Alternate history: what if the Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth I had succeeded?

Jonny Wilkes talks to historian Tracy Borman about how the Tudor dynasty could have been cut short and England hurled into a religious civil war

Mary, Queen of Scots during her trial at Fotheringhay Castle – where she was also executed for her alleged role in the Babington Plot

Each month BBC History Revealed asks a historical expert for their take on what might have happened if a key moment in the past had turned out differently. This time, Jonny Wilkes talks to Tracy Borman about what might have happened had the Babington Plot to assasinate Elizabeth I succeeded…

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What was the Babington Plot?

The goals of the Babington Plot in 1586 were to assassinate Elizabeth I and place the Roman Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne of England. To ensure success, Spain promised an invasion force. The plot took its name from Anthony Babington, who wrote to Mary, Queen of Scots – the figurehead of several Catholic plots during Elizabeth’s reign – with details of her rescue from captivity and execution of her cousin.

But the coded messages, snuck in and out of Mary’s residence in the stopper of a beer barrel, were intercepted and deciphered by agents of Elizabeth’s spymaster, Francis Walsingham. Babington and 13 others were caught, tried and sentenced to death by being hanged, drawn and quartered in September 1586.

More than uncovering the plot, though, the letters provided hard evidence that Mary had been complicit. After Elizabeth finally, and reluctantly, signed the death warrant, Mary was executed on 8 February 1587.


What if the Babington Plot had succeeded?

Queen Elizabeth I faced a number of assassination plots by Roman Catholics seeking to restore their religion in Protestant England and raise her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, to the throne. The Ridolfi Plot of 1571 had support from King Philip II of Spain and Pope Pius V, while the Throckmorton Plot of 1583 planned a Spanish-backed invasion by the French Duke of Guise, head of the Catholic League. Neither came close to fruition, but another scheme was to come.

In 1586, an English Catholic named Anthony Babington was recruited by Jesuit priest John Ballard to communicate with Mary, Queen of Scots about the details of a plot to assassinate Elizabeth I and rescue the former Scottish queen from captivity at Chartley Hall in Staffordshire. Mary had been imprisoned on Elizabeth’s orders for 18 years since her forced abdication from the Scottish throne; contact with the outside world was forbidden so Babington had to smuggle in coded messages. There was one problem, though: so-called spymaster general Sir Francis Walsingham.

“Walsingham’s spy network was one of the most sophisticated in the world, with contacts and informants all over Europe,” says Tracy Borman, historian and author of a number of works on the Tudor period.

He was able to keep tabs on closet Catholics and would-be assassins, intercept and decipher correspondence, and foil numerous plots against his royal mistress.” So effective was the spymaster that he had a double agent, Gilbert Gifford, in Babington’s circle from the beginning, as well as a codebreaker, Thomas Phelippes, at Chartley to decipher the secret messages.

But suppose that Gifford was not captured after meeting with Mary’s supporters and cajoled into acting as a double agent, then Babington’s communication with Mary may have gone unnoticed until it was too late. Borman says: “The sheer number of plots, which grew ever more sophisticated to try and outwit Walsingham’s network, meant that there were always some that might have slipped through the net.”

Nevertheless, a lot still had to go right for the Babington Plot to have succeeded. “Even if Walsingham hadn’t discovered it early, the chances of success were slim at best,” says Borman. “Of vital importance was that the plotters ensured Mary was freed and Elizabeth assassinated simultaneously. When that time eventually came, it would have probably fallen to an ex-soldier by the name of John Savage to be the one to cut down Elizabeth.”

That could all be for naught, however, without a Spanish invasion force to secure the Catholic position in England, something which “had never before been attempted,” says Borman. Philip II had made promises before without anything materialising, so it is possible the Babington Plot would have been no different. “The same was true of the powerful English Catholic nobles. It might be overstating it to say that they were all talk and no action, but most were better at promising support than risking their lives in delivering it.”

If the Spanish did land, and Elizabeth was killed and Mary made queen of England, then the most likely result of the Babington Plot would have been civil war. Protestants could not have accepted a murdered monarch or a Scottish Catholic exile put on the throne at the hands of an enemy power, and they certainly did not want to see England return to papal authority. At least half of the English were loyal to Elizabeth and they may have even been joined by Catholics who disliked the idea of the Spanish calling the shots.

Cycle of vengeance

Whoever won a civil war – Protestant or Catholic – would have sought violent retributions against the other, but if Mary had emerged victorious then the country was destined for yet another religious upheaval.

“Mary was a champion of the Catholic cause and would have endeavoured to make England part of the Roman Catholic fold once more,” says Borman, adding: “The extent of her success, given the ill-fated example of ‘Bloody’ Mary Tudor, is debatable.”

There easily could have been an ongoing period of instability and division, which, in the long term, may have affected England’s role in New World exploration and settlement as seen in the 17th century. And Mary had “hardly proved an inspiring model of female sovereignty,” according to Borman. “Her reign in Scotland had been catastrophic, thanks largely to her own reckless actions. I don’t think it would have been long before her new subjects would have chorused: ‘Bring back Elizabeth!’”

No Elizabeth on the throne would have meant no Spanish Armada, either, and an earlier end to the Tudor dynasty. But, as Borman claims, a successful Babington Plot arguably would not have led to “the most seismic of shifts”. As Mary’s son James inherited the throne upon Elizabeth’s death in 1603 [as James VI and I], the crowns of England and Scotland were united anyway.

“No doubt Mary’s propagandists would have been busy penning treatises condemning the illegitimate, heretical queen who brought her subjects to the brink of eternal damnation and threw the whole royal succession in jeopardy thanks to her stubborn refusal to marry,” Borman concludes. “But I think her reputation would have been at least partly restored during the reign of James, a devout Protestant who had a low opinion of his mother.”

Illustration of Alexander the Great marching to war (Illustration by Sue Gent_
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This content first appeared in the August 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed