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