(born October 1561, Dethick, Derbyshire, Eng.—died Sept. 20, 1586, London) English conspirator. Raised secretly as a Catholic, Babington was joined by the priest John Ballard in the unsuccessful “Babington Plot” to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I and install her prisoner, Mary, Queen of Scots, on the English throne. The conspiracy included many Roman Catholics, and Philip II of Spain promised to provide immediate assistance after the assassination. Babington was imprisoned and executed after the interception of an exchange of letters with Mary explaining his plans. The letters were also used as evidence supporting the execution of Mary the following year.
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While publicly Protestant, the family remained Catholic (see Recusancy). Babington apparently remained in Dethick until about 1577, when he was briefly employed as a page boy in the Earl of Shrewsbury's household. The Earl was at this time the jailer of Mary Queen of Scots and it is likely that it was during this time that Babington became a supporter of Mary's cause to ascend the throne of England. In 1579 he was married to Margery Draycott from Cresswell, Staffordshire.
In about 1580, while travelling on the continent, he had met the arch-conspirator Thomas Morgan, and he was persuaded to courier letters to Mary while she was still being held by his former master, the Earl of Shrewsbury. He also assisted the movement of priests in the Catholic Midlands. But by 1586, with Mary removed to the harsher regime of Tutbury and the consequent closing down of communications with her, Babington's role as a courier came to an end. Twice in early 1586 he received letters from France, destined for Mary, but in each case he declined to 'deal further in those affairs'. Around this time he was reportedly considering leaving England permanently and was trying to secure a passport along with his Welsh friend, Thomas Salisbury, but to no avail. As Babington later put it, 'by God's just judgement of our sins' they remained in London.
During Elizabeth's reign, her court was particularly concerned about the prospect of Mary Stuart coming to the throne. It was a time of great religious tension. Elizabethan propaganda had already recast the reign of Elizabeth's Catholic predecessor, her sister, as Bloody Mary, quite contrary to the perception of the majority of her subjects. The St Bartholomew's Day Massacre served to increase the paranoia about the outcome a return to Roman Catholicism might present. The Queen's security forces, led by Sir Francis Walsingham with its ruthless and cunning spies like Robert Poley, were more than effective at their job. During one of Walsingham's investigations, a suspected subversive named Gilbert Gifford was arrested and interrogated. To avoid punishment, Gifford agreed to act as a double agent. He made contact with the French Embassy in London and arranged the smuggling of letters from Mary Stuart to her followers. This was to be achieved through the use of beer barrels. Gifford ensured that Walsingham was given access to these communications which revealed Mary's requests to the French and Spanish that they intervene on her behalf.
On 6 July 1586 Babington wrote to Mary Stuart, telling her that he and a group of friends were planning to assassinate Elizabeth, whom she (Stuart) would succeed. Babington's (and Mary Stuart's) defenders claim that in the sixteenth century it was held that the killing of "tyrants" was morally acceptable. Babington decided to write to Mary to seek her authorization, which he believed she could provide as the legitimate claimant to the Throne. (It was believed by Catholics that Elizabeth's claim to the throne was void due to her being the daughter of Anne Boleyn whose marriage to Henry VIII they considered illegal in that they did not accept the legality in any sense of Henry VIII's divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.)
Mary replied to Babington, in which she stressed the necessity of foreign aid if the rescue attempt was to succeed. However, she left the matter of the assassination to Babington's conscience. When Walsingham and his officials had gathered sufficient evidence Babington and his crew were rounded up. On 18 September 1586, Babington (aged 24) and his thirteen co-conspirators were convicted of high treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.
His offer to Elizabeth of £1000 for his pardon was rejected, and the execution of the first seven (including Babington, John Ballard, and Chidiock Tichborne) took place on the 20th. The condemned men, kept in the Tower of London, were marched from their cells, strapped to sledges and pulled by horses through the streets of London. On reaching a specially erected scaffold in St Giles Field, near Holborn, they were hanged, drawn and quartered. After this, the executioner distributed the parts of their bodies to prominent locations around the city to warn all of the consequences of disloyalty to the monarch.
His papers are currently housed at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University