The Babington Plot was the event which most directly led to the execution of Mary I of Scotland (Mary Queen of Scots). This was a second major plot against Elizabeth I of England after the Ridolfi plot.
Because of increasing concern surrounding Queen Elizabeth's safety, Parliament passed the Bond of Association, which provided for the execution of anyone who would benefit from the death of the Queen if a plot against her were discovered. Whilst Mary had escaped formal reprimand as she had not actively participated in a plot, now she could be executed if a plot was initiated that would lead to her acceding to the throne of England.
Although Elizabeth was reluctant to act against Mary, some within the English government feared her status as a figurehead for English Catholics. Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I's Secretary of State and a strict Protestant, realized that if she could be implicated in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth, then Mary could be executed and the Catholic threat diminished. He infiltrated much of Mary's correspondence network. Taking advantage of Mary's lack of communication, he instituted a system for secret messages to be passed to the Queen.
A plot was concocted by English agents determined to root out any remaining "papist" influence in England. As the evidence shows, the English spies, led by Walsingham, planted evidence in preparation for an event that would discredit Catholics and drive successful Jesuit missionaries from England. It is named after the chief conspirator Anthony Babington (1561–1586), a young Catholic nobleman from Derbyshire. John Ballard, a Jesuit priest and Catholic agent, persuaded Babington to become involved in a plot to overthrow and/or murder Queen Elizabeth I of England, replacing her on the throne with the Catholic former Queen of Scotland.
In December 1585, Walsingham arrested Gilbert Gifford, a confidant of the plotters who had been trained as a Catholic priest. After the arrest Gifford agreed to operate as a double agent. While working for Walsingham, Gifford carried messages between Mary and her followers thereby allowing the messages to be intercepted.
In July 1586, Gifford delivered his first message from Mary to Anthony Babington. Babington was recruited by Charles Paget and Thomas Morgan, a confidant of Mary and member of the Scottish embassy to France. Morgan composed and deciphered Babington's coded letters to and from Mary. Gifford of course provided copies of all letters to Walsingham.
The first letter from the imprisoned queen said that there were reported supporters of her in Paris. Babington replied that he had a hundred followers to assist in delivering Mary from Elizabeth, including six personal friends. Babington, a Catholic, betrayed his feelings about Elizabeth: he described her as an usurper, claiming that he was free from obedience to Elizabeth as a result of her excommunication. Elizabeth had been excommunicated by Pope Pius V in 1570, and many Catholics in England believed they were released from duty to the excommunicated Queen of England as a result.
The messages between Mary and Babington were encoded using symbols for some words and phrases and letter substitutions (23 symbols for letter substitutions and 36 characters for words and phrases). The messages were smuggled in and out in beer barrel stoppers. A nearby brewer delivered and picked up the barrels. Queen Mary's servants would retrieve the messages from the beer barrels and place messages back into the hollow of the beer barrel stopper.
Walsingham already had the conspiracy identified and was seeking the identities of the six conspirators who formed the inner circle of the plot. Each message between Mary and Babington was first read by Walsingham, copied by Walsingham's spy school, and sent to its destination intact. Walsingham's spy school decoded each message by trial and error by starting with letter substitutions and using the frequency of common characters (see frequency analysis) until a readable text was found, and then the rest was guessed at by the message context from what was decoded until the entire cipher was understood. After the cipher was broken, the messages were read the same day they were copied. Each message was returned in good enough condition that it was not evident that it had been read and copied.
The correspondence between Mary and Babington was about the conspiracy. Without the endorsement of Queen Mary the plot would fail, since the supporters would have no future crown to support. In July 1586, Babington proposed to Mary that Elizabeth be assassinated, and he referred to an invasion by Spain — King Philip II had promised to send a military expedition to England when Queen Elizabeth was no longer in power, and had a plan for Mary's release from her imprisonment. The July 1586 letter also described plots to kill Walsingham and Lord Burghley, Elizabeth's chief minister. Sir Francis Walsingham thus had the evidence he needed, but he needed the identities of the six conspirators.
In Mary's last letter to Babington, in which Mary acknowledged Babington's enterprise, Walsingham had Thomas Phelippes, a cipher and language expert in his employ, forge a postscript asking for the identity of the six conspirators. Babington received the forged postscript and message, but he never replied with the names of the conspirators, as he was arrested while seeking a passport in order to see King Philip of Spain. The identities of the six conspirators were nevertheless discovered, and they were taken prisoner by August 15, 1586.
The Babington plot was one of the four most important known plots against Elizabeth, the four being:
The conspirators were sentenced to death for treason and conspiracy against the crown, and were sentenced to be hanged, drawn, and quartered. This first group included Babington, Ballard, Chidiock Tichborne, Thomas Salisbury, Robert Barnewell, John Savage and Henry Donn. A further seven men, Edward Habington, Charles Tilney, Edward Jones, John Charnock, John Travers, Jerome Bellamy, and Robert Gage, were tried and convicted shortly afterward. Ballard and Babington were executed on September 20 along with the other men who had been tried with them. Such was the horror of their execution that the Queen ordered the second group to be allowed to hang until dead before being disembowelled.
Queen Mary herself went to trial at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire and denied her part in the plot, but her correspondence was the evidence; therefore, Mary was sentenced to death, on the grounds she had written support and encouraged Babington to do the deed. Elizabeth signed her cousin's death warrant, and on February 8 1587, in front of 300 witnesses, Mary, Queen of Scots, was executed. Sir Francis Walsingham, the Queen's spymaster, had saved England from invasion, and saved Queen Elizabeth I from supposed assassination. This may have ended the Babington Plot, but it set a dangerous precedent for the future. For years, Elizabeth had deliberately dragged her feet about ending Mary's life, much to the chagrin of her advisors, who were too concerned about the threats to her life to consider the wider issues that Elizabeth was all too aware of. Elizabeth's reluctance to execute her cousin was well founded; while Mary's involvement in the plot was well established, Walsingham had clearly established her guilt through entrapment, forcing Elizabeth to commit regicide, which was both distasteful and dangerous. She realized that once a sovereign became answerable for the common man's crimes, the belief that a king's or queen's actions were accountable only to God would be undercut and ultimately challenge the structure upon which her own authority was founded. After Mary's execution, Elizabeth briefly dismissed Walsingham, though it is disputed whether she did so out of genuine anger at his duplicity, or merely for appearances.
The story of the Babington Plot is dramatised in the novel Conies in the Hay by Jane Lane. (ISBN 0-7551-0835-3). One episode of Elizabeth R is devoted to the Babington Plot, and the Movie Elizabeth: The Golden Age deals substantially with the Plot as well.