‘They invite discovery at every turn. They have even commissioned a portrait to commemorate their treason.’
Sir Francis Walsingham in ‘Elizabeth R’ (BBC 1971)
This Christmas I got Zak the ’70s BBC series ‘Elizabeth R’ with Glenda Jackson. Episode four is about the 1586 Babington Plot, the conspiracy to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and replace her on the throne with Mary Queen of Scots. Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, had infiltrated the plot and let it play out under his direction. I was struck by his line about Babington and his six friends getting their portrait painted. It reminded me of the brazen cockiness of this group photo of Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch, taken in Fort Worth in 1900, at the height of their crime spree.
As Walsingham says, it is very careless for a conspirator. And it is unusual under any circumstances. There simply aren’t many friend-group portraits in English painting of the period. The Earl of Derby’s ‘Gentlemen of High Rank playing Primero’ c.1565 is one example, showing four Garter Knights at cards. But it’s a stretch to think of any others.
Alison Weir mentions the Babington portrait in ‘Elizabeth the Queen’, so I looked up the DNB entry for Anthony Babington (1561 – 1586), where Penry Williams finds it just as remarkable:
‘Extraordinarily, Babington spent some of the time arranging for the conspirators to have their portraits drawn. These have not survived, though they were at some stage shown to the queen, so that she might recognize them if any of the conspirators appeared at court.’
This is the earliest instance I’ve come across to a portrait being used like a ‘wanted’ poster.
Arthur William Devis (1761 – 1822) did a painting of Walsingham showing the conspirators’ portrait to the Queen (engraved here in 1831 by William Bromley, British Museum). His source for the appearance of the portrait with its scroll inscription must be Camden’s ‘History of the Most Renowned and Victorious Princess Elizabeth, Late Queen of England’ 1635 Book III pp339 – 340.
William Camden (1551 – 1623), Herald and antiquary, is a reliable source for episodes in Elizabeth’s reign. In a passage marked in the margin ‘Their foolish Vanity’ he tells how:
‘they would needs have those men that were appointed to be the Assassinates pictured to the life, and Babington in the midst of them, with this Verse ‘Hi sunt mini Comites, quos ipsa Pericula ducunt’ ‘These are my Companions whom very Dangers draw.’ But forasmuch as this Verse pleased them not, as being too open and plain, they put in stead of it ‘Quorsum haec alo properantibus?’ that is, to what end are these things to men that hasten to another Purpose?’
That part at least was prudent. Even in English the inscription could mean almost anything and it would not involve the painter in the conspiracy. The portrait with its secret motto tells you everything about the character of Babington’s conspiracy. He had fallen in love with Mary Queen of Scots years before when he was a page to her gaoler the Earl of Shrewsbury, and it was the sort of conspiracy a page would dream up, long on ritual and courtly gesture, short on practicalities.
‘These Pictures (they say) were begun and privately shewed to the Queen.’
Later retellings describe how Elizabeth recognises one of the conspirators from his portrait when she meets him in the palace gardens, and looks him in the eye before turning to Sir Christopher Hatton her Captain of the Guard and asking, ‘Am I not fairly guarded, that have not a man in my Company that wears a sword?’
This suggested that the portraits were such a good likeness that a sitter could be recognised instantly. Camden’s original version makes it clear that the meeting happened previously, and is more ambiguous on the question of likeness:
‘[the Queen] knew none of them by their Favour, save only one Barnwell…but being by other Tokens put in mind of him, she remembered the man very well.’
Clearly the painter was not interrogated, or there would be a record of it and we would know their name. Lucky for them, I suppose. Perhaps the artist was, like so many players in Babington’s conspiracy, in Walsingham’s service all the time.
There the painting disappears from history, to join all those other tantalising recorded, missing works like Velazquez’s portrait of King Charles I, that may or may not resurface one day in the future. Babington’s conspirators were drawn together once more, far less happily, but with their original choice of motto shown as a speech bubble from Babington’s mouth, in George Carleton’s broadsheet ‘Thankful Remembrance of God’s Mercy’ 1624 (image mylifeatthetoweroflondon.com).
These portraits are imaginary, and shown them in the dress of the 1620s. Even as Babington and his friends conspire in the foreground their deaths by hanging, drawing and quartering are already happening behind them. ‘In quo quis peccat, in eo punitur,’ says the executioner, ‘In that which a man sins, there shall he be punished’, alluding to the castration that was part of the whole horrific process. The executions were spread over two days. After the first day the crowds were so upset that the Queen ordered the remaining conspirators to be hanged until they were dead before being dismembered. Mary Stuart who encouraged Babington by letter was beheaded the following year.
The plot had been as much Walsingham’s as Babington’s; Babington was his unwitting puppet and his target was Mary Stuart. This was merely the last of several plots she had encouraged, and the later years of Elizabeth’s reign were much safer for her death. With the luxury of time it is even possible to feel sorry for the plotters. In the absence of their portrait, their epitaph is the poem that one of them, Chidiock Tichbourne (1563 – 1586), wrote to his wife from the Tower on the night before his execution. The second verse reads:
The Spring is past, and yet it hath not sprung,
My fruit is fallen, and yet my leaves are green,
My youth is gone, and yet I am but young,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
The Hole in the Wall Gang were more successful. But unless the legend of Butch and Sundance’s escape from Bolivia is true they were all to be killed in shoot-outs within twelve years of the photograph being taken. Ben Kilpatrick, ‘The Tall Texan’ sitting in the middle survived the longest, and he was shot in 1912. You might guess from his body language that Robert Leroy Parker ‘Butch Cassidy’ is the man sitting on the right. Curiously he is sitting on a Tudor-style x-framed throne, a staple feature of sixteenth century royal and aristocratic portraits. Harry Longabaugh, ‘the Sundance Kid’, who died with Butch Cassidy in 1908, is sitting in a wicker version of the same seat at the left.