Francis Throckmorton, the son of Sir John Throckmorton of Feckenham in Worcestershire and his wife, Margaret Puttenham Throckmorton, was born in 1554. His father was vice-president of the council in the marches of Wales and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1565. As Alison Plowden has pointed out "he must have conformed, outwardly at least, to the established church, but his sons Francis and Thomas were certainly brought up as Catholics." (1) Thockmorton attended the University of Oxford, and was William Camden was described as "a gentleman well-educated and of good wit". (2)
In 1576 entered as a student of the Inner Temple. Two years after this the family's Catholic sympathies began to get them into trouble, when the headmaster of Shrewsbury School affirmed before Justice George Bromley that members of the family had heard mass. As a result Francis was committed to the custody of the dean of St Paul's to be examined on suspicion of "being present at exercises of religion contrary to present practices" but some powerful friends "interceded for him" and he was freed after a month. (3)
In 1579 John Throckmorton, now chief justice of Chester, was suspended from office, fined and disgraced, he died a year later a broken man. This encouraged Francis Throckmorton to get involved in Catholic plots to overthrow Queen Elizabeth. (4) In April 1583 Francis Walsingham received a report from Henry Fagot, his agent inside the French embassy, that Throckmorton had dined with the ambassador. A month later Fagot wrote again with the information that "the chief agents for the Queen of Scots are Throckmorton and Lord Henry Howard". (5)
In November 1583, Walsingham ordered the arrest of Throckmorton in his London home. He just had time to destroy a letter he was in the act of writing to Mary Queen of Scots, but among his seized papers was a list of the names of "certain Catholic noblemen and gentlemen" and also details of harbours "suitable for landing foreign forces". At first Throckmorton denied they were his, saying they must have been planted by the government searchers. He later admitted that they had been given to him by a man named Nutby who had recently left the country. (6)
Walsingham had Throckmorton put on the rack. During the first two sessions he courageously refused to talk. He managed to smuggle a message out to Bernardino Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador, written in cipher on the back of a playing card, saying he would die a thousand deaths before he betrayed his friends. However, on the third occasion he admitted that Mary Queen of Scots was aware of the plot against Elizabeth. He also confessed that Mendoza was involved in the plot. When he finished his confession he rose from a seat beside the rack and exclaimed: "Now I have betrayed her who was dearest to me in this world." Now, he said, he wanted nothing but death. (7) Throckmorton's confession meant that Walsingham now knew that it was the Spanish rather than the French ambassador who had been abusing his diplomatic privileges.
At his trial he attempted to retract his confession claiming that "the rack had forced him to say something to ease the torment". Francis Throckmorton was executed at Tyburn on 10th July 1584 and was reported to have died "very stubbornly", refusing to ask for the Queen Elizabeth's forgiveness. (8)
Philip II's policies would have stood a better chance of succeeding if Elizabeth could have been removed from the English throne. Throckmorton's plot, in 1583, was designed to achieve just this, and the Spanish ambassador therefore gave it his blessing. But the plot was uncovered before it could come to anything, and the ambassador had to pack his bags and leave. Mary, Queen of Scots, had also been party to the conspiracy, and the Privy Council, which regarded her as a major threat to Elizabeth, drew up the Bond of Association, pledging all its signatories, in the event of a successful attempt on Elizabeth's life, to hunt down and destroy the person on whose behalf the assassination had been carried out. Mary was not explicitly named, but she was clearly uppermost in the minds of those who flocked to sign the Bond, and in Parliament and the Council the prevailing opinion was that the Queen of Scots should be put to death.
Elizabeth, who knew that the stability of her own throne depended, in the last resort, upon a general reverence for monarchy, was unwilling to execute a fellow-sovereign, and she refused to be convinced of Mary's complicity in the plots against her. It was left to Sir Francis Walsingham to provide irrefutable evidence. In 1586 he discovered a new plot to murder Elizabeth and release the Queen of Scots with the help of a Spanish army, in which the gobetween was a young English catholic named Anthony Babington. Walsingham tapped Babington's correspondence with Mary, and through his agents he prompted the sending of a letter asking for Mary's explicit approval of all the details of the plot, including Elizabeth's assassination. In July 1586 came Mary's reply, giving her full assent. Even Elizabeth could not ignore this evidence, and she ordered Mary to be put on trial.