Plots and Rebellions in the Elizabethan Age

Plots and Rebellions in the Elizabethan Age

Elizabeth’s reign saw a number of plots and rebellions. The plots came from a number of sources: disgruntled nobles; Catholics and from overseas. Plots often had an aim of removing Elizabeth from power and replacing her with Mary, Queen of Scots. Many were motivated by Religious belief. Often funded by powerful leaders from overseas, the plots posed a significant risk to Elizabeth’s crown. The best documented of the plots are the Northern Rebellion; Barge Incident; Ridolfi Plot; Throgmorton Plot and the Babington Plot.

Babington and his team of plotters

The Northern Rebellion

In 1569 the Earls of Westmoreland and Northumberland rose in revolt. The pair had seen their influence in court dwindle following the accession of Elizabeth. They were both Catholic and were further estranged as a result of Elizabeth’s Religious Settlement and the rise of Protestants within court. With the situation in Scotland becoming troublesome for the English crown, the lords had an opportunity. Mary, Queen of Scots was in exile in Northern England. She was a legitimate, Catholic, Queen and in the eyes of many the rightful occupant of the English throne. Perhaps sensing that there was a good opportunity to gather a large supporting force of Catholics and Scots, maybe even with foreign assistance, the Earls rose. The Rebellion was relatively short-lived. They did seize Durham Cathedral and celebrate a Roman Catholic Mass there. However as they marched south the Crown responded. Rumours within the Rebel camp suggested that a large Royal force had been assembled to face them. It is quite likely that the rebels overestimated the size of this force. Even so, it led them to make a hasty retreat.

See alsoSociety and Government in 1558

The Rebellion was quite poorly organised. The march south began before all of Northumberland’s men had arrived. It lacked cohesion and effective leadership. If the expectation was that other Northern nobles would join the Rebellion, then the leaders were to be disappointed as not many did. Assistance did not come from Scotland, France or Spain before the rebellion had petered out either.

There were moves overseas to support the Rebellion though. The Pope sent a Papal Bull (Statement) that arrived after the collapse of the Rebellion. It could have stirred more Catholics into open rebellion had it arrived sooner, or the rebellion lasted longer.

The Rebellion caused no major harm. Casualties were but a handful. However it showed Elizabeth and her advisors that the loyalty of nobles could not be taken for granted. It made it clear that the Papacy was willing to become involved in English affairs. It also raised concerns of intervention from France, in Support of Mary, Queen of Scots or from Spain in retaliation for privateering.

Elizabeth I website

The Barge Incident

Be of good cheer, for you will never want. For the bullet was meant for me.

It isn’t actually known whether or not the Barge incident was an assassination attempt. What is known is that a shot was fired from the banks of the Thames. It struck one of Elizabeth’s bargemen. Elizabeth is recorded as passing him her handkerchief to bandage his wound. The above quote is attributed to Elizabeth in accounts written several years after the event.

Ridolfi Plot

The Ridolfi Plot emerged in the aftermath of the failed Northern Rebellion. Roberto Ridofi, an Italian banker, had been involved in the Northern Rebellion. Having seen it fail, he became convinced that the only way to overthrow Elizabeth was through a combination of uprising and overseas intervention. With this in mind, he approached a number of leading Catholic nobles as well as making advances to foreign powers. The plot was to have an invasion of England by the Duke of Alba (in the Netherlands) alongside a simultaneous uprising of English Catholics. Ridolfi then intended that Elizabeth would be killed and replaced by Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary would marry the Duke of Norfolk. Ridolfi gained the support of both Mary, Queen of Scots and the Duke of Norfolk for the plot. The plot also gained the support of the Pope and King Philip II of Spain. This plot led to a further deterioration in Anglo-Spanish relations.

In 1571 John Hawkins, one of Walsingham’s spies, learnt of the plot from the Spanish. The spymaster’s men then ensnared Norfolk. Letters and gold were intercepted. Norfolk’s staff were questioned, interrogated and tortured to reveal details of the plot. The letters, written largely in code, were deciphered when the codes key was found in Norfolk’s home.

The letters implicated Norfolk and Mary, Queen of Scots. Norfolk admitted, in part at least, his involvement in the plot. Norfolk was put on trial for three counts of treason. He was found guilty and beheaded in January, 1572. Ridolfi was not in England at the time of the plots discovery. Quite wisely, he never returned and was never put on trial. The Spanish ambassador was expelled from England as a result of Spanish complicity in the plot.

Throckmorton Plot

The Throckmorton Plot was a plan to utilise French and Spanish troops to oust Elizabeth and replace her with Mar, Queen of Scots. The plot was devised by Francis Throckmorton along with his brother, Thomas and agents from Spain. English spies uncovered the plot and arrested Throckmorton. He was sentenced to death and the Spanish Ambassador, who was implicated, was sent back to Spain.

The plot showed that Spain posed a real threat to Elizabeth’s rule. It also showed that Catholic plotters were still active within England. In response to the plot, Parliament passed a Bond of Association. This called on Englishmen to seek out those who sought to kill the Queen. Anybody found guilty of being involved in any plots would be guilty of treason by association. A copy of this act was shown to Mary, Queen of Scots so that she could be in no doubt at all as to the consequences of being implicated in plots.

Babington Plot

The Babington Plot was a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots. The plot was also used by Walsingham to entrap Mary and ensure that her complicity in such plots could be proven. Anthony Babington was a member of the Catholic gentry. He was approached by a Jesuit priest, John Ballard, to be part of a conspiracy. The conspiracy wasn’t as simple as previous plots. Here, there were several plots running alongside each other.

In simple terms the plot was for English Catholics to overthrow Elizabeth and replace her with Mary. This was typical of the conspiracies of the time. However, Mary had been unable to communicate with any of her foreign allies for some time. As such, it was impossible to prove that she were involved in any such plot. Elizabeth’s spymaster, Walsingham, was aware of a plot involving Ballard and Babington. Mary had recently been moved to Charnley House under the watchful eye of a Puritan. Using a number of double agents, Walsingham was sure that he could dupe Mary into betraying herself.

Walsingham’s agents used a brewer as their means of tricking Mary. As she was in a new location, the sudden opportunity to correspond once more would arouse less suspicion. Messages began to be passed to her via the beer barrels. Walsingham’s men could intercept these and send her messages designed to catch her out. It worked. Mary used the cipher system to agree to her rescue and the assassination of Elizabeth. The spymasters men were able to quickly decode the message. With it, they had proof of another plot against Elizabeth, albeit one that they had manipulated, and of Mary’s own involvement in it.

The Babington Plot was the final straw for Elizabeth. Mary was put on trial at Fotheringay Castle, found guilty of treason and sentenced to death. Elizabeth signed the death warrant some time later and Mary was executed by beheading within Fotheringay Castle.

Links: British HistoryTudors (KS2) – Babington Plot

Beginner guide to the Babington Plot from the Historypress

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