By Jacquelyn Lee Borgeson

     The reign of Queen Elizabeth I was as eventful as it was lengthy. Of the many intriguing conspiracies of that day, the Babington Plot remains the most controversial. It was not just another attempt by Catholic sympathizers to assassinate Elizabeth and place Mary, Queen of Scots, on the English throne. This plot was unique due to its origins rather than its nature. Contrary to popular belief, it was Principal Secretary Sir Francis Walsingham, not Anthony Babington, who instigated this scheme, nurtured it to maturity, and then cleverly concealed his involvement. Exactly how and perhaps why Walsingham came to play such an enormous role remains a great debate today. A presentation of this plot from its beginning to its discovery may show the extent of Walsingham's entanglement.

     The English situation in 1585, one year before even the first inkling of the Babington Plot, was precarious. The succession of anti-Elizabeth plots like the Throckmorton and Norfolk conspiracies had shown an immense dissention among the English people.(1) It had become apparent to the Protestant faction that a Catholic revival was gaining momentum in their country.(2)

     Elizabeth was in a rather awkward position. Besides her foreign disputes with both France and Spain, she had the former Scottish Queen Mary, her own cousin, under house arrest. International law forbade the peace-time imprisonment of one monarch by another.(3) Regardless of this fact, Elizabeth had kept Mary confined for over fifteen years.(4) Although there had been more than sufficient evidence to implicate Mary in several treasonous plots against the English Queen, Elizabeth steadfastly refused to have her executed.(5)

     Basically, the refusal to execute Mary was a political maneuver on Elizabeth's part. Few really know how Elizabeth regarded Mary personally, but she feared a Catholic uprising that would probably follow the beheading of the beloved Scottish sovereign. Also, Elizabeth knew that even the seemingly justifiable execution of another monarch would only weaken her own royal authoritarian status.(()(6))

     Elizabeth's reluctance to execute Mary irritated her ministers, particularly Walsingham. The Principal Secretary had worked extremely hard at gathering enough evidence to convict Mary of treason, but Elizabeth kept putting him off. His frustration caused Walsingham to direct his anger towards Mary herself. He concluded that Mary was far too much of a menace to Protestantism and that as long as she lived, this "bosom serpent" would never cease her traitorous scheming.(7)

     Conspiracy was second nature to Mary, so Walsingham swore that the next time Mary gained the opportunity to plot, he would have knowledge of her internal strategy. Walsingham was not above using the same techniques as the conspirators to complete this "curious ambition" to dispose of Queen Mary.(8) This time, Walsingham was confident that the fruit of his labor would be the execution of Mary.

     Now when Walsingham, aided by fellow minister William Cecil, decided that Mary had to be eliminated, a historical controversy over the moral foundation of this action began. Many historians condemned Walsingham for what they perceived as his underhanded tactics.(9) Other sources applauded the Secretary's devotion to duty.(10) One supporter of Walsingham justified the Minister's actions by proclaiming that since Walsingham was a man "whose job it was to frustrate plots against his sovereign, we can hardly expect him to be more scrupulous than his adversaries."(11)

     Regardless of these moral issues surrounding the initiation of the Babington Plot, there was little doubt that Walsingham played a leading role in it. His first step was to gain absolute control over Mary. He had her moved from Tutbury, her prison for the last fifteen years, to the home of the Earl of Essex in Chartley. This sudden move did not raise Mary's suspicions because for years she had been practically begging for just such a transfer. Walsingham did not grant Mary's appeals out of the mere goodness of his heart. It was his belief that Mary had become too settled at Tutbury and had far too much contact with the outside world. From the secluded Chartley estate, Walsingham was assured of total access to all of Mary's communication.(12)

     Walsingham's next action was to convince Elizabeth to remove Lord Shrewsbury as Mary's guardian. Walsingham then hand-picked Sir Amias Paulet as the replacement warden. While Walsingham was quite pleased with this "precise fellow," he became alarmed when Paulet went above and beyond his expectations as jailer.(13) Paulet had guards posted day and night, had all leaves taken from Mary's staff, and even forced Mary to stop doling out food to the poor because he saw this as an opportunity to bribe them.(14)

     Although Walsingham did want Mary under close observation, he did not want her totally removed from her agents. If she had remained unable to actively conspire, Walsingham would never have obtained grounds for her execution. Thus the Secretary had to find a way that enabled Mary to have a monitored communication with her Catholic supporters.(15) To find a Machiavellian means to such an end, Walsingham called in his primary agent, Thomas Phelippes.(16) This man was an expert in penmanship and deciphering in Latin, French, Italian, as well as his native English. Walsingham sent him to Chartley with the mission of finding a means in which a controlled mail route could be established.(17)

     While Phelippes was groping about the dark passages of Chartley, Walsingham was enlisting another agent for his anti-Mary scenario. On rather trumped-up charges, Walsingham had a known Catholic sympathizer, Gilbert Gifford, arrested.(18) With persuasion, Walsingham convinced Gifford to work as a spy for him on the behalf of Elizabeth. Since Gifford had been an active Catholic spy for several years, Walsingham was wary of the man. To secure his loyalty, the Secretary had Gifford move onto Phelippes manor. This way, the Catholic double agent would be under surveillance at all times. He was sent shortly thereafter to Chartley to assist Phelippes.(19)

     Walsingham was always very concerned with having knowledge of what went on about him. He had an extensive spy network at his disposal long before he had launched plans for Mary into motion.(20) There was no place too sacred or too vile for Walsingham's business. He had either bought or placed spies in such diverse localities as the Roman Catholic Seminary at Rheims, France to the alcohol-drenched pubs of London.(21)

     It was from this bloated espionage organization that Walsingham selected several more skilled men to aid in his endeavors. The Secretary had just engaged Arthur Gregory, an expert at resealing opened letters, and Thomas Rogers, a master letter-stealer, when Phelippes and Gifford returned victorious from their Chartley quest.(22) They had jointly conceived of the perfect route which would allow Mary to smuggle her correspondence.(23)

     Their idea was to use the weekly beer deliveries to the castle as Mary's mail route. Phelippes had invented a waterproof tube in which letters could be concealed in the barrel's cork.(24) This crafty method appealed greatly to Walsingham, but he had trouble convincing the pious jailer Paulet of its advantages. Paulet only agreed to this plan after much persuasion by his friend Phelippes and grand assurances from Walsingham that none of his own men would have to be corrupted to complete the scheme.(25)

     With the warden's approval, Walsingham set about hiring men to enact this plan. The first employee was a brewer from Burton. This man, known only by the code name "The Honest Man," had previously run deliveries at Tutbury and held Mary's confidence.(26) The brewer was easily bought. Every week he was paid three times: once for his beer, once by Mary for his postman services, and yet again by Walsingham for that same duty.(27) Since Paulet refused to allow his people to contribute to Walsingham's plot, the Secretary was forced also to employ a man servant, simply known as "The Butler," whose job it was to take the letters from the keg to Mary's secretaries, Claude Nau and Lord Curll.(28)

     Through this mail circuit, Nau and Curll delivered the letters directly to Mary, aided her in ciphering replies, and returned these to the man servant. The letters were then sent to Walsingham. The Secretary read each letter, instructed Phelippes to make duplicates, and then sent the communications off on their true destinations. In this way Walsingham observed from the safety of his office, the birth of yet another conspiracy against his queen.(29)

     This mail system was officially established on January 12, 1586, when the French Ambassador to England, Chateaneuf, sent a harmless test letter to Mary. The Ambassador had been informed of the mail route by Gifford, who was financially rewarded for his duty to the Catholic cause. The Scottish Queen was overjoyed by the unexpected communication. Mary had been cut off so long from friends that she had begun to lose hope. After Mary's reply, Chateaneuf deemed the system secure enough to send Mary a two-year accumulation of various letters. Walsingham carefully inspected this surplus mail and found a letter that would suit his purpose.(30)

     The letter was from Thomas Morgan, Mary's personal agent in Paris. (31) In it he commended a young gentleman named Anthony Babington to Mary and insisted he would be loyal. Babington was an esquire in his mid-twenties who had been a known Catholic supporter since his early teens. The letter provoked Mary into writing Babington who had just returned from France to his Dethycke estate. This was precisely what Walsingham had intended. Even though she did not explicitly state her wish for the instigation of another Catholic plot, she did inform Babington that she would be grateful for his assistance in her escape.(32)

     Quite by chance, at the time Babington received Mary's letter, he was already composing one to her that outlined plans for her rescue.(33) Mary's letter added inspiration to his letter that blatantly hinted at the execution of Elizabeth by himself and six of his followers. With Elizabeth dead, Mary would have inherited the throne and the English people may have been returned to Catholicism. As incriminating as the letter was, Walsingham knew it would not be enough to convince Elizabeth that Mary's death was necessary. Hence Walsingham proceeded to add some fuel to the fire he had previously kindled. (34)

     Walsingham sent his spies to Paris and had them warn Morgan that Babington would not act until he had Mary's full approval. They thus instilled in Morgan the belief that it would be vital that Mary send written authorization before Babington would have the nerve to dispose of Elizabeth and place Mary on the English throne.(35)

     Morgan was very suspicious by this turn of events, but he knew that Mary would want to take the risk. Mary was so desperate by this time that nothing--not even the chopping block--would deter her from making plans to escape. Morgan therefore drafted a letter that Mary should write to Babington and sent it to her in early July of 1586. Mary copied this letter word for word and sent it on to Babington.(36)

     This was the letter Walsingham had been anticipating. Unfortunately for the Secretary's purposes, Morgan had produced a letter that would be sufficient to incite Babington, while at the same time avoiding direct implication of Mary. Babington had requested Mary's blessing for his so-called "tragical execution" of Elizabeth and for her solemn promise to reward him once she became Queen of England.(37) Mary's reply simply stated however, that while she wanted to have nothing to do with the murder, she would reward anyone who helped her escape, regardless of how said escape was enacted.(38)

     While this letter was not exactly what Walsingham desired, after thorough examination, he was able to find a phrase that could make it appear as though Mary was in direct violation of the Bond of Association. This bond, including the Act for the Security of the Queen's Royal Person, and the Continuence of the Realm of Peace that shortly followed it, were the edge Walsingham had over Mary. Under these pieces of legislation, anyone who participated in or merely sanctioned an attack upon Elizabeth could be tried for treason, regardless of royal status.(39)

     All Walsingham had to do was prove that Babington and his cohorts were bent on regicide and then show the connection between them and Mary. The phrase Walsingham plucked from Mary's letter was her suggestion that once the foreign troops had been prepared, "then shall it be time to set the six gentlemen to work."(40) Since the only work these bored noblemen had planned was the assassination of Elizabeth, Walsingham was positive he could ensnare Mary with his technicality. In this way, guilt by association would be the end of Mary and her death would have little or no effect on Elizabeth's royal power.(41)

     While Walsingham was weaving his web, Babington was quite caught up in the romantic fantasy he had conjured in his youthful head. Babington failed to see the risk of his exploits. He saw only the fame, fortune, and even the Catholic satisfaction that would follow Mary's ascent to the throne. As Walsingham gleefully sifted through every incriminating document Phelippes had produced from the conspiratorial correspondence, Babington and his accomplice were sitting for a portrait that they believed would one day serve "as a memorial of so worthy an act."(42)

     Having shuffled soundly through his collection of evidence, Walsingham discovered that one detail was missing. He needed the names of the conspirators written on paper.(43) Such printed evidence would have held up nicely in a court of law. The method in which Walsingham intended to gather this damning testimony was such that even his most ardent supporters could not pass off as mere duty to the crown. Walsingham instructed Phelippes to attach a post-script to Mary's letter to Babington which requested him to provide all the names of his fellow conspirators. Walsingham was banking on Phelippes superb forgery to present him with what would be as good as a written confession from these men.(44)

     Babington received the altered version of Mary's letter on July 29, 1586. Before he was able to reply, the plot became common knowledge and Walsingham was forced to order the arrests of the conspirators. It is unclear how news of the plots detection leaked, but Babington fled on August 4, moments after witnessing the arrest of his foremost partner in the conspiracy, John Ballard.(45) Before fleeing, Babington burned all his personal and public correspondence. He was discovered and arrested ten days later in St. John's Wood.(46)

     By the end of August, seventeen men and one woman had been arrested and sent to the Tower.(47) Mary was not arrested, but she was sent from Chartley to reside at the estate of a hunting acquaintance while all her private papers were confiscated. The secretaries Nau and Curll were quietly taken into custody following Mary's departure.(48) With the arrests completed and the confessions pouring out of the prisoners, it was time for Walsingham to do the most ingenious of all his plotting.

     It was essential that Walsingham's part in this scheme not be discovered. If the general public had been aware that Elizabeth's minister, with her full consent, had a hand in this plot, sympathy for Queen Mary would have been generated. Elizabeth would not have been able then to order her execution for fear of a civil war erupting. Elizabeth commanded Walsingham "to keep to himself the depth and mannor [sic] of the discovery."(49)

     To follow the orders of his Queen, Walsingham had to use more deceitful tactics to conceal his earlier questionable actions. His major concern was the discrepancy that would arise in the confessions due to Phelippes frauded postscript.(50) Babington had already been asked to write Mary's reply as best he could. He did a remarkable accurate job. Too accurate for Walsingham because his statement included the post-script. There was no way Walsingham could use Babington's confession in this form. Nau, Curll, and Mary would have cried forgery the moment they saw it at the trial. Some type of alteration was definitely deemed necessary here by the Principal Secretary.(51)

     Forging the entire confession was out of the question. Although Phelippes possessed the finesse required of the task, the risk of discovery while carrying out the swap was just too high.(52) Walsingham concluded that it would be safer to help Babington forget the post-script. Walsingham went personally to compliment Babington on his "exceptional" memory. However, Walsingham implied that the court would be much more pleased if he could only recall those first passages in more detail. Babington, ecstaticjust to be off the painful rack and now given hope forjudicial leniency for his cooperation, promised to try and remember every word of the mentioned sections.(53)

     It was in this manner that Babington played squarely into Walsingham's hand. He concentrated so hard on the details of the first few paragraphs, that Babington hastily wrote the remainder, this time excluding the post-script. Here was Walsingham's golden opportunity to corrupt the authenticity of evidence and absolutely clear his involvement. He quickly had the statement processed and it became officially documented as an exhibit in the trial.(54)

     Another deception Walsingham employed, for the sole purpose of completing his goal of leading Mary to the block, was convincing Mary's secretaries that the court had possession of all Mary's and Babington's correspondence. He used Babington's sworn confession as well as several of Phelippes copies to pull off this charade. Once Curll and Nau believed the originals were intact, they were more willing to confess to Mary's involvement in the conspiracy and less concerned with asking questions that Walsingham was not quite prepared to answer.(55)

     Babington, Baliard and five others were put to death in rather cruel fashion on September 18, 1586.(56) Elizabeth had ordered the unusually drawn out ordeal of execution mainly because she held no respect for those men whose project it had been to kill her. Rather than simply hanging the men until they were dead, she had requested that the traditional method of executing traitors, the disembowelment and burning of the visceral organs, come before the hanging. The English people were so disgusted by this act of barbarism, that Elizabeth ordered the remaining seven to be dealt with more swiftly.(57)

     Even with all the evidence Walsingham laid before Elizabeth, she still resisted the notion of bringing Mary to trial. The English Queen had hoped that her subjects would be content with the deaths of the other conspirators and that perhaps once more the burden of issuing Mary's execution would be lifted from her. Elizabeth was still fearful of the repercussions the execution of another monarch could have on her kingdom.(58)

     Walsingham was as determined, as Elizabeth was reluctant, to have Mary tried. After carefully persuading Elizabeth that it was the people's wish that justice be served, Walsingham was finally able to bring Mary to a public trial on October 14, 1586. It was at this trial that Walsingham publicly announced his personal view of his accomplishments. As Mary charged him with trickery and foul play, Walsingham straight-facedly proclaimed "I call God to record that as a private person I have done nothing unbeseeming an honest man, nor as I bear the place of a public person, have I done anything unworthy of my place."(59)

     Mary was accused of treason, a verdict of guilty was read, and a sentence of death was placed on the Scottish Queen. Elizabeth had specifically ordered that the court was to find Mary not guilty, but the Council went against her wishes. Even with this decision, Elizabeth continued to delay the execution. Finally, Walsingham and William Cecil, the chief judge at Mary's trial, went behind Elizabeth's back and pushed her signed death warrant through the Council.(60) Mary, Queen of Scots, was beheaded on February 8, 1587.(61) Outwardly this action infuriated Elizabeth. She temporarily banished both ministers and several councilmen from her presence, but she began receiving them again as soon as it became clear that there would be no Catholic revolt in Mary's honor.(62)

     Walsingham's flair at second guessing the opposition made him an indispensable minister in Elizabeth's court. Walsingham had received the position of Principal Secretary in 1573. From that time, he was able to defeat every plot that formed against his Queen.(63) While Walsingham's motives and doubtful morality still raise strong controversies among historians, there is no question that he played a larger role in the Babington Plot than did the gentleman for which it has been named. Although Babington and Mary were both very conspiratorial, full credit for the concoction of this particular plot rests solely with Sir Francis Walsingham.


1.  The Throckmorton and Norfolk plots of the early 1580's were highly complicated undertakings. Francis Throckmorton was a young, romantic Catholic supporter who had been caught up a bit too strongly in the spirit of revival. He was captured with an incriminating letter suggesting his part in a plot to murder Elizabeth. He was submitted to the rack and confessed to the Scottish Queen's involvement. He was put to death while Mary was not even tried. Lord Norfolk was involved in a plot with Mary, but more for political reasons than religious. When the plot was detected, Norfolk was hanged and once more Mary avoided prosecution. See. J.E. Neale, Elizabeth I and Her Parliament: 1584-1601 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1957), 106.

2.  Herbert Sherman German, The Scottish Queen New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1932), 448.

3.  Stefan Zweig, Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles (New York: Viking, 1935), 358.

4.  Ibid., 304.

5.  Jasper Ridley, Elizabeth: The Shrewdness of Virtue (New York: Viking Penguins Inc., 1988), 257.

6.  Roger Lockyer, Tudor and Stuart Britain (New York: St. Martin's, 1964),

7.  Denis Meadows, Elizabethan Quintet (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1956), 72.

8.  Ibid., 64.

9.  Joel Hurstfield, Freedom, Corruption and Government in Elizabethan England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973), 227.

10.  Thomas Fuller, The History of the Worthies of Ennland. (New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1965), 3: 143.

11.  Zweig, Mary Queen, 312.

12.  Conyers Read, Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960), 343.

13.  Zweeg, Mary Queen. 302.

14.  Conyers Read, Mr. Secretary Walsingham and the Policy of Queen Elizabeth (Cambridge: The Harvard University Press, 1925), 2: 399.

15.  Paul Johnson, Elizabeth I (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974), 284.

16.  Meadows, Quintet. 68.

17.  Read, Mr. Secretary, 3: 9.

18.  Johnson, Elizabeth 1, 283.

19.  Antonia Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots (New York: Delacorte Press, 1969), 471.

20.  Meadows, Quintet. 64.

21.  Gorman, Scottish Queen, 469.

22.  Fraser, Queen of Scots, 483.

23.  John Hungerford Pollen, Mary Queen of Scots and The Babington Plot (Edinburgh: T. and A. Constable LTD., 1922), 37.

24.  Read, Lord Burghley, 343.

25.  Gorman, Scottish Queen. 473.

26.  Meadows, Quintet, 69.

27.  Ibid.

28.  Gorman, Scottish Queen, 473.

29.  J.E. Neale, Queen Elizabeth I (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938), 270.

30.  Zweig, Mary Queen, 306.

31.  Read, Mr. Secretary, 3: 31.

32.  Johnson, Elizabeth I, 284.

33.  Pollen, Mary Scots. 136.

34.  Read, Mr. Secretary, 3: 136.

35.  Zweig, Mary Queen. 312.

36.  Neale, Queen Elizabeth I. 272.

37.  Ibid.

38.  Fraser, Queen of Scots, 488.

39.  Read, Lord Burghley. 344.

40.  Zweig, Mary Queen. 302

41.  Neale, Queen Elizabeth I. 271.

42.  Pollen, Mary Scots. 186.

43.  Read, Mr. Secretary, 3: 43.

44.  William Camden, The History of the Most Renowned and Victorious Princess Elizabeth: Late Queen of England (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), 227.

45.  Fraser, Queen of Scots, 492.

46.  Pollen, Mary Scots. 116.

47.  Camden, The History, 235.

48.  Pollen, Mary Scots. 178.

49.  Ibid.

50.  Johnson, Elizabeth I. 285.

51.  Read, Mr. Secretary. 3: 43-44.

52.  Camden, The History, 353.

53.  Read, Mr. Secretary. 3: 43.

54.  Fraser, Queen of Scots, 498.

55.  Read, Lord Burghley. 355.

56.  Lewis Einstein, Tudor Ideals, (New York: Russell & Russell Inc., 1962), 235.

57.  Adrian Morey, The Catholic Subjects of Elizabeth I (Totwa: Rowmar and Littlefield, 1978), 82.

58.  Johnson, Elizabeth 1, 286.

59.  Read, Lord Burghley. 355.

60.  Simon Adams, "Stanley, York and Elizabeth's Catholics." History Today. July 1987, 46.

61.  Keith M. Brown, "Much Ado About Nothing?" History Today. February 1987, 6.

62.  Lockyer, Tudor. 191.

63.  De Lamar Jensen, Reformation Europe: Age of Reform and Revolution (Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1981), 267.