Thursday, September 20, 2012

Traitors and A Poet: The Babington Plot

File:Portrait of young gentleman said to be Anthony Babington.jpg Anthony Babington (the portrait is from Wikipedia commons) was executed at St. Gile's Field on September 20, 1586, along with a Jesuit priest, John Ballard and several other conspirators--Chidiock Tichborne, Thomas Salisbury, Henry Donn among them. As traitors, of course, they were hung, drawn and quartered, but their executions and sufferings were so extreme--especially considering their relative youth--that the onlookers began to have sympathy for them. Queen Elizabeth ordered that the rest of the traitors to be executed were to be hung until dead (then cut up per the standard operating procedure).

Babington involved the imprisoned Mary, Queen of Scots in his plot to assassinate Elizabeth and bring Mary to the throne of England and this led to her execution within months. Beyond the plot's murderous intent, the disturbing aspect of this conspiracy is that Elizabeth's spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, knew about the plot because he had a double agent in place who also served as an agent provocateur. There is an element of entrapment--especially regarding Mary's replies to correspondence--in Walsingham's handling of the matter. As the BBC History site notes:

Walsingham loathed Mary and everything she stood for, and vowed to bring her down. It was to take him almost 20 years. But when he discovered in 1586 that she was corresponding with a group of Catholics led by the young Anthony Babington, he seized his chance.

For the first stage of his plan, Walsingham used a spy named Gifford to act as a double agent. Gifford persuaded the local brewer to encourage Mary to use him as a secret means of communicating with the outside world. By establishing a system whereby Mary's personal letters were carried in and out of Chartley (her current residence) hidden in a beer barrel, Walsingham was able to intercept and decode her correspondence. The relatively simple code used by Mary was quickly deciphered, and translations were provided for Elizabeth. These letters were then resealed and sent on to their destination or delivered to Mary in prison. And so the plot progressed.

Walsingham, meanwhile, was biding his time. Luckily for him, Babington and his friends were enthusiastic but inexperienced plotters and were happy to discuss their plans in public. It was therefore not difficult for the authorities to keep track of their movements. Having outlined his plans to Mary, Babington now tried to secure her participation in the plot. This was the moment Walsingham had been waiting for. When the vital letter from Mary asking for details was intercepted, a postscript was forged in her hand asking for the identities of the plotters. The names were duly supplied, and their fate was sealed. Mary's involvement in the plot had been proven, and a gallows was drawn on the page by the decoding expert. Walsingham could now move in for the kill.

Young Chidiock Tichborne wrote an elegy while in the Tower which gained some fame with its haunting contrasts (note that all but one of the words is but one syllable and "fallen" could be pronounced as one by elision):

Tichborne’s Elegy
Written with His Own Hand in the Tower Before His Execution

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.

My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is fallen and yet my leaves are green,
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
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 was but made;
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

The Tichborne family was solidly, adamantly, recusantly Catholic: Chideock's cousins Father Thomas Tichborne and his brother Nicholas were executed (because Thomas was a Catholic priest and his brother helped him to escape, in 1602 and 1601, respectively).

1 comment:

  1. I have learned to hate all traitors, and there is no disease that I spit on more than treachery. See the link below for more info.