Anthony Babington and the Babington Plot

This post is the first in a series about the life and death of Mary Queen of Scots. The follow on post about Fotheringhay Castle, where she was executed, can be found here. Another on Francis Walsingham, the spymaster who helped discover the Babington Plot, can be found here.

As a bit of a change from what I normally write on the blog, I thought I would share something that has a local connection to where I live. It has national significance, but all starts with Anthony Babington, a Derbyshire man. I have known of Anthony Babington from a young age for many reasons. First of all, he was a major landowner of my hometown during the late sixteenth century. The other is that he, as well as his association with Mary Queen of Scots, are the subject of one of my favourite childhood books, A Traveller in Time, written by local author, Alison Uttley. It tells the story of a girl who slips in and out of the 1580s, when Anthony was plotting to help the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots to escape. I would definitely recommend reading it. Whilst of course this is a work of fiction, it’s based on the very real Babington Plot, which was named after Babington’s involvement.

Anthony Babington was born in October 1561 in Dethick, Derbyshire, to Henry Babington and his wife, Mary. He was their third child and eldest son. The family were well connected and were wealthy local landowners. Anthony’s grandfather, John, had been High Sheriff of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, who had fought and died for Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. As a boy, Anthony had served as a page in Sheffield to George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, and his wife, Bess of Hardwick, jailers of Mary Queen of Scots, who had been in his charge since February 1568.[1] As the Babington family were secret Catholics, Anthony became drawn to Mary, a Catholic herself.

Portrait of George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury (1580), National Trust, Wikimedia Commons

During Anthony’s life, to be Catholic was seen as wrong. With the Protestant Elizabeth I on the throne, Catholicism was seen as something to be suspicious of. Her ministers, especially her spymaster, Walsingham, viewed Catholics as capable of treason. This was proved to be true at times when plots to replace Elizabeth with Mary Queen of Scots were uncovered, although the majority of Catholics just wished to worship in peace. It was only a matter of time until Babington himself became embroiled in the final one of these plots.

In 1580, Anthony went to London, where he joined a secret society that supported Jesuit missionaries.[2] His involvement with this underground activity meant that following the execution of the clandestine Catholic priest, Edward Campion, he decided to retire back to Derbyshire, before later deciding to go abroad. Anthony’s involvement in secret plots began to deepen whilst he was abroad. Whilst in Paris, he became involved with supporters of Mary Queen of Scots. They were planning on helping her to escape and were offered assistance from Spain if they assassinated Elizabeth I.[3] He was given letters for Mary and returned to England.

Mickie Collins, Manor Farm at Dethick, Derbyshire (1999), Wikimedia Commons

In May 1586, a Catholic priest known as John Ballard became part of the plot. By this point, the plan included destroying the entire Protestant government and included many Catholics from across the country. Messages were sent to and from Mary, who was by then being held in Chartley Hall in Staffordshire, by hiding them in the stopper of a beer barrel from Burton on Trent, which is still known for beer making.[4] These messages were coded to try and deter any would-be interceptors. However, the plot was deciphered by codebreaker, Thomas Phelippes, who worked at Chartley, and a double agent, Gilbert Gifford, who was part of Babington’s circle, but also one of Walsingham’s spies.[5] With the discovery, John Ballard was arrested on 4 August 1568 and he probably betrayed his co-conspirators under torture.

In the meantime, Babington had applied for a new passport to travel abroad, claiming he needed it so he could spy on Catholic refugees, but really he needed to help organise help for the plot. When the passport was delayed, he offered to report a conspiracy to Walsingham if it helped speed up the passport process.[6] There was no response to this request. Instead, Babington supposedly found out he was being investigated after seeing a note about himself whilst in the company of one of Walsingham’s servants.[7] He fled to St John’s Wood, an area of woodland outside of London at the time, but is now close to Regent’s Park. The authorities found him at the end of August just nine miles away in Harrow, where he was being hidden by a Catholic convert.[8]

Portrait of a young gentleman, said to be Anthony Babington, Wikimedia Commons

Babington, Ballard and five others were given a trial that lasted two days over the 13 and 14 of September. Babington pleaded guilty but placed all the blame for the plot on Ballard. This did him little good as the only logical outcome for the charge of treason was to be sentenced to death. This sentence was passed and the guilty parties were due to be hung, drawn and quartered. Despite knowing his fate, on the 19 of September, the day before the scheduled execution, Babington wrote a desperate letter to Elizabeth I, pleading for mercy and offering £1,000, around £171,600 in today’s money, for a pardon.[9] This wasn’t granted and the execution went ahead.

The execution was held at what is modern day Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which is a public square next to Lincoln’s Inn, one of the Inns of Court where barristers belong to. At the time of the execution of the conspirators, it was agricultural fields outside of London. This site was chosen as it was one of the places the conspirators gathered for secret meetings.[10] A crowd numbering in the thousands watched the horrific execution on a scaffold that was built purposefully tall so that the crowd could see it easily.[11] Ballard was the first of the seven to be executed, followed by Babington. Another seven conspirators were due to be executed at the same place the following day. Out of these fourteen men, the majority of them were minor courtiers, who, like Babington, were wealthy and well connected.[12]

Image of Mary Queen of Scots from “Memoirs of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland” (1844), British Library

Whilst that may have been the end of the story as far as Babington was concerned, it was not the end of the far reaching consequences of the plot. Of the letters that were used as evidence for the plot, many had been written by Mary Queen of Scots, who encouraged the conspirators. Whilst Elizabeth had previously saved Mary from execution for the previous Ridolfi plot, it was harder to deny her involvement when there were letters between Mary and the conspirators, which suggested she knew of the plan to assassinate Elizabeth.[13] Whatever evidence there was, Elizabeth was reluctant to execute another sovereign and hesitated issuing a death warrant. A warrant was drawn up in December of 1586, but Elizabeth refused to sign until 1 February 1587, after fearing further threats.[14] Discussions were held by between representatives of Elizabeth and those in charge of Mary, who was being held at Fotheringhay Castle.[15] There wasn’t one and so Mary was finally executed a week after the warrant had been signed.

I hope this post has offered a good insight into how local history can often relate to national history but also raise awareness of the importance that Anthony Babington had on sealing the fate of Mary Queen of Scots. Look out for a guest post written by Laura Adkins on Fotheringhay Castle. It should be coming soon and links in with this post.


[1] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia, ‘Anthony Babington’, Encyclopedia Britannica, 27 Sep. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anthony-Babington; Batho, G. R., ‘The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots’, The Scottish Historical Review, 39.127 (1960), p. 38.

[2] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia, ‘Anthony Babington’, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anthony-Babington

[3] Ibid.

[4] Wilkes, J., and Borman, T., ‘Alternate History: What if the Babington Plot to Assassinate Elizabeth I Had Succeeded?’, History Extra, https://www.historyextra.com/period/elizabethan/babington-plot-assasinate-elizabeth-i-alternate-history/; Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia, ‘Anthony Babington’, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anthony-Babington

[5] Wilkes, J., and Borman, T., ‘What if the Babington Plot to Assassinate Elizabeth I Had Succeeded?’, History Extra, https://www.historyextra.com/period/elizabethan/babington-plot-assasinate-elizabeth-i-alternate-history/

[6] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia, ‘Anthony Babington’, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anthony-Babington

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Lyons, M., ‘The Terrible Execution of the Babington Conspirators’, London Historian’s Blog, 20 September 2016, https://londonhistorians.wordpress.com/2016/09/20/the-terrible-execution-of-the-babington-conspirators/; Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia, ‘Anthony Babington’, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anthony-Babington

[11] Lyons, M., ‘The Terrible Execution of the Babington Conspirators’, London Historian’s Blog, 20 September 2016, https://londonhistorians.wordpress.com/2016/09/20/the-terrible-execution-of-the-babington-conspirators/

[12] Ibid

[13] Batho, G. R., ‘The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots’, p. 38.

[14] Ibid, p. 39.

[15] Ibid

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