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The Babington Plot is interesting to look into, as it does not consist of one but two plots. There is the Babington Plot itself, in which Mary Queen of Scots and a couple of Catholic aristocrats scheme to murder the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I and put Mary on the English throne, thus reinstating a Catholic dynasty. But after the plotters’ cover is blown and Mary Stuart is arrested for high treason, the members of Elizabeth’s administration, in turn, conspire to ensure Mary’s speedy execution. By going behind the Queen’s back, Elizabeth is betrayed once more, this time by people of her own administration.

How did this all come about? It appears that Elizabeth’s refusal to name a successor – and remaining unmarried and childless – was the catalyst for the unfortunate turn of events. Elizabeth was a Protestant, but in Catholic Spain there were also people laying claim on the English throne. This situation made the Protestant nobility increasingly uneasy as Elizabeth’s reign progressed. In a reaction, William Cecil, Lord Burghley and Chancellor to Elizabeth, decided to take action in October 1584: “Burghley and his fellow councillors put their signatures and seals to a revolutionary document called ‘The Instrument of an Association for the Preservation of Her Majesty’s Royal Person’, otherwise known as the Bond of Association”.1 The members of the Bond

solemnly swore to take ‘the utmost revenge’ on all persons, including royalty, who were found to have conspired or colluded in an attempt (successful or otherwise) on the queen’s life, and ‘to prosecute such person or persons to the death’. Retribution was to be exacted on the spot. No ‘ pretended successor by whom or for whom [John Guy’s emphasis] any such detestable act shall be attempted or committed’ was to be spared.2

This basically meant that the Bond “promised to extend the long arm of retribution to all living heirs and successors of the intended beneficiary. Thus, if anyone were to threaten Elizabeth’s life in the interests of the Stuart succession, both Mary and James VI could now be executed, whether privy to the attempt or not”.3 Moreover, Guy notes, from the very outset “Burghley’s aim was to bypass existing chains of command. And that included Elizabeth. The Bond was unusual because those who signed it declared themselves to be autonomous agents of the state, empowered to act on its behalf”.4 When Elizabeth learned about all this, she was very displeased: “As she saw it, not only was it lynch law, it struck at the very heart of the principle of God-appointed monarchy, which she held dear and was determined to uphold”.5

A couple of months after the Bond of Association came into being, Sir Francis Walsingham, Spymaster and Advisor to Queen Elizabeth, “began unravelling the threads of what at first seemed to be one of the most menacing plots so far to assassinate the queen”.6 Alison Weir describes how “[l]ate in May, [...] a priest, John Ballard, had recently arrived from France to orchestrate a Catholic rebellion against Elizabeth, timed to coincide with the Spanish invasion which was expected that summer”.7 It did not take long for Ballard’s activities to be noticed by Walsingham’s spies. Weir notes that “[l]ike many other Catholics who had spent time abroad, this misguided priest had an exaggerated concept of the level of Catholic support for Mary in England”.8

Ballard got into contact with the name giver of the subsequent plot, “the rich Catholic gentleman, Anthony Babington of Dethick, who had been a supporter of the Queen of Scots for two years. […] However, it was known to the authorities that the previous autumn [Babington] had been involved in a harebrained plot to assassinate the entire Council when it met in the Star Chamber”.9 From this, it is easy to see how the Babington Plot was doomed from the start, due to Ballard’s decision to get a known troublemaker involved. A known troublemaker to the authorities at least: it is unknown if Ballard was aware of this. Walsingham’s spies overheard Ballard and Babington

discussing King Philip’s projected invasion and plotting the murder of the Queen, who was to be struck down either in her Presence Chamber, or while walking in the park, or riding in her coach. Babington undertook to do the deed himself, with the aid of six of his friends, who proved, like Babington himself, to be gently-born, idealistic young men blessed with very little common sense and carried away by chivalrous fervour inspired by the Queen of Scots. Walsingham, while keeping Babington under the strictest surveillance, decided to turn his plotting to the government’s advantage.10

Guy observes that “the conspirators fell into a trap when, at a very early stage in their planning, they made the fateful mistake of welcoming as their postman a dubious seminary drop-out who was one of Walsingham’s agents”.11 The postman was Gilbert Gifford, who “was to inform Mary that he had organised a secret route whereby letters might be smuggled in and out of Chartley”,12 the castle where the Queen of Scots was held prisoner. It was arranged to smuggle “Mary’s letters in a waterproof wooden box that was small enough to be slipped through the bung-hole of a barrel. The brewer, an ‘honest man’, who was sympathetic towards Mary, agreed, thinking he was doing her a service; he did not find out, until it was too late”.13 Unbeknownst to the plotters, “all their and Mary’s correspondence was delivered straight to Walsingham’s assistant, the expert cryptographer Thomas Phelippes”.14 As a result,

Mary sealed her fate when she dictated to her two faithful secretaries, Claude Nau and Gilbert Curle, a ciphered reply to Babington in the course of which she asked him, ‘By whan means do the six gentlemen deliberate to proceed?’ This was taken to mean that she had specifically endorsed the part of the conspiracy which sought to kill Elizabeth.15

This letter became known as the ‘bloody letter’ and was used as evidence against Mary during her trial. However, this evidence was tampered with by Walsingham and Phelippes, who

decided to doctor the letter and send it on to Babington in the hope of securing more incriminating evidence. The main text was left alone, but Phelippes added a postscript, using an identical cipher: a blatant and audacious forgery of which he cheekily left his draft in the archives16. It was a clumsy subterfuge: an attempt toentice Babington to disclose the ‘names and qualities’ of the ‘six gentlemen’ and their accomplices.17

Soon after, the assassination plot fell apart before it had started in earnest:

On 4 August, Ballard was arrested and sent to the Tower, on the grounds that he was a Catholic priest. Learning of this through his friends, Babington panicked, seeking out one of his regicides, [Mr] Savage, and telling him he should murder the Queen that very day. Savage, although ready to do so, pointed out that he would not be admitted to the court because he was too shabbily dressed, whereupon Babington gave him a ring, instructing him to sell it and use the proceeds to buy a new suit of clothes. But there was no time, and that evening Babington fled and went into hiding.18

Babington was caught ten days later, “hiding in a barn with his hair cropped short and his face grimed to make him look like a farm worker”.19 The subsequent executions of the conspirators of the Babington Plot “gave rise to a flood of ballads and pamphlets, so that soon ‘all England was acquainted with this horrible conspiracy’ and not only the Council, but the people also were clamouring for Mary Stuart, the chief focus of the plot, to be tried and executed”.20 Elizabeth was under pressure from Parliament, her advisors, and the English people to put Mary Queen of Scots on trial for the foiled murder plot.

When deliberating what to do with Mary, “Parliament attacked Mary’s right to the title of sovereign queen on moral grounds. In an endless parade of patriotic Protestant polemic, MPs […] denounced her as ‘the daughter of sedition, the mother of rebellion, the nurse of impiety, the handmaid of iniquity, the sister of unshamefastness’”.21 Moreover,

[a]ttention was drawn to the Casket Letters, which had been presented at Mary’s trial in October 1586 to prove her complicity in the murder of her second husband, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, and her adultery with the Earl of Bothwell. In so doing, Mary’s prosecutors sought to establish a morally degenerate pattern of behaviour - a typically female pattern of behaviour - in which her involvement in the Babington conspiracy was merely one example.22

In Parliament, “Elizabeth, an equally strong adherent of the concept of divine right, dismissed her councillors’ arguments that her cousin was ‘nowe iustely no queene’ as legal quibbles”.23 Furthermore, “she declared to Parliament that her reluctance to sign the execution warrant was justified, since the ‘true sense and meaning’ of the ancient laws of England prevented her from proceeding against a woman of Mary’s ‘quality’”.24 But Parliament was not swayed. Reluctantly, Elizabeth gave in and had her cousin put on trial. What followed was a trial that was unprecedented in the history of Britain. Rayne Allinson observes that “Mary never accepted any diminution of her sovereignty and refused to recognize the authority of the English Parliament or its laws over her”.25 Indeed, it is true that “Mary continued to be treated as a foreign regnant queen until her death. During her eighteen-year captivity in England she was afforded many royal privileges, including the right to diplomatic representation and courtly ceremonial”.26 Mary maintained to the very end that she was innocent, although Weir notes that “Mary’s complicity is corroborated by [Bernardino de] Mendoza, [the Spanish ambassador], who informed King Philip that she was fully acquainted with every aspect of the project”.27 Instead, “Mary declared herself the victim of a Protestant conspiracy”.28 With the doctoring of the ‘bloody letter’ there is actually some truth to this, of course.

Despite of all this, and unavoidably, Mary Queen of Scots was found guilty and sentenced to die. Elizabeth “grudgingly allowed the guilty sentence to be sealed and proclaimed”.29 Mary would be beheaded. As Allinson points out, “[t]he method of punishment for treason was not only determined by the convict’s gender, but by his social status. Sentences passed on noble individuals were often commuted to beheading at the discretion of the monarch”.30 Moreover,

[d]ecapitation was considered more noble than other forms of execution because it did not involve direct contact with the morally contaminated headsman. A commuted sentence did not necessarily involve a reprieve from postmortem rituals of punishment, such as having the decapitated head impaled on a spike and displayed in a public place, as was done with many highprofile traitors such as Sir Thomas More. However, such treatment was usually reserved for male traitors.31

Elizabeth was very conflicted. It was not her intention to have her cousin publicly executed in her name. So when it came to signing Mary’s death warrant, Elizabeth again stalled and refused to sign. Burghley decided to employ “a method he had used earlier in [Elizabeth’s] reign when [she] had failed to come around to his point of view, [he] now fostered a false rumour that Spanish troops had landed in Wales, and briefed the queen accordingly”.32 Together with Walsingham, Burghley approached “the newly appointed French ambassador, Guillaume de l’Aubespine, Baron de Châteauneuf”, whom they “effectively blackmailed […] into conspiring with them to ‘discover’ a fresh assassination plot which was, in reality, two years old and had amounted to very little”.33 When Elizabeth was “[t]old by Burghley to double the number of her bodyguards”,34 she finally gave in and signed the death warrant. However, Elizabeth had a plan of her own and thus

ordered [William] Davison[, secretary to the Queen,] not to let the document out of his possession or to show it to anyone before he had it sealed by the Lord Chancellor. [...] [N]ext she instructed Davison to order Walsingham [, who was at that moment recovering from an illness,] to write a letter in his own name to Mary’s custodian, Amyas Paulet, demanding that he do away with his prisoner. It was a desperate move. Paulet was to act as a private citizen, ‘prosecuting’ the Scottish queen ‘to the death’ without a warrant and taking the ‘uttermost revenge’ in his capacity as a signatory to the Bond of Association – this with all the risk of reprisal, not least after the event from Elizabeth herself. Wisely, Paulet refused, calling the plan ‘dishonourable and dangerous’ and rightly foreseeing that Elizabeth would soon be looking for scapegoats.35

Unfortunately, Davison made a fatal error by showing the signed warrant to Bond of Association members Burghley and Robert Dudley, the first Earl of Leicester.36 Burghley urged Davison to get the warrant sealed that very afternoon, which Davison did. He was to regret this swift action very soon:

Shortly after ten o’clock the next morning, [...] Elizabeth sent Davison a message. If, she said, the warrant had not yet been sealed, he should delay the process. Deeply uneasy, he hurried to the Privy Chamber to warn her that it had been sealed already. She muttered something barely audible about his ‘unseemly haste’, and then (according to Davison) said she wished to be ‘no more troubled with the matter’. Burthley arranged to have Mary Queen of Scots executed the next morning, in secret. In doing this, he went behind Elizabeth’s back.37

Later, “[t]he lords of the council justified this covert manner of proceeding by emphasizing the danger to Elizabeth’s life and the possibility that dissidents at court or in the countryside might make a final, concerted effort to liberate the condemned queen”.38 They also recognized the precarity and uniqueness of the situation: exectuting a queen, who in those days was anointed and regarded as God’s equal, poses all kinds of problems”.39

The actions of the Bond of Association, which they kept secret from Queen Elizabeth, led to Mary Queen of Scots being executed the day after Elizabeth signed the execution warrant at nine o’clock in the morning. Countless of stories exist about the execution. As Allinson remarks, “the task of sifting out the hard kernels of fact from the shifting heap of legend and propaganda surrounding Mary’s last hours remains frustratingly difficult. This is largely because the chief members of Queen Elizabeth’s Privy Council were intent on ensuring that the event was completed with ‘great speede & secrecye’”.40 However, the “most historically reliable sources are the eyewitness accounts of Shrewsbury and Kent, Robert Wynkfield (or Wingfield), and Richard Fletcher, the Dean of Peterborough. Beale’s pen and ink drawing provides a rare visual account of the chronological sequence of the event and the physical layout of the Hall”.41 Furthermore,

Burghley is believed to have commissioned an independent report of the proceedings at Fotheringay, but unfortunately this document no longer survives. A summary of the Earls’ report to the council does exist in Burghley’s hand, and this may have been the version he presented to Elizabeth. As may be expected, this account is more revealing for the details it omits than for what it includes, perhaps in anticipation of Elizabeth’s negative response.42

It is important to realise that “no official version of the execution was printed in England during Elizabeth’s lifetime: the first government-endorsed account was William Camden’s Historie of the Life and Death of Mary Stuart Queene of Scotland, first published during the latter part of the reign of Mary’s son, James VI and I, in 1624”.43

Fearing a Catholic uproar,

[a]s a precaution the execution was performed indoors with only a select group of noblemen and officials permitted to attend. Moreover, the principal organizers, Sir Francis Walsingham and William Cecil, Lord Burghley, instructed the Earls to ensure that Mary’s servants ‘be stayed for a tyme in this realm’ and ‘remayne also in the castell untill furder order’, to prevent contradictory reports of the event leaking out.44

Allinson recounts the anecdote that “once she had forgiven her executioners who then began to disrobe her, Mary once again attempted to undermine the authority of her punishers through disruptive speech, this time in the form of morbid humour”:

[while] they were pullinge of her apparrel she nev[er] changed her countenance but wth smilenge cheare vttered these wordes, that she had nev[er] soche groomes to make her vnreadye and that she nev[er] put of her clothes before soche a companye.45

As Allison notes,

the beheading of a monarch arguably lent the punishment ritual double significance, although whether this irony occurred to the audience at Mary Stuart’s execution is not recorded. Robert Wise noted that she ‘endured two strockz of the executioner’s axe’, though ‘one little grestell’ had to be hacked off before the executioner could raise up her head in the view of the assembly. Having pronounced ‘God save the Queen’, the executioner duly lifted up the severed head, but to the horror of many ‘the dressinge of lawne’ fell away from Mary’s skull, which then appeared ‘as greye as one of threescore and ten years old […,] her face in a moment beinge so muche altred from the forme she had when she was a live as few could remember by her deade face’. The ritual act of execution thus seemed to complete Mary’s transformation from modest, regal queen into an ugly, impotent criminal.46

After her execution, ”Mary lay embalmed at Fotheringay for nearly six months before being finally interred with solemn honours at Peterborough Cathedral in the early hours of Lammas Day (a traditional day of accounts), on 1 August 1587”.47 Is is unknown what caused the delay, “although it is possible that Elizabeth’s rage at the news of her cousin’s death took six months to subside, and only then could she allow Mary to be finally put to rest”.48

In the aftermath, all members of the Bond of Association were arrested. Burghley, ever the schemer,

began experimenting with drafts of two petitions on behalf of himself and his colleagues. By the time he had perfected the second, a metamorphosis had taken place. When beginning the first he had used language that made it plain the blame was shared, but by the end of the second draft all of it was squarely transferred on to the shoulders of the unfortunate Davison. Burghley also systematically purged the archives. Documents he is known to have drafted or corrected himself, notably his drafts of the instructions sent to the commissioners at Fotheringhay and to Amyas Paulet, he recovered and burned.49

This is another reason why so little information can be found on the circumstances surrounding Mary Queen of Scots’ execution. As a result of Burghley’s petitions,

Davison was put on trial in the Star Chamber, the most feared tribunal in the land, since the basis of its jurisdiction was the royal prerogative. As his case turned on his word against the queen’s and boiled down to a matter of interpreting her mind, he could not really mount a credible defense. [...] After a draining ordeal lasting four hours, Davison was fined 10,000 marks (more than £6 million in modern values) and sentenced to imprisonment at the queen’s pleasure. He could not possibly pay such a huge sum, but his fine was never collected and he was quietly released from the Tower after a year. His salary continued to be paid, but he was suspended from office permanently.50

The turbulent affairs of the Babington Plot and its aftermath clearly demonstrate how danger lurked both within and without a monarch’s court in early modern England. Furthermore, it becomes clear how the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 paved the way for the execution of Charles I only 48 years later, in 1649. As Elizabeth I already foresaw, once Parliament decides to have a foreign anointed monarch executed, an English monarch may very well be next. Paradoxically, Elizabeth herself played a crucial role in all this: If she had produced a heir – or appointed a (Protestant) successor much earlier than she ultimately did – both Mary Queen of Scots and Charles I may have suffered a very different fate...

by Birgitte Breemerkamp


1. John Guy, Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years (Falkirk: Penguin Random House UK, 2016): 76

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Alison Weir, Elizabeth the Queen (London: Vintage, 2008): 363

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Alison Weir, Elizabeth the Queen (London: Vintage, 2008): 363-64.

11. John Guy, Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years (Falkirk: Penguin Random House UK, 2016): 81

12. Alison Weir, Elizabeth the Queen (London: Vintage, 2008): 360

13. Ibid.

14. John Guy, Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years (Falkirk: Penguin Random House UK, 2016): 81

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Alison Weir, Elizabeth the Queen (London: Vintage, 2008): 365-66

19. John Guy, Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years (Falkirk: Penguin Random House UK, 2016): 82

20. Alison Weir, Elizabeth the Queen (London: Vintage, 2008): 368

21. Rayne Allinson, “The Queen’s Three Bodies: Gender, Criminality, and Sovereignty in the Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots,”
Practices of Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, edited by Megan Cassidy-Welch and Peter Sherlock
(Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2008): 99-116

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid.

27. Alison Weir, Elizabeth the Queen (London: Vintage, 2008): 365

28. Rayne Allinson, “The Queen’s Three Bodies: Gender, Criminality, and Sovereignty in the Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots”

29. John Guy, Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years (Falkirk: Penguin Random House UK, 2016): 83

30. Rayne Allinson, “The Queen’s Three Bodies: Gender, Criminality, and Sovereignty in the Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots”

31. Ibid.


33. Ibid., p. 84

34. Ibid., p. 84

35. Ibid., p. 85

36. Ibid., p. 84

37. Ibid., p. 85

38. Rayne Allinson, “The Queen’s Three Bodies: Gender, Criminality, and Sovereignty in the Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots”

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid.

43. Ibid.

44. Ibid.

45. Ibid.

46. Ibid.

47. Ibid.

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid.

50. John Guy, Elizabeth: The Forgotten Years (Falkirk: Penguin Random House UK, 2016): 89