The Babington Plot: Summary, Cipher & Facts

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

English history is full of plots and conspiracies, but none was as convoluted as this. In this lesson, we'll explore the Babington Plot and see who was really manipulating who in this 16th-century game of cat-and-mouse.

The Babington Plot

In 1533, King Henry VIII formally broke from the Roman Catholic Church and declared himself as Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England. So that's it, right? Was England done with Catholicism? Not quite. A strong Catholic faction remained, and the tensions between English Catholics and Protestants would haunt the country for generations. Rarely was this more evident than during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.

In 1586, religious conflict in England went so far as to initiate the plot to kill the monarch and the successful execution of another. We call this the Babington Plot.

Background: Mary and Elizabeth

In 1542, a daughter was born to King James V of Scotland. This daughter would become his only surviving heir and a potential claimant to the English throne as well. Her name was Mary, Queen of Scots, and she was Catholic. After being forced to give up the Scottish throne in 1567, she fled to England where her cousin, Elizabeth, was reigning.

Frightened that Mary's return to England could stir up Catholic sympathizers, Elizabeth had Mary effectively imprisoned. Mary had her own houses, had access to leisure activities, and was well-taken care of but she was essentially a political prisoner.

As pro-Catholic sentiment grew, there were those who saw Mary as a threat and demanded her execution. Leading this cause was Elizabeth's Principal Secretary, Francis Walsingham, a strictly devout Protestant who despised all things Catholic. He had called for Mary's execution for years, but Elizabeth, trying to appease the Catholics of England and prevent all-out war in the nation, refused. For almost 20 years, Mary was kept under house arrest and shuffled from safe-house to safe-house across England.

Queen Elizabeth with Francis Walsingham
Elizabeth and Walsingham

The Plot

Elizabeth had good reason to fear that Mary's presence may stoke Catholic rebels, and it did. In 1586, Mary started receiving communications from one such rebel named Anthony Babington. Through coded letters hidden in beer barrels, Babington informed Mary that he represented a group who planned to kill the Protestant Elizabeth and install Mary as the new Queen of England. Babington asked for her support of their plan.

Anthony Babington and the other plotters
Babington and plotters

Mary responded, asking for more details, but the letter was intercepted by Walsingham. Within days, Babington and his rebels were arrested, as was Mary. Mary was put on trial, where she fiercely protested against having any knowledge of the plot. The letters were provided as evidence, and Mary was convicted and beheaded in February of 1587.

What Really Happened

The Babington Plot would be intriguing enough if that were the entire story, but it isn't. In fact, we shouldn't even call it the Babington Plot, because the real plot was Walsingham's.

Walsingham was determined to see Mary executed and to protect England from Catholics, he had built a dense network of spies. For nearly 20 years his spies watched Mary (as well as Catholics across Europe- including the Pope). Walsingham's spies were highly educated, well connected, and loyal. In fact, he even founded a spy school in England to formally train his saboteurs and informants.

A few of his spies proved to be particularly useful and presented the idea to Mary of smuggling her letters through beer barrels. While Mary and the others thought their messages were being successfully conveyed in secret, they were actually being delivered straight to Walsingham, who managed to decipher their code. All of Mary's letters were duplicated by the forger, so that Walsingham had a copy of everything Mary or her contacts ever wrote.

When Mary responded to Babington and asked for the details of the plot, Walsingham had his opportunity. One of his forgers copied Mary's handwriting and added a postscript asking for the names of all the plotters. Babington and his men were young and inexperienced. They eagerly replied with a full list of their names.

The forged postscript (top) and cipher used to decode the letters to and from Mary (bottom)
Forged documents

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