Mary, Queen of Scots: Life Story

Chapter 21 : The Babington Plot

In the early 1580s, an idea was floated that Mary might rule in association with her son, James, now in his late teens, and taking an active part in government. Mary was willing to do almost anything – renounce her rights to the English throne, agree to an amnesty in Scotland, even take part in a league against France, if she could be freed, either to rule with James in Scotland, or even to remain in England, but free.

Emissaries winged between Mary, James and Elizabeth. Mary, who had never ceased to love her son, hoped, and perhaps assumed, that he would be equally attached, if not to her, to the idea of her. But James had been told since his earliest childhood that his mother had murdered his father to marry her lover, and with no personal memory of her, had no desire to persuade Elizabeth to free her. James and Elizabeth came to terms separately – James would continue an Anglo-Scottish alliance, rather than reverting to friendship with France. Elizabeth need only pay him sufficient gold.  His mother’s freedom was not a condition.

Mary was bitterly hurt, and vowed to disinherit her son, but her words were empty. As the years passed, she was becoming an irrelevance. Another vexation was being drawn into the marital disputes of the Shrewsburys. A once happy marriage had broken down into acrimony and the countess accused her husband of having an affair with Mary.

The outraged queen wrote to Elizabeth, demanding to be allowed to come to London to clear her name, and retaliating by repeating every bit of salacious gossip that she and Bess Shrewsbury had shared over their embroidery needles in the earlier days of Mary’s captivity. Whether Elizabeth ever received the letter, is unknown.

A resurgence of Catholic resistance began with the entry into England of a new wave of missionary priests – sent to encourage the recusants, and reconvert the generation which had come to adulthood in Elizabeth’s reign. Fighting this fifth army were Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham, one of the most prominent Puritans in Elizabeth’s government, and an inveterate enemy of Mary.

The assassination of the Netherlandish Stadtholder, William the Silent, as well as the murders of the two Scottish regents led the English government, not unreasonably, to fear that Elizabeth, too, might be assassinated. Parliament passed an Act stating that, in the event of the monarch’s assassination for the benefit of another potential monarch, that potential monarch would be deemed guilty of treason, even if he or she had had no prior involvement in or knowledge of the murder. Thus Mary could be executed should anyone assassinate Elizabeth to benefit her.

In the years 1583 – 1586, three plots were uncovered by Walsingham’s men – and the suspicion remains that they had in fact been engineered by him to entrap the Scottish queen. All three followed the same pattern – Spanish and/or French soldiers were to invade, Mary was to be freed by popular acclaim by the English Catholics and to inaugurate a Catholic government. The background to these plots involves a web of spies, double-agents, secret cyphers and cloaked assassins, that would put James Bond to shame.

Mary herself was removed from the care of Shrewsbury and returned to Tutbury, a castle she hated, under the altogether stricter regimen of the Puritan Sir Amyas Paulet. Paulet was a punctilious man, and obeyed the letter of the law, but there was no kindness in him, and, where Shrewsbury had interpreted orders generously, Paulet interpreted them as harshly as possible – even removing Mary’s cloth of state, which had been in situ since her arrival in England, and which was an important signifier of rank. He also banned her charitable activities, such as the distribution of Maundy or the giving of presents to any of the household servants, lest she corrupt them.

The final plot was that which became known as the Babington Plot. A group of young men, prominent amongst them was one Anthony Babington, a Catholic gentleman from Derbyshire who had been a page in the Shrewsbury household, and conceived a romantic admiration for the unhappy captive queen. Later, he had been persuaded by a man named Thomas Morgan to carry secret letters to Mary. Morgan ostensibly worked for Mary’s official agent in Paris, James Beaton, who was in charge of her French financial affairs, but was probably a spy for Walsingham.

Babington later tried to withdraw from any involvement in Mary’s affairs, but became entangled with another double-agent, Robert Poley, who persuaded him that he should help rescue the queen, and that the Spanish would mount an invasion to support her.

A scheme had been developed by Walsingham to communicate secretly with Mary through smuggling in letters in beer barrels to her new location at Chartley. Babington was induced to use this method of communication to make contact with the queen – quite unaware that every letter in or out was being read by Walsingham’s agents.

Eventually, the incriminating letter was sent – Babington told Mary that he and his fellows would assassinate Elizabeth. Everything depended on Mary’s response. If she did not specifically forbid the assassination, she would be guilty by association.

Mary’s response was to emphasis the risks of the plot, the necessity for the foreign army to be real, not imaginary, and for her to be rescued before Paulet knew of the death of Elizabeth. As for that, she merely wrote, once it had been carried out, she must be rescued quickly. She did not negate the plan. Walsingham’s agent, Phelippes drew a gallows next to Mary’s words. She had, effectively, hanged herself.