DURING THE CAPTIVITY of Mary, Queen of
Scots, in England, several attempts were made to place her on
the English throne. The most significant of these was the Babington
Plot, which ultimately led to Mary's trial and execution in
Queen of Scots, was executed after the discovery of
the Babington Plot.
The person for whom the plot was named was Anthony Babington.
Raised in England as a Catholic, Babington devoted his life
to returning England to Catholicism. As a child, Babington served
as a page to Mary's jailer, the Earl of Shrewsbury. This is
when his devotion to Mary began. As a young adult, Babington
conspired with other Catholic Englishmen and the Catholic king
of Spain, Philip II, to rescue Mary and reestablish Catholicism
in England. This plot failed and numerous of its conspirators
were arrested, but Babington convinced Elizabeth that he was
a devoted Protestant and was accepted into her court.
In 1586, Babington met John Ballard, a Catholic priest who also
wanted Mary on the throne of England. Ballard placed Babington
in charge of English Catholics organized to remove Elizabeth
from the throne. Babington began to write his own letters to
Mary. Written in cipher, Babington's letters explained his plans
to rescue her and reestablish Catholicism in England. But the
plot did not only include Babington and Ballard. Catholics all
over Europe wanted to rescue Mary and remove Elizabeth. Philip
II promised to send troops when the assassination of Elizabeth
had taken place.
What Babington and Mary did not realize, however, was that their
letters were being intercepted by Elizabeth's spies. Elizabeth
knew of plots to place Mary on the English throne. Elizabeth's
secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, had been aware of the Babington
plot for quite some time. Walsingham tried to convince Elizabeth
that the throne and her life were in danger and it would be
necessary to have Mary executed. Elizabeth had always refused
to have Mary assassinated. Walsingham was convinced that if
evidence existed that Mary was plotting Elizabeth's assassination,
Elizabeth would then order the execution of Mary. Walsingham
found such an opportunity with the Babington Plot.
Walsingham hired Gilbert Gifford, an exiled English Catholic,
as a double agent. Gifford was to reestablish contact with Mary.
Letters between Mary and her supporters, including Babington's
letters, were sent via a beer keg supplied by a brewer. By using
Gifford, correspondence could be maintained and intercepted
without raising suspicions amongst Mary's supporters. While
in his possession, Walsingham had the letters deciphered and
copied. In 1586, Babington wrote a letter outlining the details
of the plot to rescue Mary. In the letter, Babington asked for
Mary's permission to assassinate Elizabeth.
Mary responded and agreed with the plans, but did not authorized
the assassination. That did not matter however, because Walsingham's
spies intercepted the letter. The letter was deciphered and
copied but this time a postscript was added. According to the
new letter, Mary authorized the assassination. Walsingham had
In August 1586, Ballard, the Catholic priest, was arrested and
tortured. He named Babington in the plot. Babington, who begged
Elizabeth for mercy, was tried and executed in 1586. Mary was
tried on the basis of the forged evidence and executed in February
This article originally appeared as part of a larger piece
on the 1580s in our October/November 2001