Sir Walter Ralegh and the Babington plot

Mary, Queen of Scots

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?

As it happens, quite a lot. As I have tried to show in The Favourite, the young Ralegh was a much more ambivalent figure than traditional histories suggest. In particular, during his first years in London at Middle Temple in the mid-to-late 1570s, when he was scratching around half-heartedly on the far margins of the court along with many contemporaries, necessity demanding they pretend to a status they could barely afford, ever threatened by poverty and debt,  his reputation extended little further than drunkeness: louche, reckless and wanton.

And many of Ralegh’s companions were, largely, Catholics and their fellow travellers, since he quickly became part of the circle around the Earl of Oxford, a group largely defined by a sour, sullen and reactionary opposition to the Elizabethan settlement. In one sense, this suggests a personal indifference on Ralegh’s part – which I suspect was also widespread – to the schism that separated the faiths, enjoying with his friends a fellowship defined by circumstance far more than ideology, and sharing a voluble, almost fashionable, disaffection rooted more in youth and under-employment than in the practical matters of revolt.

He sounds to me one with some of Babington’s ale-house seditionaries, such as Chidiock Tichbourne, who said sorrowfully on the scaffold, ‘Before this thing chanced, we lived together in most flourishing estate: of whom went report in the Strand, Fleet Street, and elsewhere about London but of Babington and Tichbourne? No threshold was of force to brave our entry. Thus we lived, and wanted nothing we could wish for: and God knows, what less in my head than matters of state?’
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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.
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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.
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