The Babington Plot – Don’t Listen If You’re Squeamish

London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with today’s London fix.

Story time. History time.


Check these two out. This Saturday’s Harry Potter Walk will be guided by a professional magician. It’s David H.’s London Walks debut. Yes, David H. Though we call him David M for Magic. And you can be sure he’ll be wizarding away. Lots of magic tricks on David’s Harry Potter Walks. In the immortal words of Harry Potter himself, David’s walk is ‘mischief managed.’ And the particulars? Well you might asked. Our magician-guided Harry Potter walk goes at 11 am on Saturday, September 23rd from Bank Underground Station. Exit 3. Meet your magician guide by the Wellington statue. If he doesn’t levitate it – or you – 25 feet up into the air.

And there’s more primetime on Friday, September 29th. A Legal London Walk guided by a criminal defence lawyer. But you’ll have to crack on. This one’s our VIP Legal London Walk. VIP precisely because it’s guided by a member of the legal profession. And accordingly, we limit the size of the group. And as of this moment there are only seven places remaining. So if you want to go on a Legal London Walk guided by a criminal defence lawyer you need to catch it while you can. Grab one of those remaining places before they sell out. The Legal London Walk guided by a Criminal Defence Lawyer takes place at 10 am on Friday, September 29th. The meeting point is just outside exit 3 of Chancery Lane Underground Station. To grab one or two of those remaining places go to and click on September 29th on the calendar. And go from there.

Moving on, today, September 20th, is London History primetime.

That’s if you like your history ghastly, grim and gruesome.

It was on this day – September 20th, 1586 – that the Babington treason plot was launched into eternity. The star of the show – though he’d rather not have starred in it – was Anthony Babington. He was the leader of a Catholic conspiracy to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and free Mary Stewart from imprisonment.

Anthony Babington and his fellow conspirators hoped the assassination of the Queen and the freeing of Mary Stewart would lead to an invasion by the forces of Phillip II and the Catholic league in France, and that in turn would lead to the restoration of the Catholic religion.

They were playing for serious stakes, the conspirators. And it cost them their lives. And not without ‘some note of cruelty’ as a contemporary historian put it. “Some note of cruelty” is a massive understatement but I’ll get to that in a moment. First, though, how about those words, conspirators and conspiracy? The root of the word means to breathe together. Great word. You’re planning on assassinating a queen and generally committing treason you and your fellow traitors have to draw in close together when you’re laying your plans. You mustn’t let anybody overhear you. Draw in so close together you can hear each other breathing. You’re breathing the same air. Conspiracy – breathing close in together – was there ever a more evocative English word?

So who was Anthony Babington? He was born in 1561 in Derbyshire. So he was all of 25 years old when he paid for his vaulting ambition with his life. Two points here. When the game was up and the conspirators were rumbled they began to turn on one another – in a bid to save their own skins – and one of them described Anthony Babington as ‘the brainless youth.’ Which put me in mind of course of the physiological fact that the human brain is not fully developed until you’re 26 years. I used to tease my sprogs, ask them, “what’s it like, having an 85 percent developed brain.” Their reaction was of course to hit me. But anyway, did having a 97 per cent developed brain lead Anthony Babington to make serious misjudgements? The other notable point is his bloodline had form in that regard. His maternal great-grandfather was beheaded for his role in the so-called Pilgrimage of Grace revolt 50 years earlier.

Anyway, the plot was conceived on the outskirts of Tudor London. St. Giles in the Fields parish. It was a down-at-heel, rough area and in the taverns and fields there the conspirators weren’t likely to be overheard by the authorities.

Except they were. Word got back to Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, and needless to say the plot was foiled.

Tried and found guilty – it was a show trial – the conspirators were taken back to the locale where they’d hatched their plot. And executed. Executed with some note of cruelty. They were hanged for a short time, cut down while they were still alive, and then castrated and disembowelled. It was actually a two-day affair, the administering of justice. The first seven conspirators, including Babington, were executed the first day, in exactly the manner I described. The next day the other seven were put to death. But they were hanged until they were dead and only then suffered the barbarity of castration and disembowelling. As our contemporary historian William Camden put it, the Queen showed them mercy. Camden said, “they suffered the same death, ‘but, more favourably, by the Queen’s commandment, who detested the former cruelty.’

Not that the punishment and penalties for treason ended with that brutality in St Giles’ churchyard. Which is by way of saying, the lands and goods of the convicted men were forfeit to the crown. Some of Babington’s lands were granted by the queen to Sir Walter Raleigh.

There’s one more London takeaway here. Historically, this is a death-stalked town. And believe me, state violence made the running. Or takes the crown if you prefer. Tens of thousands of people were executed in London over the best part of a millennium.

And of course London’s execution sites are famous. Smithfield, Tyburn, Tower Hill, Newgate, etc.

What’s often not realised is the state snuffed out lives all over London. Very often the convicted would be executed on the very spot where they’d committed the crime. Which was pretty much the case with the Babington plot. Ok, the plot didn’t come to fruition, the conspirators didn’t assassinate Queen Elizabeth. But plotting to commit treason – plotting to assassinate the monarch – was a capital crime and accordingly the conspirators were executed where they’d committed that preliminary crime. In the parish of St Giles in the Fields.

So if you’re in that neck of the London woods on this day, September 20th, maybe cast your mind back to 1586, and take survey, think, right here, where I’m walking, a London scene of some cruelty unfolded exactly 437 years ago.  Maybe I’m conspiring with them, breathing some of the same atoms they breathed.

You’ve been listening to the London Calling podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative.

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for peanuts – for McDonald’s wages. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for.

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely –

to front our walks with distinguished


By way of example,

Stewart Purvis, the former Editor (and

subsequently CEO) of Independent

Television News. And Lisa Honan

who had a distinguished career as

diplomat (Lisa was the Governor of

St Helena, the island where Napoleon

breathed his last and, some say, had

his penis amputated – Napoleon

didn’t feel a thing – if thing’s the mot

juste – he was dead.)

Stewart and Lisa – both of them

CBEs – are just a couple of our

headline acts.

The London Walks All-Star team of

guides includes a former London

Mayor, it includes barristers (one of

them an MBE); it includes doctors,

geologists, museum curators,

archaeologists, historians, criminal

defence lawyers, university professors,

Royal Shakespeare Company actors,

a bevy of MVPs,

Oscar winners (people who’ve won

the big one, the Guide of the Year Award)… well,

you get the idea. As that travel writer

famously put it, “if this were a golf

tournament, every name on the

Leader Board would be a London

Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks.

And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. See ya next time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *