The Babington Plot


In 1586, Anthony Babington was enlisted by John Ballard in a plot to murder Queen Elizabeth and, with help from agents of Spain and the Pope, to release Mary from her captivity at Chartley Hall.

Educated at Cambridge and Rheims, John Ballard was among the Catholic priests sent to England in 1581 as a part of the Catholic missionary efforts. He likely returned to the continent in 1584 to consult with clergymen of the Catholic Church and make a pilgrimage to Rome. In 1585, however, Ballard was in England again, visiting the Catholic faithful. In Mar 1586, Ballard met John Savage, an ex-soldier who was involved in a separate plot against Elizabeth. Savage admitted to Ballard that he had sworn an oath to assassinate Elizabeth; a resolution made in 1585 after consultation with three friends, Dr. William Gifford, Gilbert Gifford and Christopher Hodgson. Later that same year, Ballard returned once again to the continent to meet with Charles Paget and the Spanish Ambassador Bernardino de Mendoza.

Spanish Ambassador in London (1578-84), Mendoza was implicated in the Throckmorton Plot and exiled in 1584. Since the papal bull of 1571, King Felipe II of Spain and his Ambassador Mendoza, were always prepared to assist English Catholics who plotted the overthrow of Elizabeth. Ballard reported to them that English Catholics were prepared to mount an insurrection against Elizabeth, if they could be assured of foreign support. It is difficult to determine whether Ballard’s report of English Catholic opposition to Elizabeth was accurate. Nevertheless, Ballard did receive general assurances from Paget and Mendoza that support would be available. Ballard was also instructed by Paget and Mendoza to return to England to secure commitments on the part of leading English Catholics. Before the end of the month, Ballard was back in England.

But the plot is monitored by spies working for Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth's Secretary of State, who intercept the coded letters between Babington and Ballard. Walsingham used two agents provocateurs, Gilbert Gifford and Bernard Maude, to manipulate respectively two men, John Savage and John Ballard, who believed that the killing of a tyrant was lawful.

In 1585, Gilbert Gifford, an English Catholic exile, met with Morgan. Morgan enlisted Gifford him to re-establish correspondence with Mary, whose correspondence had been cut-off by Walsingham after the discovery of the Throckmorton plot. When Gifford arrived in England, Walsingham detained him and enlisted the man as a double agent.  As a double agent, Gifford was known as No. 4 in London and used many aliases, such as Colerdin, Pietro and Cornelys. Though Walsingham had ensured that Mary could no longer receive correspondence, he recognized that she could hardly then be found guilty in plots that she was unaware were taking place and more significantly, had not approved. Walsingham and Gifford, therefore, devised a new channel of correspondence for Mary that could be carefully scrutinized by Walsingham and yet, would appear secure to Mary and her supporters. Gifford was then able to return to Morgan having established the necessary channel for correspondence.

Any method that Gifford or Walsingham devised as a channel of correspondence could not arouse suspicion. Walsingham had recently moved Mary to Chartley, under the supervision of the Puritan Sir Amyas Paulet. For over a year, Walsingham and Paulet had ensured that Mary had no contact with her agents overseas. To re-establish a channel of correspondence, Walsingham and Gifford arranged for a local beer brewer to act as the facilitator. The brewer would move letters in and out of Chartley by placing them in a watertight casing that could be placed in the bunghole of a beer keg. The mechanics, therefore, were really quite simple yet sufficiently clandestine not to arose suspicion. With the method for conveyance established, Gifford approached Charles de l’Aubespine, Baron de Chateauneuf and the French Ambassador to England, described the new plan to him and requested the first correspondence that should be sent to Mary. Chateauneuf gave Gifford a letter and thus, the whole arrangement began.

Walsingham was certainly aware of almost every aspect of the plot. By late 1585, he deployed his agents against all the major figures of the conspiracy. Gilbert Gifford spied on Morgan and Paget in Paris as well as Ballard and Babington. Barnard Maude reported on Ballard, until the conspirators discovered him sometime after Ballard had returned to England. Robert Poley carefully watched the French Ambassador as well as Babington. Moreover, there were most probably still other agents reporting to Walsingham on relevant matters. However, Walsingham did not yet have Mary’s written assent to all the details of the developing plot,  the crucial evidence he needed to bring Mary to trial.

Encouraged by a letter received from Morgan, Mary wrote, on 28 Jun, a letter to Babington that assured the conspirator of his status as her friend. Upon receiving this letter, Babington sent in reply all the details of the present plot. Babington informed Mary of the foreign plans for invasion; the plans of English Catholics for insurrection; and, his own plans to take six men in his charge to rescue Mary from Chartley accompanied by a hundred men, and to send Savage with another six men to assassinate Elizabeth. It was unnecessary for Babington to inform Mary of these plans, but he did so probably seeking rewards for the men of his charge. On 18 Jul Mary replied; she commended and praised all aspects of the plot. The letter also contains her request for further details; and also counsels Babington on the importance that the plan be supported by a foreign invasion. On 19 Jul Phelippes copied the letter and sent it to Walsingham with a small picture of the gallows on its seal. Walsingham had his proof.

A story tells that Elizabeth, walking through Richmond Park, encountered one of the Babington conspirators. She recognized him from a portrait shown to her by Walsingham. Elizabeth approached the man and said, “Am I not well guarded today, with no man near me who wears a sword at his side”. The man fled and nothing came of the incident. Nevertheless, it shows that Elizabeth was far from secure and perhaps, a more determined conspirator might have taken this opportunity to murder her.

The discovery of the details of the plot, along with the Stafford plot of 1587 to blow up Elizabeth by putting gunpowder under her bed, finally convinced Elizabeth that she would not be safe as long as Mary lived. “You have planned in divers ways and manners to take my life and to ruin my kingdom”, she wrote to Mary in Oct.

John Stow wrote in his Chronicles:

“In the month of July, divers traitorous persons were... detected of a most wicked conspiracy against her Majesty, and also of minding to have stirred up a general rebellion throughout the whole Realm. For joy of whose apprehension, the Citizens of London... caused the bells to be rung, and bonfires to be made, and also banqueted every man according to his ability, some in their houses, some in the streets”

Mary's two secretaries, Claude de la Boisseliere Nau (d. 1605) and Gilbert Curle (d.1609), were interrogated about the correspondence. Nau had taken down Mary's letters in French and then Curle would translate them into English and put them into cipher. A language specialist educated at Cambridge, Thomas Phelippes, was recruited by Walsingham and became his leading codebreaker. In his early career Phelippes worked for Sir Amyas Paulet when he was Elizabeth’s Ambassador in Paris. In 1586 his codebreaking and forgery skills uncovered the Plot. Curle was arrested and interrogated by Walsingham’s agents in Aug 1586 and testified that the letters were genuine. He was imprisoned for almost one year for his part in the plot. His colleague, Nau, had joined Mary’s service as a secretary in 1575 and was also responsible for Mary’s correspondence. Like Curle, he was interrogated in 1586. He was freed in Sep 1587 to return to France.

Ballard was arrested on 4 Aug 1586. Under torture he confessed and incriminated Babington. On 20 Sep Ballard and Babington were drawn and quartered in an especially cruel display, while Savage and the other four men were hung.

Elizabeth understood that to execute Mary, while it would preserve her own security in the interim, it would challenge the whole institution upon which her authority ultimately resided, creating a dangerous precedent. With the urgings of not only the Privy Council and parliament but also the general populace who were outraged by the plot, after great hesitation, Elizabeth sent Mary to the block in 1587. News of her death was met in London with more bonfires, bells, and feasting. A volume entitled Verses of Praise and Joy, Written upon her Majesty’s Preservation, appeared in 1586 containing “Tichborn’s Lamentation,” supposedly written by one of the conspirators, Chidiock Tichborne (ca. 1558-1586), awaiting execution in the Tower; it became one of the most popular poems of the age.

Chidiok Tichborne

by Hans Eworth


My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is fallen and yet my leaves are green,
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and saw it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I was but made:
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done

The Babington plot had many implications for Elizabethan England. Acts of parliament, intended for the Queen’s safety, included oppressive measures against seminarians, Jesuits and the English Catholic community.



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