Sir Walter Ralegh and the Babington plot

Mary, Queen of Scots

I was not, truth be told, expecting to write much, if at all, about the world of espionage when I first set out to research The Favourite, my recent book about the relationship between Elizabeth I and Ralegh. After all, Ralegh’s protestant credentials in the fight against imperial Spain would appear, at first sight, unimpeachable. What could possibly connect his world with that of Babington?

As it happens, quite a lot. As I have tried to show in The Favourite, the young Ralegh was a much more ambivalent figure than traditional histories suggest. In particular, during his first years in London at Middle Temple in the mid-to-late 1570s, when he was scratching around half-heartedly on the far margins of the court along with many contemporaries, necessity demanding they pretend to a status they could barely afford, ever threatened by poverty and debt,  his reputation extended little further than drunkeness: louche, reckless and wanton.

And many of Ralegh’s companions were, largely, Catholics and their fellow travellers, since he quickly became part of the circle around the Earl of Oxford, a group largely defined by a sour, sullen and reactionary opposition to the Elizabethan settlement. In one sense, this suggests a personal indifference on Ralegh’s part – which I suspect was also widespread – to the schism that separated the faiths, enjoying with his friends a fellowship defined by circumstance far more than ideology, and sharing a voluble, almost fashionable, disaffection rooted more in youth and under-employment than in the practical matters of revolt.

He sounds to me one with some of Babington’s ale-house seditionaries, such as Chidiock Tichbourne, who said sorrowfully on the scaffold, ‘Before this thing chanced, we lived together in most flourishing estate: of whom went report in the Strand, Fleet Street, and elsewhere about London but of Babington and Tichbourne? No threshold was of force to brave our entry. Thus we lived, and wanted nothing we could wish for: and God knows, what less in my head than matters of state?’

When the Oxford circle broke apart at the turn of the decade, Ralegh was propelled towards favour and reward at Elizabeth’s side. Other of his erstwhile friends – most notably Charles Arundell, the principal author of the brilliant extended libel against the Earl of Leicester known as Leicester’s Commonwealth, and Thomas Paget – were not so lucky, and ultimately fled England for Paris, where they gravitated to the expatriates there loyal to Mary, Queen of Scots.

Which leads us to the most interesting, if elusive, aspect of Ralegh’s relationship to the Babington conspiracy: the fact that Ralegh’s name crops up again as an accomplice and again as the plot was uncovered, whether directly or through the apparent complicity of his servants. And yet there is no evidence of any interrogations or other investigation into his possible involvement, whereas Walsingham’s man Poley, for one, found himself in the Tower, albeit temporarily.

So, for instance, towards the end of July 1586, Babington told Poley – in the latter’s rooms in Temple Gardens – ‘that one of Sir Walter Ralegh’s men had received money and undertaken to kill her majesty within five weeks from that time’. Henry Donne, meanwhile, confessed that around the weekend before his capture, Ballard had lost faith in Babington and had ‘that afternoon sworn unto him two of Sir Walter Ralegh’s men to execute the act whensoever he would have them.’ There are a number of ways of looking at such evidence, but what seems certain is that Walsingham was not the only figure at court whose men were actively nursing the conspiracy into life, and that some in Ralegh’s employment were also ensuring that it did not dissolve into nothing before Mary could be ensnared.

Even after the principals were arrested, Ralegh’s name continued to circulate with regard to the plot. On 10 September, the Spanish ambassador Mendoza, resident in Paris since his expulsion from England in the wake of the Throckmorton conspiracy, wrote to his master Philip of Spain, naming Ralegh himself as having sworn to kill Elizabeth. Perhaps that was wishful thinking on Mendoza’s part, but although he does not appear to have known Ralegh personally, he did know Ralegh’s sometime drinking companions Paget and Arundell very well. Towards the end of the year, after Mary had been tried and condemned, Paget was overheard comforting a friend, ‘Well, and Sir Walter Ralegh’s man scape I care not, he will pay her for all the rest . . . By God’s blood, there be yet they that will kill her.’

Thus Babington’s approach to Ralegh on September 19 in an attempt to sue for his life was less desperate than it might first seem, and Babington must have had good reason to think that he had some claim on Ralegh’s loyalty – and perhaps reason too to feel a keen sense of bitterness and betrayal when that suit, and with it his last good hope, was rejected.

For more on Babington, see my posts here and here.

NOTE: A version of this post first appeared in the London Historian‘s newsletter.

Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: