05 February 2022
The Gallows Letter
On 17 July 1586, Mary, Queen of Scots, wrote from captivity at Chartley Hall (Staffordshire) to the English catholic gentleman Anthony Babington. Beginning innocuously enough, ‘Trustie and welbeloved. According to the zeale and entier affection which I haue knowen in you towardes the common cause of relligion and mine’, her letter to Babington is one of the most famous written in the 16th century. Now known as the ‘Gallows Letter’, it is the key document in the 1586 Babington Plot, which is explored in the British Library’s current major exhibition, Elizabeth and Mary: Royal Cousins, Rival Queens.
A contemporary copy of the ‘Gallows Letter’, the closest version to the original letter written by Mary, Queen of Scots, to Anthony Babington on 17 July 1586: The National Archives, SP 53/18/53, on display in the exhibition
As she dictated her letter, Mary was unaware that her words would entrap her. But Elizabeth I’s principal secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, knew of the plot from the outset, even before Mary did. His spies intercepted Mary’s letter, passing it on to his cryptographer Thomas Phelippes, who had been waiting patiently for his opportunity to strike. Upon deciphering it, Phelippes drew a gallows on the address leaf, indicating that its content would condemn Mary to death for plotting against her cousin Elizabeth.
The Blairs Reliquary, containing a portrait miniature of Mary, Queen of Scots (1586, framed 1610–22): © The Scottish Catholic Heritage Collections Trust (Blairs Museum)
Back in autumn 1581, Mary had proposed a scheme whereby she would be freed to return to Scotland in order to reign jointly with her son James VI. By then she had been imprisoned in England for 13 years, ever since fleeing her homeland. James, who had just overthrown his last regent and begun exerting his independent authority as king, had no desire to share power with his mother or with anybody else. Nonetheless, Mary periodically renewed the scheme. In September 1584, she told Elizabeth that, if granted her freedom, she would openly support Elizabeth’s right to rule, while opposing papal interference in both England and Scotland. ‘Then none … will dare tooche thone Realme for religion without offending both’ (Add MS 33594, ff. 52v–53r). Elizabeth ‘shall never fynd [me] false to her’, Mary reassured her. Mary even offered to relinquish her claims to the English and Irish successions, if Elizabeth would let her either live freely in England or return to Scotland. The Queen of England proved open to this idea, but in spring 1585, James, who was then almost 19, finally rejected his mother’s scheme outright. Mary was devastated.
It was after this bitter disappointment that Mary turned in earnest to plotting against Elizabeth as her only hope of escaping. In spring 1585, her keeper, Sir Ralph Sadler, was replaced by Sir Amias Paulet. Whereas Sadler had treated her honourably, Paulet took a harder line, keeping her more closely guarded and restricting her correspondence severely. Mary began fearing for her life, which made her seek out desperate courses. Therefore, when Anthony Babington proposed ‘the dispatch of the vsurper [Elizabeth] by six noble gentlemen, who for the zeale they beare to the Catholick cause and your Maiesties service will vndertake that tragicall execution’, Mary was ready to listen (The National Archives, SP 53/19/12).
In spring 1586, Babington had been recruited to a catholic plot against Elizabeth. With Spanish support, a rebellion would break out simultaneously with the queen’s assassination, and Mary would be crowned in her place. Walsingham had long regarded Mary as Elizabeth’s greatest threat. Learning of the conspiracy from one of his double agents, he saw an opportunity and opened a channel of communication between Mary and Babington, using ciphered letters hidden in beer barrels. These letters were intercepted, unsealed, and deciphered by Phelippes, before being resealed and carried to their intended addressee. In this way Walsingham read all Mary’s correspondence.
Portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham, by an unknown artist after John de Critz the elder, 1589: private collection, on loan to the exhibition
Mary wrote the ‘Gallows Letter’ on 17 July 1586, authorising the plot and making recommendations. Fatefully, she agreed to Elizabeth’s assassination: ‘sett the six gentlemen to woork’. Mary also desired the overthrow of her son James VI and ‘some sturring in Ireland’. She warned Babington that, if he failed, Elizabeth would, ‘catching mee againe, enclose mee for ever in some hole, forth of the which I should never escape, yf shee did vse mee no worse’. He burned the ‘Gallows Letter’ after reading it.
Seeking to draw Babington out, before it was sent Walsingham had several passages to the ‘Gallows Letter’ amended and a postscript added, asking Babington to name the six assassins and to say ‘how you proceed and as soon as you may’. Hearing nothing further, on 3 August he ordered Babington’s arrest, but feared that this postscript had tipped him off. He wrote to Phelippes the same day, confessing ‘you wyll not beleve howe mych I am greved with the event of this cavse and feare the addytyon of the postscrypt hathe bread the iealousie [suspicion]’.
Letter from Sir Francis Walsingham to Thomas Phelippes, 3 August 1586: Cotton MS Appendix L, f. 143v
Evading arrest for some days by hiding in St John’s Wood (Middlesex), Babington was eventually caught. Mary’s secretaries were also arrested and interrogated. They confessed to writing the ‘Gallows Letter’ at her command, while Babington confessed to the plot.
Cipher bearing Anthony Babington’s signed confession that ‘this last is the alphabet by which only I have written vnto the Queene of Scotes or receaved letteres from her’, July 1586: The National Archives, SP 12/193/54, on loan to the exhibition
Evidence of Mary’s complicity could not be suppressed, as it was needed to convict Babington and his co-conspirators, who were found guilty of treason. Babington himself was hanged, drawn and quartered on 20 September 1586. After that everyone watched and waited to see what the queen would do next: would she commit regicide by bringing Mary to justice?
Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval