London Historians have just posted online a piece I wrote for their newsletter to mark the 450th anniversary of the birth of the most notorious of Elizabethan traitors, Anthony Babington. (Update: Now available on my blog here in two parts, here and here.) However, I felt that his fate – and those of his fellow Catholic conspirators in late Tudor England – raised wider issues that were worth exploring. In particular, I wanted to consider why their stories resonate so strongly today, concerning as they do the balance between personal liberty and public security, the limits of political and religious tolerance, and the reaction of the state to potential acts of violence against it.
I have long been fascinated by Babington and the Elizabethan demi-monde of footloose young gentlemen, among them aspiring courtiers and spies alike, to which he belonged, having first read about him – and them – in Charles Nicholl’s brilliant 1992 book, The Reckoning.
When I encountered them originally, I tried to understand them through the frame of Cold War espionage and the 20th-century treasons of men like Philby, Blunt, Burgess and Maclean. But Babington and his fellow Marian conspirators, including those from earlier plots, such as those of Francis Throckmorton and William Parry, don’t readily fit into that paradigm: it obscures more than it reveals.