Plots Against Elizabeth I

Sir Francis Walsingham

One of Elizabeth I’s main achievements has got to be actually becoming Queen by not only rising above her illegitimacy and the scandal surrounding her mother, Anne Boleyn, but also surviving long enough to actually inherit the throne from her half-sister Mary. Elizabeth life had been in very real danger during Mary I’s reign when her name was linked with Wyatt’s Rebellion, an uprising against Mary I and an attempt to replace her with Elizabeth.

However, the threat to Elizabeth’s life did not end on the day that she became Queen. There were countless plots against Elizabeth I and many of these are listed in a chapter entitled “How Many Plots Were There to Kill Elizabeth I?” in the book that I’m reading at the moment, “How Fat Was Henry VIII? And 101 Other Questions on Royal History”. Another of Elizabeth’s achievements was surviving and having a long and successful reign.

Elizabeth’s life was in constant danger after Pope Pius V issued the Bull Regnans in Excelsis of Excommunication and Deposition against Elizabeth in 1570, which was a green light for Catholics to rise against her and assassinate her. This Bull led to Elizabeth and her government passing strong laws against the Catholics even though Elizabeth had once said that she had “no desire to make windows into men’s souls”.

How Many Plots Were There to Kill Elizabeth I?

In December 1583, Elizabeth I wrote to the French Ambassador:-

“There are more than two hundred men of all ages who, at the instigation of the Jesuits, conspire to kill me.”

and she wasn’t exaggerating!

In October 1583, Elizabeth I’s life was threatened by John Somerville, a Catholic from Warwickshire, who had been stirred up by the anti-Elizabeth I propaganda which the Jesuits were circulating. With the aim of seeing “her head on a pole, for she was a serpent and a viper”, Somerville set out to assassinate his Queen with a pistol. Fortunately, he was arrested, found guilty and sentenced to death before he could kill the Queen. He committed suicide by hanging himself in his prison cell in the Tower of London before his death sentence could be carried out.

Just a year later, Elizabeth I escaped death again when would-be assassin Dr William Parry, a Welsh MP who hid in the Queen’s garden at Richmond Palace, was “so daunted with the majesty of her presence in which he saw the image of her father, King Henry VIII” that he could not murder the Queen. In “How Fat Was Henry VIII?”, Raymond Lamont Brown writes of how it is not known what reason Parry had for his plot to assassinate the Queen, but he was known to William Cecil, Lord Burleigh and worked as a spy, so he claimed that he was acting as a regicide “in order to infiltrate papist circles”. However, he had been heard to boast that he would assassinate Elizabeth if he ever had the opportunity and some believed that he was acting on behalf of Mary, Queen of Scots, with a papal blessing. Parry was sentenced to death and ended his life on the gallows.

The Barge Incident

One of the most famous attempts on Elizabeth’s life was while the Queen was travelling by barge down the River Thames. A shot rang out and one of the Queen’s bargemen collapsed from a bullet wound which was clearly intended for the Queen. As Elizabeth passed him her handkerchief to put on his wound, She said “Be of good cheer, for you will never want. For the bullet was meant for me.”

The Ridolfi Plot

This plot surfaced in 1571 and it aimed to assassinate Elizabeth I and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots who was to be married to Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk.
The plot takes its name from Roberto Ridolfi, a Florentine banker, who was a papal agent, a go-between for the Spanish and the Duke of Norfolk, and the man responsible for funding the rebellion which would see a Northern Catholic rebellion and an invasions by the Spanish under Philip of Spain.
Unfortunately for the Catholics and for the Duke of Norfolk, Elizabeth’s secret service, headed by her spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, uncovered the plot and it collapsed. The Duke of Norfolk was executed as a traitor in 1572 and Elizabeth never trusted Mary, Queen of Scots ever again.

The Throgmorton Plot

This plot, in 1583, was another attempt to assassinate Elizabeth and replace her with the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots.
The plot takes its name from Francis Throgmorton, a Catholic who was involved in a number of plots against Elizabeth I. This plot involved Throgmorton acting as a go-between for Mary, Queen of Scots and her agent Thomas Morgan, and the Spanish Ambassador, Don Bernardino de Mendoza. Again, Elizabeth’s secret service got wind of the plot and arrested Throgmorton who, under torture, revealed that the Duke of Guise was planning to invade England from the Spanish Netherlands. As a result of this plot, Throgmorton was executed at Tyburn and Mendoza was thrown out of England and sent back to Spain.

The Babington Plot

The Babington Plot of 1586 was yet another plot which involved Mary, Queen of Scots. The plan was to assassinate Elizabeth, encourage a Catholic rising and put the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots on the English throne.
This plot is named after Anthony Babington, a man who had worked in Mary, Queen of Scots’s employ as a page. Babington set up a secret society which aimed to help and protect Jesuit infiltrators coming to England to get rid of the heretic Elizabeth I. His society also had links with Mary’s emissaries in Europe who could be called on for aid. The plot had the Pope’s blessing and although it was led by Babington it was actually thought up by John Ballard, a Jesuit priest.

Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spymaster, proved how indispensable he was by uncovering this plot and saving his Queen’s life. Ballard, the Jesuit priest, was arrested and tortured on the rack. He was then executed. Although Babington tried to save his neck by offering information to Elizabeth’s secret service and then fleeing in disguise, he was eventually arrested and was executed as a traitor in September 1586.

This plot was the undoing of Mary, Queen of Scots. She had been implicated in many plots against Elizabeth in the past but this was the last straw. She was beheaded at Fotheringay Castle on the 8th February 1587 after a special court found her guilty of treason.

These are just a few of the plots that Elizabeth survived thanks to God’s protection, luck and the skill of her secret service. Elizabeth more than just survived though, unlike her half-brother and half-sister, she had a long and prosperous reign, ruling the country for over 40 years in a reign known as “The Golden Age”.


The question regarding plots against Elizabeth I is just one of the interesting historical questions examined in “How Fat Was Henry VIII? And 101 Other Questions on Royal History”. This book also examines “Was Amy Robsart, Lady Dudley, murdered by a queen’s Command?” and “Who was the first monarch to install a flushing toilet?”, which both concern Elizabeth I.

33 thoughts on “Plots Against Elizabeth I

  1. Elizabeth did say that she did not want to own the “conscience” of her subjects and at first tried to keep an even keel between Catholica and the new religions, and I use the “s” because thy were continualy dividing.

    I feel there was a very pyscholigal thing between her efather and her – For the first 3 years in her life (which is not that memorable) she was treated as a Princess of the Blood and after the death of her mother, more of less as nothing. As time went by and H8 realised that he would only have one son, which was a dodgy position (he knew from experience) that his daughters came into “play”.

    Every child inherits something fron both parents. Mary had years of love until the tide turned and then the bitterness started. Elizabeth has such a short time. She knew he mother would never come back and obviously over the years knew of the so called “stigma” but there was that larger than life man who for the most part ignored her which would have been extremely hurtful – in myy opinion it was a question of “Daddy – look at me! – I can do as well as you if not even more” but for most of the time she was ignored although, give H8 his due, he did arrange for her to have the best teachers to whom she respoonded.

    The problem was reliigion – and I think with the common people who did not know from one day to another what they were supposed to do.

    mary Queen of Scots, at 2 years was sent to France with the idea that she would marry the Daupin and become France’s Queen and her husbnad, Fracois, King of Scotland. Any future male offspring would have had a hold on Scotland.

    Mary’s tragedy was that she was extremely spoilt in France and as hubby no. 1 died and she was sent back to those northern climes, she, who had always been adored, needed someone to adore her as well. Whether it was a mistake or not on the part of Elizabeth, he cousin, Lord Darnley (son of Lennox) was allowed to escape to Scotland wherehe entranced Mary and her second wedding took place. She produced a son by this union but had realised she had married a viper.

    Howevr, Mary had the charm that Elizabeth didn’t have (but not the wit not knowledge, nor faithful councillors that Elizabeth had) and despite her physical defects (i.e. she was just over 6ft tall so she was taller than most men of her age and with a ahre lip) she could entrance men. She was also a Catholic, a religion which most of the north of England clung to.

    Her mistake was the so called “accidental death” of Lord Darnley who hade turned out to be a rake and her subseuqnet very “dodgy” marriage to Lord Bothwell which lead her to escape to England and seek her cousin’s sanctuary. She attracted men like bees to a honey pot (see most of the attenpts against Elizabeth which were dodne in Mary’s name) but also the jealousy of Elizabeth .

    Alive, she would always be the focus of discontent between the people attracted to the old religion and the new. Unfortunately she had to go. – it was for the safety of the realm – but the question is. wee those plots actually hatched by Mary’s supporters or set up by Francis Walsingham, a vert loyal but very protestan supporter of Elizabeth?????


  3. Mary was sent to France to marry the Dauphin and to be educated as the future queen consort. Henry VIII did not murder his wives because of the church, the church had nothing to do with it – Anne Boleyn was executed for alleged treason, adultery and incest, and Catherine Howard for alleged treason and adultery. The majority of historians believe that Anne Boleyn was framed but the church has never been used as a reason for her execution.
    As I have said to you on your other comment on the Free Report page, you are not welcome here if you are going to be abusive and offensive and just spout conspiracy theories. You seem unable to debate history rationally and it is you who have romanticised an historical figure, not me.

  4. All the plots which had been devised to assassinate Elizabeth I became the driving force for the promotion of an ageless queen who became the Virgin queen in portraiture. Actually in the wake of the papal excommunication, Elizabeth was portrayed positively in the Phoenix portrait by Nicholas Hilliard. In it, the phoenix bird jewell stands for the perpetuation of the Tudor dynasty since the phoenix represents resurrection; it kills himself with the force of the sun’s rays and then is reborn from the ashes. Just as the phoenix is reborn, Elizabeth I was presented as an ageless queen who had rescued her people from the darkness of Catholic regime of Mary I and restored Protestantism, these ideas being reflected in the Pelican portrait by Nicholas Hilliard.

    1. The Act of Supremacy made Elizabeth Supreme Governor of the Church of England, i.e. head of the Church, so it did abolish the Pope’s authority in England but it did not get rid of him.

  5. Mary was sent to France, because Duke Somerset ( When Edward was King) decided the best policy to get her to marry Edward was to attack Scotland and loose lots of money. He wanted to untie the crowns of England and Scotland, but did so in a very foolish way- he was a solider, what do you expect? The French were called in for help and it was decided to send her over, to be educated by the de Guise faction in France and then to marry the next in line for the French throne instead. After Darnley was deposed of, Lord Bothwell raped her which- due to her religious ways- resulted in her marrying him. I find her story really rather sad- it even could be Walsingham framed her in the Babington plot- they wrote in code, it could have been so easy to forge it- they wanted rid of her since 1568.
    And also the Plot against Elizabeth in 1583 was THROCKMORTON, not Throgmorton. And not all Catholics wanted to kill her… the majority of the Catholics in England were loyal to the Queen, it was sects such as the Jesuits (who upset the less extreme Catholics who just wanted to survive in England) who were loyal totally to the Pope.
    Also, Elizabeth dithered alot- it took her a long time to decide to execute Mary (who was trouble from 1568 in Lord Burghleys’ eyes) and she was furious when the death warrant was dispatched. She created a very grand image of herself, which has consequently led to much rejoicing in her reign.

    1. I’m not sure that Somerset intended on losing money but he did carry on the “rough wooing” of Henry VIII’s reign and it was the defeat of the Scots at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh which led to Mary of Guise to seek help from France and her daughter, Mary Queen of Scots, was smuggled out of Scotland to France where she became betrothed to the Dauphin and later married him.
      Lord Darnley was murdered at Kirk o’Field in February 1567 and it is said that Bothwell raped Mary after kidnapping her but it’s hard to know exactly what happened between them. There are various theories on Mary’s involvement in the Babington Plot, my own is that she was guilty but that she walked into a trap laid by Cecil and Walsingham.
      Regarding the Throgmorton Plot, it is known as both the Throckmorton and Throgmorton Plot as the spellings of the family name were interchangeable as there was no standardized spelling, hence Sir Walter Raleigh/Ralegh/Rawleigh too!
      I realise that not all Catholics wanted to assassinate Elizabeth I and I don’t think I’ve ever said that they did. As far as Elizabeth’s “dithering”, I think her “dithering” was a well-thought out political ploy rather than her being indecisive. For example, her dithering over marriage gave her chance to play off suitors/countries against each other. In the case of Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth did not want to kill a fellow monarch who was not only her blood but who was also God’s anointed monarch. To executed Mary was to commit Regicide and was a truly despicable act against God. Elizabeth did not want that responsibility and who can blame her?

  6. Mary Q of Scots will always be out of favor because of her Catholic faith, and “good Q Bess” will always reign supreme in the hearts and minds and history books of the anti-Catholic world. Gloriana be damned.

  7. Most of the plots listed here are historically inaccurate. There were all of 3 Jesuits in England in 1583–and at least 1 of them was in prison! The Jesuits were specifically ordered to stay out of politics and did not represent a significant force of the Catholic priesthood until 1589 or later! ^The lies told about them were invented by Elizabeth and her secretary of State, Sir Robert Cecil, to justify the persecutions that were carried on against Catholics.

  8. Some of these plots the people were framed for them by Francis Walsingham who was a paranoid maniac who thought there were assassins under every bed. He was also frightened in case he himself got implicated as he had a nephew that was meant to have been involved in one plot and another relative who was a Catholic that he tried to keep hidden. The Duke of Norfolk was innocent of any plot against Elizabeth and even tried to stop the ensuing rebellion. I have been to Arundal Castle and there are documents there that shows the whole thing was a complete set up.

  9. Hello, I am wondering about your source for Elizabeth’s quote above to the French Ambassador. Could you please direct me to the location of this reference? Thanks!


  10. Thank you for a very informative article. I wasn’t aware of the book and was delighted to see I could still get it on Kindle. I was also interested in the intensity of feeling over the discussion. Considering these were events that happened 400 years ago, there seems to be a continued controversy which I’m very interested in. I agree that many of the acts committed during the late 1500’s were not so much related to religion as to politics. In order to appreciate them, it’s important to remember the context of the times. Elizabeth’s position on the throne was seen by many as tenuous for many reasons. She’s an amazing woman to have maintained such control for such a long period. Her political astuteness is undeniable. And if her acts are considered cruel, we must remember what a cruel period of history she lived in. She also empowered a wide circle of counselors and I wonder how much of what they did in her name was actually sanctioned. Any ideas?

  11. Great website & good info about QE1. This is well research & facts are all correct. I love reading about those times in history & recently am doing study on this Queen for some months now.

    Thanks for such a good read of all this information.


  12. I think Elizabeth was very clever I am not sure if she plotted against her brother and sister when they were on the throne but to survive I bet she spied on them I am glad she got the throne But I think she should have married

  13. The Jesuits were not “circulating lies” as is maintained. This was Elizabethan propaganda against them. There were no more than two–maybe only one–Jesuits in England in 1583. They were there, as were other priests, to minister to the other Catholics. Since denying the national religion was considered a denial of the temporal power in post-Reformation Europe, they were declared traitors. But mostly they were not.

  14. Elizabeth I was the greatest monarch in English history. I’ve learned much about her and admire her greatly. If the Bishop of Rome hand not excommunicated her there would have been little flashback against Romanists in her England. The fault with Mary of Scotland death is squarely on her own head for conspiring to displace Elizabeth her protector. Before the flack starts I use the term “Romanists” to describe those Catholics who maintained loyalty to the BoR as opposed to the the CoE.

  15. What of the assasination attempt wherein the pistol was not loaded properly as portrayed in the movie with Cate Blanchett as the queen?

  16. Have visited all the locatons in Scotland were all these events occurred her research is impeccable. Antonia Fraser’s “ Mary Queen of Scot’s”all the locations were accurate. Discribed to a Point of pointing out the blood on the floor in her chamber where Lord Riccio was stab.What never mentioned Mary had her revenge in death. Elizbeth had no children. Mary had James1. Upon Elizbeth death Mary Son assented to the throne of Scotland and England . He then transfers his mother body and was entomed in Westminster Abby right behind her sister Elizbeth tomb. It was interesting as a yank I visted Mestmindter and one of the guides did know where Mary’s tomb was. Being a retired Detective (NYPD) I was not leaving until I founded it. I am also a history buff. I need to Thank Antonia Fraser for peeking my interest. Saw the locations confirmed everything in her book. Saw both the tombs in Westminster . Thanks

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