Friday, September 13, 2013

On This Day in Elizabethan History: Babington & Co-conspirators Go on Trial

The Babington Plot letter, signed by Anthony Babington. Image Barb Alexander (c) Tudor Tutor.

On this day in Elizabethan history in 1586, Anthony Babington and his thirteen co-conspirators went on trial. Babington, a Catholic nobleman who had formally served in the household of the Earl of Shrewsbury, and his associates were charged with plotting to kill Queen Elizabeth I and attempting to sieze the the English throne on behalf of the imprisoned Mary Stuart, the former Queen of Scotland. The final stage of the so-called Babington Plot was that King Philip II of Spain would invade England and restore Catholicism, bringing the country back under the control of the Church of Rome.

The Babington Plot was an elaborate Catholic plot, created by King Philip II of Spain and the former Spanish ambassador in England, Don Bernardino de Mendoza; Mendoza had recently been banished from the English court because Queen Elizabeth I had become suspicious of his activities. There would never be another Spanish ambassador in England during Elizabeth I's reign. 

An engraving of Bernardino de Mendoza, c. 1595. By an artist from the Spanish School. Image public domain.

While Mary Stuart was not the instigator of this plot, once she was informed of Philip II's plan by Babington, she gave her consent in writing. An imprisoned Queen without a country, Mary was tempted by this offer of liberation and a kingdom to rule. Queen Elizabeth I's spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, who was tired of waiting for Mary to condemn herself through her other correspondances, orchestrated a ruse in order to obtain just cause to have her arrested. Under Walsingham's orders,  Mary Stuart was led to believe that her letters in support of the Babington plot were being smuggled out of the castle securely in wine barrels, when in reality the letters were delivered directly to Walsingham. Today, modern legal systems would consider Walsingham's methods entrapment, but even so, Mary made the decision to commit her compliance to paper. Had she rejected Babington's plan entirely, she would have been clear of treason.

A portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham. By an artist of the Anglo-Netherlandish School, circa 1590. Picture acquired through Wikimedia Commons. Image public domain.

Unfortunately for Babington, and eventually for Mary, Queen of Scots, there was copious evidence to convict them of their crimes.

Babington described to Mary Stuart his plans in such great detail that there would be absolutely no way that Mary could have misinterpreted the message:

"First, assuring of invasion: Sufficient strength in the invader: Ports to arrive at appointed, with a strong party at every place to join with them and warrant their landing. The deliverance of your Majesty. The dispatch of the usurping Competitor. For the effectuating of all which it may please your Excellency to rely upon my service.... Now forasmuch as delay is extreme dangerous, it may please your most excellent Majesty by your wisdom to direct us, and by your princely authority to enable such as may advance the affair; foreseeing that, where is not any of the nobility at liberty assured to your Majesty in this desperate service (except unknown to us) and seeing it is very necessary that some there be to become heads to lead the multitude, ever disposed by nature in this land to follow nobility, considering withal it doth not only make the commons and gentry to follow without contradiction or contention (which is ever found in equality) but also doth add great courage to the leaders. For which necessary regard I recommend some unto your Majesty as fittest in my knowledge for to be your Lieutenants in the West parts, in the North parts, South Wales, North Wales and the Counties of Lancaster, Derby and Stafford: all which countries, by parties already made and fidelities taken in your Majesty's name, I hold as most assured and of most undoubted fidelity." (reproduced in Pollen)
He also explained his intent to rescue Mary and have Queen Elizabeth murdered:
"Myself with ten gentlemen and a hundred of our followers will undertake the delivery of your royal person from the hands of your enemies. For the dispatch of the usurper, from the obedience of whom we are by the excommunication of her made free, there be six noble gentlemen, all my private friends, who for the zeal they bear to the Catholic cause and your Majesty's service will undertake that tragical execution." (reproduced in Pollen)
After this letter was deciphered and read by Walsingham, it was re-sent to Mary, who received it on the 14th of July. Mary gave her enthusiastic consent:
"For divers great and important considerations (which were here too long to be deduced) I cannot but greatly praise and commend your common desire to prevent in time the designments of our enemies for the extirpation of our religion out of this realm with the ruin of us all. For I have long ago shown unto the foreign Catholic princes—and experience doth approve it—the longer that they and we delay to put hand on the matter on this side, the greater leisure have our said enemies to prevail and win advantage over the said princes (as they have done against the King of Spain) and in the meantime the Catholics here, remaining exposed to all sorts of persecution and cruelty, do daily diminish in number, forces, means and power. So as, if remedy be not thereunto hastily provided, I fear not a little but they shall become altogether unable for ever to rise again and to receive any aid at all, whensoever it were offered them. For mine own part, I pray you to assure our principal friends that, albeit I had not in this cause any particular interest (that which I may pretend unto being of no consideration unto me in respect of the public good of this state) I shall be always ready and most willing to employ therein my life and all that I have or may ever look for in this world." (reproduced in Pollen)

This statement from Mary alone could have had her convicted of treason; there was no additional evidence needed. But, since Walsingham and his associates would leave no room for error in building their case to get Queen Elizabeth to believe in her cousin's guilt, Walsingham's man Phellipes made a copy of the original letter, adding an incriminating post-script. Phellipes than made another copy of the letter for Walsingham, doodling an ominous gallows on the paper. Mary was doomed.

The key to the Babington Plot cipher code of Mary Stuart, circa 1586. UK National Archives.

Babington and his associates were found guilty of high treason and were sentenced to be hung, drawn, and quartered, a traitor's execution. Babington tried to buy a pardon, but his offer was unsurprisingly rejected. He was executed, and his dismembered body was displayed in pieces throughout London. He was just 24 years old. 

Elizabethan Privy Council manuscript concerning Mary, Queen of Scots. Photo (c) Paul Fraser Collectibles.

Pollen, J.H. "Mary Queen of Scots and the Babington plot," The Month, Volume 109. 1907. Online.