune.

On 23rd April 1991 his risky instinct tells him to liven up a high profile talk before the Institute of Directors with something edgy. His thinking is that if he gains applause early on then he will calm his nerves. His solution is to insert some risque jokes.

Initially he is hesitant so he asks his trusted accountant, Hussein for advice. Hussein recommends he goes ahead with them. At the rehearsal, the girl monitoring the autocue questions his use of the word “crap”. Moira, his wife also has doubts. “It's just not that sort of event,” she says. However by now Gerald can not be swayed. He recalls that just a week before he has managed to get away with using the word crap in front of Princess Anne so he will be fine. 

On the night itself he launches into a now notorious speech with the  following quips. ‘We also do cut-glass sherry decanters complete with six glasses on a silver-plated tray that your butler can serve your drinks on, all for £4.95. People say, "How can you sell this for such a low price?", I say, "because it's total crap".’ As if that is not insulting enough he digs his own grave by following by saying some of the earrings were "cheaper than an M&S prawn sandwich but probably wouldn't last as long".

There are no indicators at first of what is about to happen. His speech finishes and it looks like he has given another triumphant performance. His jokes are well received and he is given a standing ovation. However the first ominous signs that not all is not quite right soon begin. As he leaves, a journalist from the Daily Mirror runs after him. “Aren’t you making fun of your customers?” the journalist asks. “What are you talking about?” queries Ratner. “You knowingly sell your customers crap. Don’t you think that’s making fun of them?” goads the journalist. Gerald retorts “No I’m not. I was just making a joke and having a bit of fun.”

Ratner thinks this will be the end of the matter. Shortly after he arrives home his close friend, the advertising expert, Charles Saatchi calls. “There’s a fantastic piece in the Evening Standard,” he said. “There’s a good line about you calling some of your products crap. It works really well. You come across as a really great guy with a good sense of humour. It’s terrific PR.”

The next morning a cascade of bad news pours all over him in a deluge. When Gerald leaves his home and enters his car the driver hands him ‘The Sun’ and remains quiet. A shocking headline mocks him and calls his company “Crapners”. The Mirror’s front page is not much more sedate,  telling its readers that the businessman is dismissing them as “you 22 carat gold mugs”. The enormity of his disastrous aside hits him and Ratner freezes, numb with shock. In his own words "I had the all-time PR disaster. There's no way to deal with it. What I did was so ridiculous, you cannot make excuses."

Sympathy is in short supply even though his comments have been taken out of context. Anger and condemnation to say nothing of the taunting he receives is unrelenting for the next couple of weeks. Finally in desperation Gerald calls his nemesis, Kelvin MacKenzie, editor of populist tabloid ‘The Sun’.

Kelvin MacKenzie scents blood. Hurting others feelings matters not one jot to him as long as he gets the sales figures he wants. Many are offended by his attitude. “He gives it all that jack-the-lad, I'm-one-of the-blokes shit, but he's not. He comes from a middle-class family and talks absolute bollocks. He strikes me as a bully" complains Frank Warren.

Gerald pleads “could you stop doing this now. “It started off as a joke but it’s just not funny any more. My children are being called names and, quite frankly, I’m starting to lose my business, which means lots of people will lose their jobs.” Mackenzie is unrepentant. “What you failed to realise, Gerald, was the power of Ratners, what a huge brand it is and what a big story this is.” Begging, Ratner seeks sympathy with “Well, you’ve had your headlines, now I’d like to get my company back.” Kelvin sniffs opportunity and rubs it in by saying “Well, you should apologise then.” A crestfallen Ratner says “Okay, I’ll apologise” and Mackenzie finishes off with “I’ll send a journalist over.”

An hour later a journalist and photographer turn up. Further insult soon follows. Gerald is forced to grovel, hold a toy gun to his head and then make an apology. The next day The Sun runs an “exclusive” interview. Ratner is described as a “disgraced” fat cat and beside a photo of himself with the toy gun that takes up half a page.

The assault is unending. After the speech, the value of the Ratners' group plummets by around £500 million resulting in the near collapse of the firm. Gerald Ratner is left distraught. ‘Despite the fact that I didn’t kill anybody, I didn’t do anything illegal and I didn’t even say anything that I hadn’t said before, that speech caused me to lose my business, my reputation and my fortune’ he despairs. 

Gerald takes business failure very personally. His whole identity revolves around his business success. He goes on to lose his job, his chauffeurs, secretaries and accountants and all that had made him a proud man. A job he had once thought was for life was gone.

Later, others eclipse him during the 1990s for self-implosion. Famously, Nick Leeson manages to bring down Barings Bank. As a friend of his quips "I've heard of people writing a cheque that bounced, but you were the first to write a cheque and the bank bounced." None though has had quite so spectacular a fall as Gerald Ratner or been made to suffer so hard for one lapse of judgement.

Today, Ratner's speech is still famous in the corporate world as an example of the value of branding and image over quality. The story is not yet over for him though. He seems to be on his way back up. He sold his health and fitness club venture in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, for £3.7m in 2000 and has even ventured into jewellery once again with his own website. He calls it Gerald Online after his first choice of name Ratners Online was blocked by his old company even though they are the ones who had changed the company name away from Ratners to Signet. Let’s hope its not crap!

Friday, 10 April 2015

The Extraordinary Gunpowder Plot Aftermath in 1605

We all know about the events of the Gunpowder plot but few are aware that the events that follow are equally enthralling. On the 5th November 1605, news spreads in the early hours of Guy Fawkes’ capture. The surviving plotters know the King’s men will soon be upon them so they ride their horses away from London all the way to the Midlands in twos and threes to avoid suspicion. The only exception is Tresham as he decides it will be better to remain in London.

At Dunchurch in Warwickshire the group gather and join another gang of followers gathered by Digby, ostensibly as a hunting party. All told they number around 60 people by the time they reach Holbeche House on the Staffordshire border in the evening hours of the 7th of November. Here they feel they will be safe as it is owned by the Littleton family who have been involved in many Catholic uprisings, as well as the Essex Rebellion.

Word spreads of this gathering and hopes rise that perhaps a Catholic uprising suggested by Catesby against King James I of England can indeed happen especially when they increase in number to around 100 men. That hope is dashed as people hear of the Gunpowder plot and fear a government bent on revenge. Numbers dwindle quickly and by the next day they are down to 40 people.

A glimmer of hope is rekindled by Guy Fawkes due to his defiant refusal to give up the names of his fellow conspirators. Even the King who was Guy’s intended victim is impressed. However fearing these other men might soon escape he orders Fawkes to be tortured on 6th November. Guy is subsequently put on rack and has his body stretched in such excruciating pain that his will is broken by 7th November and he confesses.

At the same time, John Popham, the Lord Chief Justice, raids the homes of every Catholic known to have suddenly left such as Ambrose Rookwood. He soon identifies Catesby, Rookwood, and the Wright and Wintour brothers as suspects and Francis Tresham is then arrested.

Back at Holbeach House, the gang become aware that an armed government force is preparing to attack them. They gather inside and ready themselves for battle, but not before sending Littleton and Thomas Wintour to seek help from a neighbouring Catholic relative. Alas for them he refuses. Hearing this, Robert Wintour and Stephen Littleton flee together whilst Digby leaves with a few servants.

Things then go from bad to worse when Robert Catesby tries to dry some gunpowder that have become damp in front of the fire. In an ironic twist of fate a stray spark causes an explosion which badly injured both him and John Wright. In fact one of them ends up blinded and unable to help in the forthcoming gun fight.

Just before midday on the 8th of November, the Sheriff of Worcester arrive with a posse of men and surrounds the house. After several attempts to make the conspirators surrender both sides settled on a gun battle. Later that day the government forces succeed in crashing into the house. In the ensuing battle Kit Wright, John Wright, Robert Catesby and Thomas Percy are shot dead whilst Thomas Wintour and Ambrose Rookwood are injured and captured. Digby is caught soon after.

There is no escape for anyone. The remaining known conspirators are caught (barring Robert Wintour and Stephen Littleton), imprisoned in Worcester jail, and transported to London to await trial. Four days after the siege at Holbeche, Francis Tresham is arrested in London and sent to the Tower of London. Two months later, Wintour and Littleton are captured at Hagley House. From there they are taken to the Tower of London whilst their houses are stripped bare for evidence of conspiracy.

 The government continues to rush head long forward as they fear Jesuit priests, led by Henry Garnet are the real masterminds behind the plot. For Robert Cecil, the government advisor, this is very important as a Jesuit conspiracy will justify the Government’s severe anti-Catholic legislation. Garnet is captured at Hindlip based on information supplied by Humphrey Littleton, who had been with the plotters on the 8th of November, and now tries to buy himself a pardon. It is an attempt doomed to failure as he gains no credit and is later executed for complicity in the Plot.

January 27th 1606 the trial of the eight surviving conspirators begins. None deny the charge of treason, and all were condemned to execution. In the meantime Francis Tresham has already died in prison from a suspicious urinary tract infection. Only two days later on the 29th Digby, Grant, Robert Wintour, and Bates are hung, drawn and quartered on January 29th at St. Paul's Churchyard, while Thomas Wintour, Robert Keyes, Guy Fawkes and Ambrose Rookwood suffer the same fate on  January 30th at the Old Palace Yard Westminster. 

The day is especially dramatic. Fawkes, though weakened by torture manages to cheat the executioners. By jumping from the gallows he breaks his neck and dies. In so doing he manages to avoid having his heart ripped out whilst he is alive. A co-conspirator, Robert Keyes, attempts the same trick, but unfortunately for him the rope breaks, so he is disembowelled while fully conscious. Those who die at Holbeche are also shown no respect. Their heads are removed to be displayed on pikes with Guy Fawkes’ skull famously hung on London Bridge.

The repression does not end there. Henry Garnet is later executed on 3 May 1606 at St Paul's. His crime was that of being the confessor of several members of the Gunpowder Plot, even though he opposed the plot. Many spectators think his sentence is too severe. During the execution many in the crowd cry  'hold, hold' to stop the hangman cutting down Garnet’s body and quartering him while he is still alive. Some even  pull the priest's legs to ensure a speedy death and prevent unnecessary suffering.

For the government this is all necessary as it is afraid of further rebellion. Investigators punish any they suspect. Even innocent people become victims. Lord Mordant is fined £6,666 and dies in Fleet debtors’ prison in 1609, while the Earl of Northumberland is fined the colossal sum of £30,000 and imprisoned at the king’s leisure only to be freed in 1621.

However these fears prove unfounded. Even King James recognises that it was just a conspiracy by a few wayward people. Never the less when Parliament meet in 1606 it introduces more laws. Another Oath of Allegiance is introduced and from January 21st 1606, a Bill for an annual public thanksgiving is brought before Parliament. Remarkably it remains in force until 1859 by which time anti-Catholicism has markedly dissipated.

If you liked that story then remember there are new stories on this site every week that can be found at my Secret History Stories homepage.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Mary Seacole - The Creole with a Teacup and the Crimean War, 1854-1856

Think of the Crimean War from 1854-1856 and your mind turns to the ‘Lady with the Lamp’, Florence Nightingale and yet she is not the only celebrated helper during that era. There is another person who deserves equal praise. Her name is Mary Seacole and she is a nurse who gains her skill whilst growing up in her native Jamaica.

The Crimean peninsula is a tough inhospitable environment for anyone but for Mary Seacole there is the additional challenge of dealing with racial discrimination as a black woman. In spite of all of this she does not let this faze her and even uses her own funds to create a ‘British hotel’ for the sick and poorly. All soldiers are met with a hearty jovial attitude. It is a complete contrast with the more reserved and puritan Florence Nightingale. Unsurprisingly her famous rival does not take a shine to her. The soldiers on the other hand adore her.

Courageous as she is, Mary can not avoid being affected by the appalling conditions that soldiers suffer under during the war. The following story from her own memoirs illustrates this and how her natural warmth radiates forth very well. 

‘It was very usual, when a young officer was ordered into the trenches, for him to ride down to Spring Hill to dine, or obtain something more than his ordinary fare to brighten his weary hours in those fearful ditches. They seldom failed on these occasions to shake me by the hand at parting, and sometimes would say, "You see, Mrs. Seacole, I can't say goodbye to the dear ones at home, so I'll bid you goodbye for them. Perhaps you'll see them some day, and if the Russians should knock me over, mother, just tell them I thought of them all—will you?" And although all this might be said in a light-hearted manner, it was rather solemn. I felt it to be so, for I never failed (although who was I, that I should preach?) to say something about God's providence and relying upon it; and they were very good. No army of parsons could be much better than my sons. They would listen very gravely, and shake me by the hand again, while I felt that there was nothing in the world I would not do for them. Then very often the men would say, "I'm going in with my master tonight, Mrs. Seacole; come and look after him, if he's hit" and so often as this happened I would pass the night restlessly, awaiting with anxiety the morning, and yet dreading to hear the news it held in store for me. I used to think it was like having a large family of children ill with fever, and dreading to hear which one had passed away in the night.

And as often as the bad news came, I thought it my duty to ride up to the hut of the sufferer and do my woman's work. But I felt it deeply. How could it be otherwise? There was one poor boy in the Artillery, with blue eyes and light golden hair, whom I nursed through a long and weary sickness, borne with all a man's spirit, and whom I grew to love like a fond old-fashioned mother. I thought if ever angels watched over any life, they would shelter his; but one day, but a short time after he had left his sick-bed, he was struck down on his battery, working like a young hero. It was a long time before I could banish from my mind the thought of him as I saw him last, the yellow hair, stiff and stained with his life-blood, and the blue eyes closed in the sleep of death. Of course, I saw him buried, as I did poor H---- V----, my old Jamaica friend, whose kind face was so familiar to me of old. Another good friend I mourned bitterly--Captain B----, of the Coldstreams, a great cricketer. He had been with me on the previous evening, had seemed dull, but had supped at my store, and on the following morning a brother officer told me he was shot dead while setting his pickets, which made me ill and unfit for work for the whole day. Mind you, a day was a long time to give to sorrow in the Crimea.’

If you enjoyed reading this story and would like to read more about another brave woman then read

Grace Darling and her Heroism with a Rowing Boat in 1838