1902: Ernest Loveswar, the last hanging in Meade County 1761: Gabriel Malagrida, Jesuit nutter

1586: Anthony Babington and fellow plotters, Walsingham’d

September 20th, 2010 Headsman

The recently completed papal visit to England has summoned many a recollection of that country’s traumatic break from the Church. (As well as more recent embarrassments.)

While we know the schism from the comfort of retrospection, those present for its 16th century inception (and long afterward) had the task of sorting out winners and losers on blood-soaked scaffolds.

So we pause this date to note the extirpation September 20 and 21 of the Babington Plot, a half-baked scheme to re-establish the Old Faith that turned into one of history’s signature achievements of espionage.

Its namesake, young Sir Anthony Babington, was a secret Catholic with more money than sense; like many a Catholic of this time, he bristled under the rule of Elizabeth I, the daughter of the very woman who started all this English Reformation trouble.

Besotted with fellow-Catholic Mary Queen of Scots after having served as her page in his youth, Babington was easy prey for the fellow invariably described as Elizabeth’s “spymaster”Francis Walsingham.

Not one for scruples where his own security or his sovereign’s was concerned, Walsingham had long considered Mary Queen of Scots too dangerous to be left alive: every Catholic plot against Elizabeth intended to replace her on the throne with this Catholic cousin.

Trying to overcome Elizabeth’s reluctance to off fellow royalty — dangerous precedent, in these dangerous times — Walsingham entrapped Babington and a coterie of other Catholics into designing and documenting a scheme to assassinate Elizabeth and support a Spanish invasion.

And most importantly to Walsingham, they got Mary to sign off on it.

Though the design was grandiose, the real danger was pretty much nil — since Walsingham, a Renaissance reconnaissance man famous for his continent-spanning intelligence network, had penetrated the circle months before.* Walsingham let the conspiracy ripen long after he had the goods on the likes of Babington, intending to make it the instrument of Mary’s destruction. He succeeded.

Coded correspondence that Mary thought she was smuggling in and out of her cell was in fact being intercepted and decrypted.

When Babington wrote to her, alluding to his intent with “six noble gentlemen” to murder Queen Elizabeth, Mary doomed herself with a favorable reply:

The affair being thus prepared, and forces in readiness both within and without the realm, then shall it be time to set the six gentlemen to work; taking order upon the accomplishment of their design, I may be suddenly transported out of this place.

Within days, all — Mary, Babington, six gentlemen, and more — were in chains, and the commoners were being tortured into confessions and implications.**

The reckoning for Mary Queen of Scots would not arrive for some months yet.

But those of lesser breeding were dispatched with dispatch. Tried in two bunches, there were 14 in all condemned; on this date, Babington, was hanged, drawn and quartered for treason, along with accomplices John Ballard, Thomas Salisbury, Robert Barnewell, John Savage, Henry Donn and Chidiock Tichborne — the last of these leaving behind this doleful poetic adieu:

Elegy

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
The spring is past, and yet it hath not sprung;
The fruit is dead, and yet the leaves be green,
My youth is gone and yet I am but young,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and saw it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I am but made;
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

-Chidiock Tichborne

(Hear this bummer of a verse read aloud here and here.)

The torture these first seven unfortunates endured as their entrails were ripped from their still-living bodies was so horrible that Elizabeth ordered the seven others awaiting execution the next day simply to be hanged to death before all the disemboweling business.†

A few books about spymaster Francis Walsingham

* Walsingham had plenty of plots to contend with, but did Elizabeth even greater service keeping tabs on the buildup of the Spanish Armada through a spy network in Italy — even using it to delay the invasion by a crucial extra year by drying up Spain’s credit line with Italian bankers. (Source, via (pdf))

Incidentally, and completely off topic: the subversive, forward-thinking philosopher Giordano Bruno — an Italian who was eventually executed by the Inquisition — has been alleged to be one in Walsingham’s employ.

** Luckily for Elizabeth, the treasonous Protestants who supported her back when she was at the mercy of her Catholic half-sister Mary Tudor were better able to hold their tongues under duress.

† One of those executed on September 21, Charles Tilney, has an oblique Shakespeare connection: he’s one possible author of the play Locrine, which Shakespeare might have revised and/or staged; Locrine is in the Shakespeare Apocrypha.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Mature Content,Notable for their Victims,Notable Participants,Notable Sleuthing,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Spies,Terrorists,Torture,Treason

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4 Responses to “1586: Anthony Babington and fellow plotters, Walsingham’d”

  1. 1
    ExecutedToday.com » 1600: Giordano Bruno, freethought martyr Says:

    [...] This historical thriller — the first of a series — features Bruno in England, where some think he might have spied for Francis Walsingham. [...]

  2. 2
    Early Modern Notes » Carnivalesque 66 Says:

    [...] Today considers Anthony Babington‘s plot and execution in [...]

  3. 3
    ExecutedToday.com » Executed Today’s Third Annual Report: Third Time Lucky Says:

    [...] The Babington Plot, busted by Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster Walsingham [...]

  4. 4
    ExecutedToday.com » 1588: Nicholas Garlick, Robert Ludlam, and Richard Simpson Says:

    [...] Queen of Scots had lost her head just the year before, having been the focal point of one too many Catholic plots to overthrow Elizabeth. England’s support for Dutch Protestants rebelling against Spain had [...]

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