The Babington Plot to Kill Queen Elizabeth I

Anthony Babington, the third child and eldest son of Henry Babington, was born into a wealthy Catholic family in Dethick, Derbyshire, in October 1561. The bells of the church announced his birth to the world; yet, his plotting would destroy his family. At an early age, around 16, he served as a page to the captive Mary Queen of Scots and reportedly “fell in love” with her courage and beauty. It is said, while wearing a disguise, he often visited her at Sheffield, where she was imprisoned.

Portrait of young gentleman said to be Anthony Babington ~

“The sixth Earl of Shrewsbury was entrusted with the care of Mary, Queen of Scots, when she was detained from 1569 onward, in his various houses around Derbyshire, Wingfield among them. In August 1569 the Earl was eager to move Mary from Wingfield. He wanted to take her to Sheffield because Wingfield needed cleaning. There were over 240 people in residence and the manor “waxed unsavoury.” At Sheffield, the Earl had two houses, Sheffield Castle and Sheffield Manor and could easily move the queen between them when cleaning was necessary. [ Fearnehough, David. (2010). Derbyshire extremes. Stroud: Amberley. p. 117.] 

“The Earl of Shrewsbury heard of a plot to release Mary at that time. The Earl of Northumberland and his wife had come to stay nearby at Wentworth House. The alleged escape plan involved the Countess of Northumberland pretending to be a nurse and coming to attend Christine Hogg, the pregnant wife of the embroiderer Bastian Pagez. The Countess was “something like the queen in personage” and would take Mary’s place while she escaped. [Bain, Joseph, ed., Calendar State Papers Scotland, vol. 2 (Edinburgh, 1900), p. 671.]

“Queen Elizabeth wrote to the Earl of Shrewsbury on 14 March 1570 giving permission for him to move Mary back to Wingfield because the water supply at Tutbury Castle was inadequate. The Earl had hoped to take Mary to Chatsworth House and also made preparations there.

Wingfield Manor. The view from the tower at Wingfield Manor, looking North to North East with the village of South Wingfield in the background. Little known, Wingfield Manor is a huge grand ruin of a country mansion built in 1440 by Ralph Cromwell and is one of the many places Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned. It sits atop a small hill over looking the valley below and is quite imposing on the landscape. The ruin is looked after by English Heritage. ~

“Mary was back at Wingfield in 1584 and Ralph Sadler described in October how the “castle” was guarded by soldiers armed with pistols, muskets and halberds, and the difficult terrain nearby which would deter escape. He wrote about the unsatisfactory conditions in November, when she was to moved to Tutbury Castle. Mary’s bedchamber at Wingfield was too close to the kitchens and the “smoke and scent of meat” from below, despite being the best lodging in the house.

It was thought that was when Mary met Babington, who organised the abortive Babington Plot, a Recusant Catholic plot against Elizabeth I.

Henry Babington died in in 1571, leaving Anthony as his heir under the guardianship of his mother. About 1579, Babington married Margery Draycot and he appears to have spent some time at Lincoln’s Inn the following year.

Anthony Babington’s looks and his quick wit made him a favorite at Queen Elizabeth’s court, but he did not realize he was being watched carefully due to being a practicing Catholic.

In March 1586, Anthony Babington and six friends gathered in The Plough, an inn outside Temple Bar, where they discussed the possibility of freeing Mary, assassinating Elizabeth, and inciting a rebellion supported by an invasion from abroad. With his spy network, it was not long before Walsingham discovered the existence of the Babington Plot. To make sure he obtained a conviction he arranged for Gifford to visit Babington on 6th July. Gifford told Babington that he had heard about the plot from Thomas Morgan in France and was willing to arrange for him to send messages to Mary via his brewer friend.

Sir Francis Walsingham ~ Portrait c. 1585, attributed to John de Critz ~

However, Babington did not fully trust Gifford and enciphered his letter. Babington used a very complex cipher that consisted of 23 symbols that were to be substituted for the letters of the alphabet (excluding j. v and w), along with 35 symbols representing words or phrases. In addition, there were four nulls and a sybol which signified that the next symbol represents a double letter. It would seem that the French Embassy had already arranged for Mary to receive a copy of the necessary codebook.

Gilbert Gifford took the sealed letter to Francis Walsingham. He employed counterfeiters, who would then break the seal on the letter, make a copy, and then reseal the original letter with an identical stamp before handing it back to Gifford. The apparently untouched letter could then be delivered to Mary or her correspondents, who remained oblivious to what was going on.

The copy was then taken to Thomas Phelippes. Cryptanalysts like Phelippes used several methods to break a code like the one used by Babington. For example, the commonest letter in English is “e”. He established the frequency of each character, and tentatively proposed values for those that appeared most often. Eventually he was able to break the code used by Babington. The message clearly proposed the assassination of Elizabeth.

In 1586, Babington wrote to Mary and outlined the plan to use money and troops, provided by Philip of Spain, to sail up the Thames and capture London and Queen Elizabeth. Elizabeth was to be murdered and Mary would become the Catholic queen of both England and Scotland.

Sparatcus Educational tells us, “Babington home was searched for documents that would provide evidence against him. When interviewed, Babington, who was not tortured, made a confession in which he admitted that Mary had written a letter supporting the plot. At his trial, Babington and his twelve confederates were found guilty and sentenced to hanging and quartering. ‘The horrors of semi-strangulation and of being split open alive for the heart and intestines to be wrenched out were regarded, like those of being burned to death, as awful but in the accepted order of things.'”

Gallows were set up near St Giles-in-the-Field and the first seven conspirators, led by Babington, were executed on 20th September 1586. These seven men were first dragged behind a horse, face down, through the streets of London. Next they were hung upon gallows in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Finally, they were taken down, while still alive, to have their insides ripped out.

Babington’s last words were “Spare me Lord Jesus”. Another conspirator, Chidiock Tichborne, made a long speech where he blamed Babington “for drawing him in”. The men were hanged only for a short time, cut down while they were still alive, and then castrated and disembowelled.

The other seven were brought to the scaffold the next day and suffered the same death, “but, more favourably, by the Queens commandment, who detested the former cruelty” They hung until they were dead and only then suffered the barbarity of castration and disembowelling. They were officially the last victims to be hung, drawn, and quartered.


About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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