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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Simon Forman fantasises about Elizabeth I

Simon Forman

Simon Forman (1552-1611) was a London-based astrologer and physician with a wide-ranging and popular practice, particularly among the gentry and members of the court. Considered by many to be a quack – the College of Physicians fought a long-running legal battle with him over the nature of his work – his use of magical techniques in no way seems to have dented the enthusiasm of his clientele. Arguably, quite the opposite in fact.

His casebooks, which still survive, are therefore superb sources for studies in the social history of the period, as well as fascinating documents in themselves. It is to Forman that we owe the earliest accounts of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale in performance, for example.

Although he dispensed a wide range of more-or-less mundane practical advice alongside his therapeutic and astrological work, some of his clients evidently sought his help on more dangerous matters. After his death, during the trial that followed the murder of Sir Thomas Overbury in 1616, it emerged that Forman had kept a book containing the names of his high-born female clients and the details of their liaisons at court. More worryingly still, it was claimed that Frances Howard had commissioned him to manufacture a potion that would cool the ardour of her then husband, the earl of Essex, and another to secure her the affection of Robert Carr, earl of Somerset. Howard’s marriage to the Earl of Essex had been annulled by James I three years earlier on the grounds that Essex was impotent – or rather, was incapable of having sex with his wife, while being perfectly adequate to the task with anyone else – which had cleared the way for her betrothal to Somerset. Not surprisingly, given the peculiar circumstances of the annulment, there had been talk of witchcraft, even then.
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An exchange of poems between Sir Walter Ralegh and Elizabeth I

This exchange probably dates from 1587, around the time Ralegh’s influence of power had reached its high-water mark. I don’t propose to blog at length about the poems – I have said what I have to say about them in The Favourite and, for the most part, they speak for themselves.

I would say, though, that it’s evident – beneath the histrionic, self-pitying rhetoric – that Ralegh can sense the tide of favour turning against him; and I’m not sure we should automatically dismiss as fraudulent the expressions of pain such a rejection might engender. For a man in his circumstances, the cooling of royal warmth towards him could presage a wider kind of abandonment and ruin too. As for Elizabeth’s poem, I think it reveals something we don’t often see in portrayals of her: a gentle affection and an unmistakeable kindness and solicitude. It also shows, of course, how perceptive her judgement of those around her was.
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The Favourite paperback edition

Just a brief post to announce that Constable will be publishing the paperback edition of The Favourite, my book on Ralegh and Elizabeth I, on 21 June – just in time for the holiday season! There will be some additional content in the new edition, but more on that nearer the time.

For those who can’t wait that long, the hardback is still available – as of course is the e-book!

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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