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.
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.
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.
Walsingham quickly had Babington's plotters arrested and publically executed in brutal fashion. Mary was arrested and sent to trial, where Walsingham used his cipher of her code and the forged letters to prove her complicity in the plot. Mary accused Walsingham, and all his spies, of being men of ''doubtful credit'', but her case was hopeless. Walsingham had laid his trap too well.
To this day, historians are unclear as to exactly how connected Walsingham was to the Babington Plot. It's clear that he set up means of communication, forged documents, and provided opportunities for the rebels to implicate themselves and Mary. Some historians even claim that Mary had only asked for information on their plan to rescue her from captivity and genuinely had no knowledge of any plan to kill Elizabeth.
The deeper we look into this, the more we realize that Mary was surrounded with Walsingham's spies, who slowly encouraged her to take every step that led to her ultimate execution. Walsingham had master letter openers, master letter re-sealers, master decipherers, and master forgers at his disposal. Walsingham's involvement was so well protected that to this day we call this the Babington Plot. Walsingham was the real plotter here.
The Babington Plot was a 1586 conspiracy to kill the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I and replace her with her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. The plot was introduced by Anthony Babington, who used coded messages to communicate with Mary. However, Elizabeth's Principal Secretary Francis Walsingham had been manipulating the entire plot through his networks of spies.
In one of the most successful incidents of espionage in history, Walsingham's spies decoded Babington's letters, forged or altered Mary's responses, and procured a list of all the people involved in the plot. Babington and his conspirators were executed, as was Mary. So, in 1586 one plot suceeded in its goal to execute a monarch. It just wasn't Babington's.
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Prompts About the Babington Plot:
Graphic Organizer Prompt:
Create a chart, poster, or some other type of graphic organizer that lists and briefly describes the significance of the historical figures presented in the lesson (Queen Elizabeth I; Mary, Queen of Scots; Francis Walsingham, Anthony Babington).
Example: Francis Walsingham hated Mary, Queen of Scots because she was Catholic.
Make a PowerPoint presentation that provides a play-by-play of the Babington Plot. Be sure that your presentation includes both the fabled account and what historians know to be the facts of it.
Example: One slide could show beer barrels to depict how the coded messages were sent.
Essay Prompt 1:
In approximately three paragraphs, write an essay that explains how and why religious tensions led to the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots. Your essay should also discuss how Mary was treated during her imprisonment.
Example: Since Mary, Queen of Scots was a devout Catholic, she had to leave Scotland, where Protestants held deep anti-Catholic sentiment.
Essay Prompt 2:
Write an essay of approximately three paragraphs that discusses what historians know and what they do not know about the Babington Plot.
Example: Historians are still struggling to understand whether Mary, Queen of Scots actually knew about the plan to murder Elizabeth.
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