This blog is a selection of interesting things I've come across during my history research. I have a wide interest in history ranging from Wars of the Roses, country houses, Stuarts, Georgians, Louis XIV, Napoleon and criminals. So expect to see a bit of everything on here, with a focus on little known stories.
During the summer, I have been working for a community based charity local to me, called Blue Box Belper. Their aim is to offer community events in a town called Belper in Derbyshire, as well as to raise money for a brand new community centre. Me and another girl, Abi, have been helping out at some of their events, as well as pitching some new ideas for them.
One of the events I’ve been helping out at has a catchy title, ‘Cuppa Cake Chat’, which does what it says on the tin really. It’s a nice informal coffee morning, where sometimes guest speakers, or members of the group, share about themselves. It was my turn this week. As many of you regular followers will have guessed, I decided to make it history themed. I must admit I had to think for a while about what to talk on as I wanted something quite interesting and not too heavy. Thankfully, I had the perfect topic to talk about from some of my current research on Napoleonic prisoners of war in Chesterfield, Derbyshire.
Back in March, following a trip to Ludlow in Shropshire, I discovered that Napoleon’s brother, Lucien, had been held prisoner there during the Napoleonic Wars. With my curiosity piqued, I brought a book on his time imprisoned, which also made some references to how other prisoners of war were kept at that time. In the same book, I saw a sentence explaining how two prisoners, called General Joseph Exelmans and Colonel Auguste de la Grange, had escaped from Chesterfield.
As little was mentioned about how they’d escaped, I decided to look more into it, as well as the conditions for the prisoners in Chesterfield at that time. That led me to an utterly fascinating discovery of many different and interesting stories, which I don’t really have the time to share now. It’s an amazing story and one that I’m glad I’m now able to share as it is something that seems to have been lost.
If you would like to know more, please to have a read of the two blog posts I wrote for my work at the local archives in Derbyshire, known as the Derbyshire Record Office, please do click here and here. I promise that they are full of entertaining and exciting things!
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. As the Babington family were secret Catholics, Anthony became drawn to Mary, a Catholic herself.
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. 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. He was given letters for Mary and returned to England.
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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. Discussions were held by between representatives of Elizabeth and those in charge of Mary, who was being held at Fotheringhay Castle. 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.
Since 2016, I have volunteered at Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire every summer as a guide. Sadly, this year I haven’t been able to return due to the pandemic, but the site is open daily between 10 am and 5 pm for pre-booked slots only. I know I’m biased, but I would really recommend a visit if you can. It has a fascinating history and some wonderful period paintings which are well worth seeing. The castle is a wonderful mix of Stuart pleasure with the sense of nostalgia towards the medieval, as designed by father and son team Robert and John Smythson for the father and son owners, Charles and William Cavendish. It has been recognised by some as “the most beautiful house in England, and one of the treasures of Western Europe”. I will leave that judgement up to you if you ever visit, but I can imagine in its heyday, it would have been a spectacular sight to behold.
The first building phase of the current castle was between 1611 and 1617, following the footprint of an older medieval castle that was once in existence. This included the building known as the Little Castle, which was the main living accommodation until the Terrace Range was built in anticipation of a visit from Charles I and his wife, Henrietta Maria in 1634. The Little Castle was built as William Cavendish’s pleasure holiday home, as he mainly lived at Welbeck Abbey nearby. For this reason, it was sumptuously decorated and furnished. Each room had a theme and relevant imagery was used to show the classical and biblical knowledge of William.
One of the most popular rooms in the Little Castle is the Star Chamber, mainly as it was refurnished in 2014 to replicate what it may have once looked like in the Stuart era, and as many visitors have noted, it feels the most homely. The tapestries are not original to the house, they are actually reproduced versions of original 17th century tapestries found at Blickling House in Norfolk. They were recreated by 3D printing onto linen but are still very effective.
The original interiors of the Little Castle, including the Star Chamber were completed roughly between 1619 and 1921. The Star Chamber itself was created as the main entertaining and reception space for the Castle. It would have originally been furnished with a large table to eat from, as well as many seats to be used either during banqueting or for watching or listening to entertainment, with a raised dais to be used by William and either his first wife, Elizabeth Basset, or his second wife, Margaret Lucas.
The theme of this room is biblical, with painted panels depicting old and new testament figures, the largest of which are King David and King Solomon. These contrast with the two painted panels in the corner, which would have once formed a door to a concealed privy. These depict men in armour, and it has been debated about who these are. Some have claimed that it could be William and his brother. There was once another panel depicting a young boy with a pet cat, but sadly this was stolen. Raylor argues that all the paintings in this room are an allegory for political and religious authority, which originated with these biblical figures, and was passed down not just to himself as the local landowner, but replicated in the monarchy. This can be seen in the use of family crests, indicating where William’s personal authority comes from.
The reason the room is called the Star Chamber is because at some point following William’s death, an auditor named the rooms in an inventory. The Star Chamber took its name from the wonderfully elaborate ceiling, featuring 254 gold leaf stars. This was restored in 2000, when the coving had to be redone. During this process, the ceiling colour was changed. Prior to this, the colour had been a dark blue, to represent the night sky. During the investigation work, an original light blue colour was found underneath, and it was decided to return it to its sky-blue colour. The ceiling would have originally cost a fortune, as the sky-blue colour is blue verditer, which is created by smelting silver. Also during the restoration, an original 17th century playing card was found underneath the coving. It was probably put there by one of the craftsmen who worked there, hoping to be remembered in some way centuries after he had completed his work. Unfortunately, the card is now at the British Museum, but it is only one of many hidden treasures found secreted away in many country houses across the country.
The fireplaces throughout the Little Castle, are all made from Derbyshire stone and marble (other than the Italian Marble used in the Marble Closet) either mined in the Peak District, or more locally to the Castle. They all feature slightly different imagery, but the fireplace in the Star Chamber is the most carved and represents different parts of the Cavendish family. The Talbot dogs on the front are to remember George Talbot, the last of William’s grandmother, Bess of Hardwick’s husbands, and through who’s son, sold Bolsover to this side of the Cavendish family. The Cavendish crest is also wrapped around the sides. This is also the only fireplace to have received some damage. It was probably done by Parliamentarian forces who lived here during the Civil War, following William’s forced personal exile after his defeat at the Battle of Marston Moor in July 1644. Luckily for William, despite instructions to have the place destroyed, the Parliamentarians never did, instead choosing to sell it on in 1650. William’s brother, Charles, saved stopped this sale by returning apologetically to England and brought back William’s estates.
Despite not being able to return to Bolsover myself this year, I have extremely fond memories and hope to return next summer. I gave my first ever guided tour last year and it was received very well by visitors and was hoping to do some more this time, but sadly that wasn’t to be. I hope that this short history of one of the most popular rooms, although not my personal favourite (that’s the Heaven Closet), has been a guided tour of sorts, even if it’s in a very different way. By knowing the history and style of the house, it is almost like knowing William Cavendish himself. This very unique house is said to openly reflect his style and character. If you ever have the chance to visit, remember that as you look around the rooms that are full of imagery that often seems to be puzzling to us. It’s just that for whatever reason, the meaning has somehow been lost to us to a certain extent.