The 4 Most Famous Plots Against Elizabeth I | History Hit

The 4 Most Famous Plots Against Elizabeth I

Sarah Roller

15 Jan 2021
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A 19th century imagining of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in February 1587. Image credit: Musee des Beaux-Arts, Valenciennes / CC.

The Tudor era is one of England’s most infamous times of religious political and social upheaval, as various monarchs attempted to impose their own beliefs and ideas onto the nation.

Of all those rulers, Elizabeth I’s rule was the most successful and stable, but she still had her fair share of rivals of a very personal nature to remove. Her spymaster general, Sir Francis Walsingham, foiled multiple plots against the throne, and helped keep Elizabeth’s throne secure.

Ridolfi Plot (1571)

Elizabeth’s cousin, the tragic and glamorous Mary, Queen of Scots, had long made Elizabeth uncomfortably aware that if she died childless, Mary (a Catholic) and her son James would be next in line for the throne.

After the reign of terror of Elizabeth’s Catholic sister (another Mary) and the intrigues of the Spanish, this threatened to undo all of Elizabeth’s work in creating religious harmony if the Queen of Scots lived longer than her.

As a result, when Mary was displaced by rebellious nobles and fled south to England, she was imprisoned as a potential threat rather than hospitably received as a cousin. Unsurprisingly, this treatment and her strong and public faith made her a rallying point for various plots against Elizabeth during her 19-year imprisonment.

The first serious one of these was the Ridolfi Plot, named after the ardent Catholic and Florentine banker, Roberto Ridolfi. The plan involved the Duke of Alba invading from the Netherlands, a rebellion of Catholic nobles in the North, murdering Elizabeth and Mary then marrying Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk.

Both Mary and Norfolk agreed to the plot: unfortunately for them, Walsingham’s network had intercepted incriminating letters. Servants and go-betweens were imprisoned and tortured until they gave confessions. Norfolk was tried for treason and beheaded, and Elizabeth’s relationship with Mary was inevitably soured.

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Throckmorton Plot (1583)

This plot was ‘masterminded’ by Francis Throckmorton: a young Catholic who, on his travels throughout Europe, met several groups who sympathised with Mary Queen of Scots – they wanted to see a Catholic back on the English throne.

The plan involved an invasion by the Duke of Guise, backed by the Spanish, a revolt by the Catholic nobles in the North, and Guise marrying Mary, becoming King in the process. The plot was relatively amateur and intercepted by Walsingham’s spy ring early on: however, it did incriminate Mary, who was growing increasingly desperate for a way out of her house arrest.

Guise was widely disliked in England, which made the plot seemed even more unrealistic than it was to begin with. Throckmorton was arrested, imprisoned and eventually executed. Mary was placed under heightened surveillance and harsher confinement than before. 

elizabeth i spanish armada portrait

Known as the Armada Portrait, Elizabeth looks resplendent following one of her greatest victories. Image credit: Art UK / CC.

Babington Plot (1586)

The Babington Plot proved to be the final strew: it led to Elizabeth finally deciding to execute Mary.

Walsingham installed double agents in Mary’s household – those who would pretend to sympathise and involve themselves in any plots, whilst informing Walsingham of all developments.

The plan once again involved a foreign-backed invasion, the assassination of Elizabeth and placing Mary on the throne. For a long time Mary managed to produce no incriminating evidence – other than knowing the plot existed. Eventually, however, she wrote the words that signed her death warrant: ‘Let the great plot commence’.

Babington and his fellow conspirators were tried and executed for treason: Mary was imprisoned in Fotheringay Castle, and after much indecision on Elizabeth’s part, executed in February 1587.

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Essex’s Coup

Elizabeth was famous for her fondness of handsome and powerful noblemen and adventurers who became her “favourites,” and foremost among these was the charming Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex, who flirted his way to prominence in the last years of the 16th century.

In the 1590s, however, some strain entered their relationship as the arrogant and headstrong Earl disobeyed orders and failed to treat the Queen with enough deference.

At one point she cuffed him round the head for his insolence at a meeting of the Privy Council, and he half drew his sword on her in anger.

Things came to a head when he was made Lord Lieutenant of Ireland – then an English possession – in 1599. Essex was given huge resources to crush a revolt lead by the Earl of Tyrone, but squandered them in a poor campaign that lead to a humiliating truce in 1600.

Stung by criticism from home, he directly disobeyed the Queen’s orders by returning to England that year. Despite her fondness for Essex Elizabeth was not a woman to let such insolence stand after almost fifty years of rule, and placed him under house arrest in June.

Outraged and now penniless, Essex began to plot against her once he was allowed more freedom in November. His supporters began to put on the controversial anti-monarchical Shakespeare play Richard II in the Globe theatre, while Essex took hostage the four men that the Queen sent to inquire about his actions.

robert devereux earl of essex elizabeth i rebellion

Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, after after Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger. Image credit: Public Domain. 

Believing them to be safely imprisoned, he then marched on London with a large group of supporters.  Luckily for the Queen her famous spymaster Robert Cecil caught wind of the plot, and ordered the mayor to close his gates to the rebels.

With access to the support of the capital denied to him, most of Essex’s supporters deserted him and the hostages got away, meaning that he had little choice but to slink back to his base at Essex House and await a siege.

That evening, 8 February 1601, the Earl surrendered lamely to the besiegers and was executed two weeks later.

The Queen is said to have been badly shaken by her favourite’s betrayal for the remaining two years of her life, but the England that she had built survived partly thanks to her ruthlessness, and was passed onto her successor, who was – ironically – the son of Mary Queen of Scots.

Tags: Elizabeth I

Sarah Roller