William Morgan and the Welsh Bible

In this modern age, we can often take things for granted. One of those things is how easily we can access information, particularly in our own languages, whatever that may be. In ages past, information written or printed in vernacular languages wasn’t always a given. Texts were mainly written in Latin or Greek, or possibly Hebrew. In terms of the language the Bible was written in, it was a mixture of all three of these languages. Church services and worship were also conducted in Latin, regardless of which country you lived in. However, with the advent of Protestantism in the sixteenth century, the debate about whether it was necessary to use languages that every day people could understand was raging. This included whether or not it was worth translating the Bible into these languages. Whilst this post isn’t necessarily about English translations of the Bible, but of the Welsh, it is important to give a quick explanation of the early form of Bible translations and what led to the Welsh bible translated by William Morgan.

In terms of the Bible being translated into English, William Tyndale had made attempts in the 1520s and 1530s. At that time, it was illegal to translate biblical texts into English, so he had to go into exile to what is now modern-day Germany. It was also illegal to own a copy of these texts, so not many original examples survive.[1] Even though these attempts were not entirely successful in reaching England, although some were smuggled into the country, it would help to form Protestant ideas that would go on to influence later translators, who would revise Tyndale’s version once the English Bible was acceptable.

Portrait of William Morgan (1907), Wikimedia Commons

In 1534, under Henry VIII, Wales became joined with England under an Act of Union. This act purposefully refused to recognise Welsh as an official language and instead sought to destroy it. This is somewhat ironic really when Henry was descended from Welshmen. Under the new rules, Welsh was banned from being used in areas of law and administration, with English taking precedence.[2] Only the English Bible and the Book of Common Prayer were allowed to be used as well.[3] However, under his daughter, Elizabeth I, William Morgan, was asked to write a Welsh translation of the Bible, which was published in 1588. Elizabeth did try and keep religious toleration, so it is not entirely surprising she may have made this suggestion, although offering an edition in Welsh would have been.

When given this task, Morgan took inspiration from some Welsh translations from the previous few decades: a 1567 edition of the New Testament by William Salesbury, Richard Davies and Thomas Huet, and an edition of the Psalms (also by Salesbury and Davies) from the same year, which was used in the Book of Common Prayer.[4] Whilst working on the book, Morgan lodged with the Dean of Westminster, so he could be closer to the printers in case any correction or guidance was needed. This would have been essential as at that time, means of transport and correspondence were improved during Elizabeth’s reign, but not really very reliable. In terms of the translation process, Morgan would have had to have been on hand as those working in the printer’s wouldn’t have necessarily had previous experience in dealing with Welsh texts.[5] Both the Dean and John Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury were a huge help during the translation process, which Morgan made reference to in his explanation about how his edition came to be.[6] In fact, Archbishop Whitgift paid the printing fees from his own private purse.[7]

Title Page of William Morgan’s Welsh Bible of 1588 © The National Library of Wales 2022

Once the Bible was finally printed, it would have transformed the way Welsh people worshipped as it would have meant their services could now be conducted in Welsh, rather than either English or Latin, as had gone before, and that the Welsh language was allowed to continue.[8] Initially, this would have been on a small scale as it has been estimated that 1,000 copies were produced, although only 24 are known to still survive.[9] Morgan wasn’t entirely pleased with how the Bible had been produced. He complained that they were made too large and would have been only practical during a service, rather than to be used at home, and that they were too expensive at £2, which is around £343 today.[10] There were also misprints too.

Regardless of what Morgan himself thought of the edition, it has been seen as the most important book in Welsh.[11] Not just because it helped to establish recognition for the Welsh language, but because of how it was used to improve the lives of ordinary Welshmen. In 1620, the Bishop of St Asaph, Richard Parry and Dr John Davies, worked on a revised edition of Morgan’s text. Whilst was meant to be a counterpart of the English King James Bible, it mainly sought to correct the misprints found in Morgan’s original and also added 2,000 new words.[12] Ten years later, in 1630, Morgan’s other complaints were addressed. A new smaller and more affordable edition was printed, meaning that it could be easily read from home.[13]

Statue of William Morgan with his Bible outside St Asaph’s Cathedral (2016), taken by Llywelyn200, Wikimedia Commons

So what impact did William Morgan’s Welsh Bible have? Since its original publication in 1588, it has been used by all denominations in Wales as the main edition of the Bible. It’s popularity only grew again in the eighteenth century when it was used by circulating school set up by Griffith Jones and Thomas Charles. The purpose of these schools was to teach both adults and children from underprivileged backgrounds how to read and write. It largely used Morgan’s Bible to do this.[14] As a result, Wales had a large literacy rate.[15] In fact, it’s popularity was maintained so much, new translations of the New Testament, Psalms and the complete Bible, were not printed until the end of the twentieth century, in 1975, 1979 and 1988 respectively.[16]

As with many things, the popularity and success of Morgan’s Welsh Bible were not made in his lifetime. He died in 1604, the year that King James first commissioned the English translation that would be named after him. All in all, I hope that he would be very proud of what he achieved, for it not only improved the lives of Welshmen for generations to come, but also helped to save the Welsh language too.


[1] British Library, ‘Tyndale’s New Testament 1526’, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/william-tyndales-new-testament

[2] National Trust, Bishop William Morgan, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ty-mawr-wybrnant/features/bishop-william-morgan

[3] The National Library of Wales, ‘Welsh Bible 1588’, https://www.library.wales/discover/digital-gallery/printed-material/1588-welsh-bible#?c=&m=&s=&cv=&xywh=-886%2C-1%2C4734%2C4026

[4] Oliver Currie, ‘The sixteenth-century Bible translations and the development of Welsh literary prose style’, Translation Studies, 9.2 (2016), p. 157

[5] Ibid, p. 118

[6] William Hughes, The Life and Times of Bishop William Morgan (Brighton: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1891), p. 121

[7] Ibid, p. 117

[8] Oliver Currie, ‘The sixteenth-century Bible translations’, pp. 152 and 154

[9] National Trust, Bishop William Morgan, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ty-mawr-wybrnant/features/bishop-william-morgan

[10] Rosemary Burton, ‘William Morgan and the Welsh Bible’, History Today, 38.5 (1988), https://www.historytoday.com/archive/william-morgan-and-welsh-bible

[11] William Hughes, The Life and Times of Bishop William Morgan, p. 130

[12] Timothy Cutts, ‘400th Anniversary of the 1620 Bible’, The National Library of Wales, 23 November 2020,  https://blog.library.wales/400th-anniversary-of-the-1620-bible/; John T. Kock, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopaedia (ABC-CLIO, 2006), p. 210

[13] Timothy Cutts, ‘400th Anniversary of the 1620 Bible’

[14] John T. Kock, Celtic Culture, p. 210

[15] Ibid

[16] Oliver Currie, ‘The sixteenth-century Bible translations’, p. 153

Francis Walsingham- Elizabeth I’s Spymaster: Guest Post by Elizabeth Hill-Scott

This guest post by Elizabeth Hill-Scott is the last in a series of posts linked to the life and execution of Mary Queen of Scots. The first is about the Babington Plot, which sealed her fate, this can be found here. The second was about Fotheringhay Castle, where she was executed. It can be found here.

He was a scholar, lawyer, diplomat, Member of Parliament and Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth I from 1573-1590. But he will always be known as ‘The Spymaster’. His motto? There was less danger in fearing too much than too little.

Imagining England in 1553, there were good reasons to be fearful. This was especially true for devout Protestants like Francis Walsingham. Shaped by his studies at King’s College, Cambridge, when Mary I took the throne and returned England to Catholicism, he knew there was only one thing to do. Flee.

Walsingham was not one to take pledges he didn’t believe in then practice in secret. He spent the next five years overseas while ‘Bloody Mary’ ruled. He used that time wisely. He learnt languages, the law and connected with movers and shakers within foreign courts. It was only when Elizabeth became Queen, on the death of her sister, that Walsingham returned. And it was not just to live in Protestant England but to serve and protect it.

The accession of the young Elizabeth I did not bring peace and harmony to the nation. It was still bitterly divided both by what religious practice England should follow and whether Elizabeth, to some still the bastard daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, was the rightful heir. From day one conspirators were everywhere, so Francis Walsingham’s role began to take shape out of necessity.

Walsingham’s Rise to the Top

So how did Walsingham come from back from the wilderness to become the Queen’s most trusted adviser for 13 years? 

Walsingham became a Member of Parliament and then Ambassador to France in 1570. He started working under William Cecil, later made Baron Burghley, the Queen’s then Principal Secretary.

Cecil was busy with matters of state, including desperately trying to make Elizabeth marry, and intelligence gathering increasingly became Walsingham’s responsibility.

Intelligence gathering accelerated when the Queen’s cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, an absolute magnet for conspirators, arrived in England. Walsingham became Secretary of State (formerly called Principal Secretary) in 1568.

Walsingham’s Relationship with Queen Elizabeth I

According to some accounts Elizabeth, despite promoting and knighting him in 1577, respected but did not like Walsingham.

It does seem they were very different personalities. Compared to the vivacious Queen, Walsingham was shrewd, serious and dower. During a time when it was easy to lose the confidence of the Queen (and your head), this only makes the longevity of their relationship even more fascinating.

Perhaps, because Walsingham was so committed and focused on one thing, her safety and, as a consequence, Protestant England, she never had to fear he could be turned or wanted more.  

John de Critz, Sir Francis Walsingham (c.1585), National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons

The Growth of the Secret Intelligence Service

After thwarting plots like the Northern Uprising of 1569, it became clear Walsingham needed more assistance to track plotters and break coded messages. And so, the Secret Intelligence Service grew.

There are mixed views on whether he had a decent budget to employ the best or whether the Queen was stingy, and most expenses came from his pocket. You’d like to think, considering all his efforts were to save her throne and her life, it was the former.

Walsingham’s Spies

He used his overseas network to post spies. These spies, often young budding recruits, had numerous tasks.

Tasks included covertly reporting back on the attitudes of Catholic countries and The Pope. This information would allow Walsingham to trace lines of communication between Catholics at home and abroad to track any plots developing.

His spies also needed to infiltrate close enough to feedback on any military moves. We know Walsingham was able to get detailed reports Spain was mobilising her Armada with sights firmly set on an English invasion.

Finally, spies spread disinformation. On one occasion, they helped mask the preparations of Sir Francis Drake to raid Cadiz Harbour in 1587.

To join up the circle of intelligence, spies were posted in England. Interception of letters and messages were crucial to intelligence gathering. Walsingham often planted people and double-agents in the households and meet-ups of suspected traitors.

Spy Tradecraft 16th Century Style

In the 16th Century, you couldn’t capture plotters on CCTV entering a Castle or listen in on a phone call between traitorous nobles. But tradecraft, alongside HUMINT or human intelligence, became so important during this time that Walsingham even set up a spy school.

Desired skills included forgery, using invisible ink, and learning the exquisite skill of lifting the wax seal of a letter so that it could be undetectably opened and read.

Yet, interception only took them so far if the messages were in a secret code. Methods used by plotters included letters of the alphabet being shuffled, replaced with numbers or even signs of the zodiac. Sometimes, you could only understand the coded message by placing an additional piece of paper on top with strategically placed holes punched in it.  

Walsingham Gets It Wrong

Francis Walsingham didn’t always get it right despite more resources, skilled spies, and an extensive network. In 1569 he misread the deeper intentions of The Ridolfi Plot.

Roberto Ridolfi, a Catholic and international banker, could travel between countries without raising too much suspicion.

He found himself in jail because of a rumour he had distributed money to dissenting nobles linked to the earlier Northern Uprising. Walsingham released him convinced by a charming Mr Ridolfi during his interrogation that it was untrue. Ridolfi was a spy for The Pope and went on to conspire with The Duke of Norfolk for (you’ve guessed it) the assassination of Queen Elizabeth in favour of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Walsingham’s Biggest Test – Removing the Threat of Mary Queen of Scots

Make no mistake, for Walsingham, getting rid of Mary, Queen of Scots was his life’s work. Completing this mission would test his network and relationship with Elizabeth I to the limits. And it all culminated around The Babington Plot.

When in Paris, Englishman Anthony Babington, after whom the plot is named, became involved with supporters of Mary, Queen of Scots. They wanted her to escape, the in effect, imprisonment she was under in England and to assassinate Elizabeth.

Babington had letters for Mary as he returned home. With the involvement of a Catholic priest, John Ballard, coded messages were sent to and from Mary. They hid them in the stopper of a beer barrel. Thanks to Walsingham’s double-agent Gilbert Gifford, these letters were intercepted and decoded by Thomas Phelippes. They showed Mary encouraged the conspirators trying to help her.

Mary was taken to Fotheringhay Castle and put on trial in October 1586. It must have been an agonising wait for Walsingham. Despite his interceptions and the evidence before her, Elizabeth procrastinated. She did not sign Mary’s death warrant until 1st February 1587. She clearly needed convincing that the threats would reduce with Mary gone not increase (something I imagine Walsingham told her daily).

The Death of a Pivotal Figure in English History

With a feeling of ‘mission accomplished’, Walsingham died three years later, aged 58, having been married twice and leaving two children (who chances are barely saw him).

As someone who devours all things espionage, Sir Francis Walsingham is a truly fascinating historical character.

Unusually, for someone holding the post of adviser to the monarch, if you play the ‘What If’ game of alternative history, things could have been very different without him.

Would an assassin have got to Elizabeth I without his spy network? Would one of the many plots have succeeded? Would England have been less prepared for the Spanish Armada and potentially lost?

The success of any one of these could have taken English history down a completely different path, especially when you consider Queen Elizabeth chose to have no heir.

Bibliography

The National Archives

The History Press

Britpolitics

British Heritage

Britannica

Tudor Times

Elizabeth Hill-Scott – Bio
Elizabeth Hill-Scott is the founder of Smart History Blogging, which gives you smart ways to save
time, grow your traffic, make money, and write about what you love.

A life-long history fan since she saw her first English Castle on a school trip, Elizabeth teaches
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Home of the Yorks and the Death of a Queen – Fotheringhay Castle: Guest Post by Laura Adkins 

For a short series related to Mary Queen of Scots, I’m pleased to welcome Laura Adkins, creator of the For The Love of History Blog. I have been able to do a few guests posts for myself. She has worked at many historical sites and mainly posts about sites found in Essex, her home county. Do check her blog out if you can, I promise you it’s a very enjoyable read.

This post also follows on from a previous post on the Babington Plot, for which Mary was convicted of treason for exchanging letters. That can be found here. To find out more about Francis Walsingham, the spymaster who helped discover the plot and arrest Mary for Treason, please click here.

Standing on top of the mound which was once part of the castle of Fotheringhay one feels at peace. The surrounding views of the countryside and the River Nene are picturesque and calming. Unfortunately like many castles, Fotheringhay lost its purpose and was eventually dismantled with its stonework being repurposed elsewhere. Today all that remains is the mound and a piece of stonework. Not much for a place with such a history, one event in particular, the execution of an anointed queen – Mary, Queen of Scots.

Mary had been a prisoner in England ever since fleeing Scotland in April 1568. She thought she would get assistance from her cousin Elizabeth I, however, things turned out differently. Mary and Elizabeth were both descended from Henry VII (Elizabeth his granddaughter and Mary his great-granddaughter) and so Mary had a claim to the English throne and more dangerous to Elizabeth she was a Catholic. What led to Elizabeth finally agreeing to execute Mary was the evidence of her part in the Babington plot. A catholic plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and place Mary on the English throne. Letters were intercepted between Mary and Anthony Babington discussing said plot by Elizabeth’s spy Francis Walsingham and it was these letters that sealed her fate. Mary was moved to Fotheringhay on 25th September 1586.

Remains of Fotheringhay Castle, Author’s Own Image

In its heyday Fotheringhay was the main home of the Dukes of York. It entered the hands of the Earl of Northampton in the 12th century and was incorporated into the Dukedom of York from 1385 which is where it stayed for many centuries. It was where the future King Richard III was born.

Fotheringhay is primarily a motte and bailey castle in design with a double moat. Like many castles, it had a number of changes and developments in its time with the biggest changes by Edmund of Langley (1st Duke of York). He had the castle rebuilt and enlarged. Its shape was that of a fetterlock, the symbol of the Yorks.  Within its walls were accommodation suites, kitchens, breweries, bakehouses, drawbridge, chapel, stables and a number of other buildings one expects in the function of a castle estate. Sadly none now remain. The great hall, where the trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, was held is thought to be located to the south-east of the mound.

In July 1476 the Castle was host to one of the biggest events in its history – the reburial of Richard, Duke of York and his son  Edmund, Earl of Rutland. They were both killed in the battle of Wakefield with Richard’s head being placed on a pike at Micklegate, York. He was initially buried in Pontefract. Around 1,500 guests would attend the service including the king and royal family, nobles and bishops. Fotheringhay would have never seen anything like it (Hicks, M 2001). It is said that ‘King Edward IV, dressed in a dark blue hooded mourning habit trimmed with fur. The King ‘very humbly did his obeisance to the said body and laid his hand on the body and kissed it, weeping’. (Wakefield historical society)

Nearby the Castle and still in existence today is the New Inn, a beautiful 15th-century farmhouse.  This would have been where some of the guests stayed for the reburial. It is even believed that Mary’s executioner may have been there the night before her death.

Guest House as seen from Castle, Author’s Own Image

Maybe the Castle’s life went with Mary on that fateful day of 8th February 1587, Mary had only been informed the previous day that she was to be executed the following morning. ‘this was to be her greatest performance, her greatest triumph; she had considered every detail’(Guy, J 2004, p2). Her execution was well documented from her words, actions and what she wore.

About nine a.m., came that sweet saint and martyr, led like a lamb to the butchery, attired in a gown of black satin embroidered with a French kind of embroidery of black velvet; her hair seemly trussed up with a veil of white lawn, which covered her head and all her other apparel down to the foot. (Catholic report of queen mary’s execution by an anonymous “Catholic witness” present at the execution.)

[She asked her servants to] rejoice and pray for her…’

‘… I die a true woman to my religion and like a true scot woman and true french women’ – to Sir Amias Paulet, her steward.

The scaffold was 2 foot high by 12-foot square covered in black cotton sheets. The story goes that It was not one blow of the axe but two in addition to the executioner having to use his dagger to cut through the remaining cartilage which finally removed her head from her body. Upon lifting her head up to show the witnesses her lips were still moving in prayer and her head fell from the executioner’s grasp, revealing a head of grey hair and leaving the auburn wig held aloft.

Drawing of the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, in the Great Chamber at Fotheringhay Castle, co. Northants., 14-15 October 1586, British Library, Wikimedia Commons

Although she had lost everything in her life she left behind a son who became King James I of England on the death of Elizabeth. A king who, if raised by his mother, would most likely have been catholic and brought about a different course of history.

Fotheringhay today may be a peaceful, picturesque location but a place where history was made and the walls may no longer be standing but the earth underneath remembers.

Sources:

Dunn, J (2004) Elizabeth and Mary. Harper Perennial; London

Guy, J (2004) My heart is my own; London

Hicks, M (2001) Richard III. The History Press; Gloucester.

Licence, A (2015) Cecily Neville. Amberly; Gloucester

Wier, A (2009) Lancaster and York. Vintage Books; London

Abernethy, S  (2015) The History of Fotheringhay Castle.  Available from: https://thefreelancehistorywriter.com/2015/02/06/the-history-of-fotheringhay-castle/ [accessed 01/12/2021]

Anon (2019) Fotheringhay Castle. Available from: http://www.castlesfortsbattles.co.uk/midlands/fotheringhay_castle.html [accessed 01/12/2021]

Anon (nd) Fotheringhay – The Mausoleum of the House of York. Available from:  https://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/fotheringhay.html [accessed 10/12/2021]

Morris, S (2019) Fotheringhay Castle: The Final Dark Act of a Scottish Tragedy

https://thetudortravelguide.com/2019/02/02/fotheringhay-castle-the-final-dark-act-of-a-scottish-tragedy/ [accessed 01/12/2021]

Pendrill,C (nd) Death in Fotheringhay. Available from:  https://thefriendsoffotheringhaychurch.com/history/ [accessed 27/12/2021]

Wakefield Historical Society. (nd) Pontefract to Fotheringhay. Available from: https://www.wakefieldhistoricalsociety.org.uk/ [accessed 27/12/2021]

White, L 2014) The Fotheringhay Boars. Available from: https://murreyandblue.wordpress.com/2014/11/13/the-fotheringhay-boars/ [Accessed 03/01/2022]

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