The Babington plot: the capture and execution of the conspirators

Scene from an execution

On Tuesday 20th September 1586, seven Catholic men were bound to hurdles in the Tower of London – one of them, a priest named John Ballard, on a single sled, the others two-a-piece – and then dragged westward on their final slow journey through the city’s autumnal streets to a hastily erected scaffold in the open fields ‘at the upper end of Holborn, hard by the highway-side to St Giles’. The scaffold was probably situated somewhere a little to the north west of what is now Lincoln’s Inn Fields, then known as Cup Field. The crowd gathered there to watch them die numbered in thousands. The authorities had fenced off the site to stop horsemen blocking the view, and had also raised the gallows ‘mighty high’, so that everyone could see justice being done.

The names of the men were – Ballard aside – Anthony Babington, John Savage, Robert Barnwell, Chidiock Tichbourne, Charles Tilney, and Edward Abingdon. (Seven more conspirators and their accomplices would die the following day: Edward Jones, Thomas Salisbury, John Charnock, Robert Gage, John Travers, Jerome Bellamy and Henry Donne, elder brother of the poet.) Most of them were minor courtiers, well-connected, wealthy; it was said they wore fine silks on this, their last day.

Just a week before they had been tried at Westminster and found guilty of treason; six weeks before that, they had still been free men. But then had come intimations of arrest – one story is that Babington was alerted by catching sight of a message delivered to a dining companion named Scudamore and realising that Scudamore was, in fact, one of Walsingham’s men – followed by dispersal and desperate flight. Babington and four others took to what was then still wild woodland beyond the city at St John’s Wood.

The authorities searched the houses of some thirty known recusants around London. Almost all were outside the city walls in places such as Hoxton, Clerkenwell, Highgate,  Enfield, Islington, Newington and Westminster. One conspirator, John Charnock, was captured on the road from Willesden, where he too had slept in the woods.

Babington and his companions, hungry and fearful, disguised their clothing and cut their hair, smeared their faces with green walnut shells, and then – with watches guarding every road out of London – made their way cross-country to what they hoped would be a safe house near Harrow-on-the-Hill: Uxendon Manor, the home of the Bellamy family. Servants there noticed the strangers’ arrival, their oddness; furtive conversations and the gold lacework of a fine cloak over coarse yellow fustian doublets. The five were finally taken, hiding in the barn. Bells rang out across the city as news of their arrest spread; fires were lit and psalms sung, song and smoke rising together in the late summer air.

And now the men were to be hanged, drawn and quartered.

Although the exact site of the gallows is unknown, we do know that it was chosen for symbolic purposes: the men had used these fields for secret meetings as they plotted to assassinate Elizabeth I and replace her on the throne with Mary, Queen of Scots. Indeed, much of their conspiracy seems local to this area, just beyond the city’s western edge where streets and houses seeped into pasture, and where, on warm spring days, women dried their washing out in the fields, weighting down the sheets with rocks and stones. If in some senses the locale emphasises the marginality of their deadly enterprise, it also perhaps hints at a fatal detachment from reality.

Two of the conspirators’ favoured inns were nearby: The Plough, which seems to have been close to Fickett’s Field, between Cup Field and The Strand, and The Rose Tavern, which was on the south side of the Strand itself, just without Temple Bar on the corner of Thanet Place, and well-known for its garden. (A character in Middleton’s Roaring Girls claims to ‘have caught a cold in my head… by sitting up late in the Rose Tavern’.) Savage, Charnock and Babington had rooms in Holborn, the latter at a place called Hern’s Rents, an address he shared – coincidentally or otherwise – with another would-be Catholic regicide, Edmund Neville, who also used to walk in the fields with his co-conspirator, William Parry. Just eighteen months earlier, Neville had betrayed Parry to Walsingham – and to the fate that now awaited Babington and his friends.

It was customary for a traitor’s death to come by hanging, and for the blood rituals to be enacted on his corpse. This day, however, was different. One after another, the men were left to swing briefly by the neck – until they were half-dead, an onlooker wrote – and then cut down from the gallows, still alive and conscious, and made to watch as the executioner hacked off their genitals and dug out their guts – and then eventually their hearts – with his knife. As their insides were cast into a burning brazier, each man’s body was then dismembered, and the severed head set above the gallows.

As the historian William Camden – a likely an eye-witness – noted, the day’s events were ‘not without some note of cruelty’.

The first man to die, was Ballard, arguably the plot’s ringleader. The second, its lynchpin, was Babington. He alone of the men standing beside the scaffold awaiting their fate watched Ballard’s agony’s unflinchingly, coolly, not even deigning to remove his hat; the others turned away, fell to their knees and bared their heads in prayer. But when it was his turn to suffer, and he was pulled down breathing from the gallows to face the executioner’s knife, he cried again and again Parce mihi Domine Iesu, Spare me Lord Jesus.

The one man who could have spared him – that is, persuaded Elizabeth to mitigate his sentence or perhaps even negotiated his pardon, so great was his influence with Elizabeth – was not present. Babington had pleaded for his intercession on his behalf only the day before, offering him the vast sum of £1,000 to do so. That man was the queen’s favourite, Sir Walter Ralegh.

NOTE: A version of this article first appeared in the London Historian‘s newsletter. For more on Anthony Babington, see my posts here and here.

9 thoughts on “The Babington plot: the capture and execution of the conspirators

  1. […] I was not, truth be told, expecting to write much, if at all, about the world of espionage when I first set out to research The Favourite, my recent book about the relationship between Elizabeth I and Ralegh. After all, Ralegh’s protestant credentials in the fight against imperial Spain would appear, at first sight, unimpeachable. What could possibly connect his world with that of Babington? […]

  2. Enjoyed your article – it would seem that Burley may have played a bigger part in this episode than writers generally give him credit for – more emphasis is drawn toward Walsingham?

    It would be interesting to know how Ballard was identified and confirmed as being himself there on that day of his execution?

    The merky waters of Espionage during this period may have led us a merry dance

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