Born into a gentry family to Sir Henry Babington and Mary Darcy, granddaughter of Thomas Darcy, 1st Baron Darcy de Darcy, at Dethick Manor in Dethick, Derbyshire, England, he was their third child. His father died in 1571 when Anthony was nine years old, and his mother remarried to Henry Foljambe. Anthony was under the guardianship of his mother, her second husband, Henry Foljambe, and Philip Draycot of Paynsley Hall, Cresswell, Staffordshire, his future father-in-law. While publicly Protestant, the family remained Catholic.
Babington was employed as a page boy in the Earl of Shrewsbury's household. The Earl was at this time the jailer of Mary, Queen of Scots and it is likely that it was during this time that Babington became a supporter of Mary's cause to ascend the throne of England. In 1579 he was married to Margery Draycot.
In about 1580, while travelling on the continent, he had met the arch-conspirator Thomas Morgan, and he was persuaded to courier letters to Mary while she was still being held by his former master, the Earl of Shrewsbury. He also assisted the movement of priests in the Catholic Midlands. But by 1586, with Mary removed to the harsher regime of Tutbury and the consequent closing down of communications with her, Babington's role as a courier came to an end. Twice in early 1586 he received letters from France, destined for Mary, but in each case he declined to 'deal further in those affairs'. Around this time he was reportedly considering leaving England permanently and was trying to secure a passport along with his Welsh friend, Thomas Salisbury. He obtained an introduction to Robert Poley, a man with good political contacts, with a view to securing a 'licence' to go to France. Unknown to Babington, Poley was an agent for Francis Walsingham, the Secretary of State, and was under orders to infiltrate known Catholic circles. He probably intentionally failed to obtain a passport for Babington, and instead persuaded him that he, Poley, was a Catholic sympathiser and could be trusted. It was Babington's misplaced trust of, and possibly even love for, Poley that was a large contributory factor in his eventual downfall.
During Elizabeth's reign, her court was particularly concerned about the prospect of Mary Stuart coming to the throne. It was a time of great religious tension. The St Bartholomew's Day Massacre served to increase the realisation of the outcome a return to Roman Catholicism might present. The Queen's security forces, led by Sir Francis Walsingham with its ruthless and cunning spies like Poley were more than effective at their job. During one of Walsingham's investigations, a suspected subversive named Gilbert Gifford was arrested and interrogated. To avoid punishment, Gifford agreed to act as a double agent. He made contact with the French Embassy in London and arranged the smuggling of letters from Mary Stuart to her followers. This was to be achieved through the use of beer barrels. Gifford ensured that Walsingham was given access to these communications which revealed Mary's requests to the French and Spanish that they intervene on her behalf.
On 6 July 1586 Babington wrote to Mary Stuart, telling her that he and a group of friends were planning to assassinate Elizabeth, whom she (Stuart) would succeed. Babington's (and Mary Stuart's) defenders claim that in the sixteenth century it was held that the killing of "tyrants" was morally acceptable. Babington decided to write to Mary to seek her authorisation, which he believed she could provide as the legitimate claimant to the Throne. (It was believed by Catholics that Elizabeth's claim to the throne was void due to her being the daughter of Anne Boleyn whose marriage to Henry VIII they considered illegal in that they did not accept the legality in any sense of Henry VIII's divorce from his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.)
Mary replied to Babington, in which she stressed the necessity of foreign aid if the rescue attempt was to succeed. However, she left the matter of the assassination to Babington's conscience.
In the meantime, Babington's growing involvement with the plot was being reported to Walsingham, by Poley, who was by this time much in Babington's confidence, despite having been caught by him copying some of Mary's letter. When Walsingham and his officials had gathered sufficient evidence Babington and his crew were rounded up. Babington was in the Tower of London by 3 September when Burghley ordered his goods and papers at Dethick to be seized. The house was almost empty excepting his two sisters, Madeleine and Ellen, and his two-year-old daughter. His wife had fled. Babington (aged 24) and his thirteen co-conspirators were convicted of high treason and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.
His offer to Elizabeth of £1000 for his pardon was rejected, and the execution of the first seven (including Babington, John Ballard, and Chidiock Tichborne) took place on the 20th. The condemned men, kept in the Tower of London, were marched from their cells, strapped to sledges and pulled by horses through the streets of London. On reaching a specially erected scaffold in St Giles Field, near Holborn, they were hanged, drawn and quartered. After this, the executioner distributed the parts of their bodies to prominent locations around the city to warn all of the consequences of disloyalty to the monarch.
Babington's final letter to his friend and betrayer, Poley ("farewell sweet Robyn...") is one of the more strikingly poignant documents in the case.
A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley is set at Thackers, the fictional name for the Babington manor house actually at Dethick in Derbyshire. Narrator Penelope Taberner witnesses young Anthony Babington's growing involvement with Mary, Queen of Scots, as Penelope finds herself passing between her world of the 1940s and the year 1582.
On 2 December 2008, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an Afternoon Play by Michael Butt entitled The Babington Plot and directed by Sasha Yevtushenko. with Stephen Greif as "The Presenter", done in documentary-style and told from the perspective of several of the conspirators – some genuine, some government spies that had infiltrated the group. Babington is portrayed as homosexual and having a relationship with Thomas Salisbury (played by Sam Barnett) and then Robert Poley (played by Burn Gorman).Eddie Redmayne played Babington in the 2007 film Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
Geoffrey Streatfield played Babington in the HBO miniseries, Elizabeth I, which starred Helen Mirren.
Charles Rogers played Babington in the 1978 BBC miniseries adaptation of Alison Uttley's A Traveller in Time.
David Collings played Babington in the 1971 BBC miniseries Elizabeth R.
Nicholas Agnew played Babington in the 2016 BBC documentary Bloody Queens: Elizabeth and Mary.
Sir Anthony Babington (?-1586)
Anthony Babington (1586)