Catholic treason in Elizabethan England and the psychology of espionage and terror

Anthony Babington and his fellow conspirators

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.

The Cambridge spies, after all, were men very much of the system and hidden within it, feeding intelligence to Moscow but necessarily not actively engaged or planning overt actions against the British government. The Catholic traitors of the late 16th century, by way of contrast, saw themselves as lead actors, as heroic catalysts for their own particular revolutions.

They were, I now realise, terrorists. A more fitting analogy, therefore, is with organisations, such as Al Qaeda, which thrive on the kind of narcissistic self-glorification that makes both mass murder and the martyrdom of suicide operations emotionally attractive and intelligible. There is a vanity about Babington, in particular, a craving for notoriety, which is unmistakeable: ‘Do you see yonder gentleman?’ Babington said to a friend once, pointing at Tichbourne. ‘He is more fit to be a nobleman than a gentleman of mean calling. I doubt not but to see him called unto great honour ere it be long.’

In the plan, he allowed himself the grandstanding role of personally liberating Mary from captivity. And, in a move startlingly reminiscent of today’s martyrdom videos, he also had the conspirators’ portraits painted as a group, at first accompanied by the legend Hi mihi sunt comiti, quos ipsa pericula ducunt – These men are my companions, whom very dangers draw – although this was subsequently changed to the more ambiguous Quorum haec, aliis properantibus? – To what end are these things to men that hasten to another purpose? Babington’s ability to disconnect himself on the scaffold from the suffering of others and indeed from his own impending agonies, strikes me as pathological, and therefore relevant in this context.

But even given this, it is impossible not to be moved by the horror of their deaths, and – more generally – to feel sympathy for their predicament. While I do not think them innocent of plotting Elizabeth’s murder and other treasons, they were also victims – of circumstance if nothing more sinister.

It is often noted, for instance, how compromised their conspiracy was, most notably by Walsingham’s men. As I mentioned in my piece for London Historians, Babington was reportedly dining with one of them, a man named Scudamore, one evening early in August 1586, when he realised he was about to be taken; but there were two others more actively engaged in keeping the plan aloft, attempting to judge precisely the right time to unmask the conspiracy to their true master. Those men were Francis Maude, attached to Ballard, and Robert Poley, a new-found friend of Babington’s. Moreover both Ballard and Babington made moves to reveal the plot themselves in the days leading up to their arrest.

What does this tell us? One answer might be that Babington et al were all little more than pawns in Walsingham’s intricate, complex game to implicate Mary in murder and treason and thereby manufacture a legal basis for her execution. There is certainly no doubt that this was exactly the end to which Walsingham, and others, were aiming.

But it is also true that the English government was collectively certain that there were Spanish-backed Catholics who sought to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her on the throne with Mary, and they were right to be so fearful. The threat was real, its chances of success high. The English had been on heightened alert since the exposure of the Ridolfi plot in 1571 which, while it hadn’t explicitly countenanced Elizabeth’s death, planned for her to be overthrown in place of Mary and her proposed husband, the fourth duke of Norfolk – with the backing of a Spanish army – and which itself came not long after the issue of a papal bull legitimising and encouraging Elizabeth’s murder.

And then since the turn of the decade there had been the conspiracies of  Throckmorton and  Parry, exposed in 1583 and 1585 respectively. If Elizabeth were willing to accept a much greater degree of security theatre around her, perhaps the government might have been more sanguine about the threat to her. But she was not. ‘I had rather be dead than put in custody,’ was her tart response when it was suggested to her that walking alone in her gardens was unwise.

Yet the personal risks for her were acute. As noted above, the sort of men engaged in these murderous conspiracies were, by and large, insiders. Catholic, yes, but well-to-do young men – charming, fashionable, witty – on the fringes of the court, with ready access to her, if they wished to proceed with their plans. Among Babington’s traitors, it is said she knew Barnwell by sight; Tilney was one of her gentleman  pensioners. As Parry had explained to his co-conspirator Edmund Neville: ‘In truth there is not anything more easy [than assassinating Elizabeth]: you are no courtier, and therefore know not her customs of walking with small train, and often in the garden very privately, at which time my self may easily have access unto her.’ And again, of another plan to shoot her while she rode in St James Park: ‘[I]f they were an hundred waiting upon her, they were not able to save her.’

For ambitious young gentlemen of either faith – and particularly younger sons with no expectation of inheritance – the court exerted a powerful gravitational pull: for the ambitious, it was the only practical place to be to gain preferment; for those excluded from patrimony, it offered the chance to shore up a precarious estate.  For most such young men, however, significant opportunities to be useful, to prove one’s worth, were rare.

But Catholic gentlemen had one commodity that was particularly saleable: their loyalty. They were, in a sense, already and always compromised, since under the papal bull of 1571 they were enjoined, if not commanded, to murder their head of state; doing nothing was a betrayal of their faith. But the fact that they bore the burden of that duty also meant that they could move easily and without undue suspicion in circles where such seditions might brood. Indeed, as courtiers with access to Elizabeth they were also particularly welcome among those already active on Mary’s behalf. The circumstances of faith and social position made disloyalty a necessity for survival and placed such a premium on moral ambiguity in a time of absolutes that some of them were effectively driven into careers as double agents.

Which bring us back, uncomfortably, to Babington and Ralegh

NOTE: For more on Catholic conspiracies against Elizabeth, see my posts on George Gifford and the Ridolfi plot. For more on the Babington plot, see my posts here and here.

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