Gilbert Gifford, was the son of John Gifford of Chillington Hall in Staffordshire, was born in 1560. Born into a Catholic family, Gifford left the country and entered the Douai College, run by William Allen, for the training of missionary priests. In April 1579 he transferred to Rome, where he became involved in the feuding between the secular priests and the Jesuits. He was expelled in around September 1580 and after leaving Italy spent several months wandering between England and the continent. (1)
In October 1583, Gifford returned to English College, now based at Rheims. During this period he became involved in plots to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. In October 1585 Gifford went to Paris, where he got in touch with Thomas Morgan, an agent of Mary Queen of Scots. In December he crossed over to England, landing at the port of Rye. Sir Francis Walsingham, had a spy in the camp of Morgan, and on his arrival he was arrested. It is claimed that Gifford told Wasingham: "I have heard of the work you do and I want to serve you. I have no scruples and no fear of danger. Whatever you order me to do I will accomplish." (2) Gifford's biographer, Alison Plowden, has argued: "Gifford may or may not have already been employed by Walsingham's secret service, but from this point there can be no doubt about his double dealing." (3)
Gifford was released and immediately approached the French Embassy in London. He told them that he had several letters for Mary. (At that time she was being held at Chartley Castle. Gifford was told that if they forwarded the letters by the formal route, Mary would never see them. Gifford then suggested that he would try to find a way of smuggling the letters into Chartley Castle. With the help of Walsingham he arranged with the man who provided Chartley Castle with beer, to smuggle the letters to Mary. The letters were wrapped in leather and hidden inside a hollow bung used to seal a barrel of beer. The brewer delivered the barrel to Chartley Castle and one of her servants would open the bung and take the contents to Mary. The same process was used to send messages to Mary's supporters. (4)
In March 1586, Anthony Babington and six friends gathered in The Plough, an inn outside Temple Bar, where they discussed the possibility of freeing Mary, assassinating Elizabeth, and inciting a rebellion supported by an invasion from abroad. With his spy network, it was not long before Walsingham discovered the existence of the Babington Plot. To make sure he obtained a conviction he arranged for Gifford to visit Babington on 6th July. Gifford told Babington that he had heard about the plot from Thomas Morgan in France and was willing to arrange for him to send messages to Mary via his brewer friend. (5)
However, Babington did not fully trust Gifford and enciphered his letter. Babington used a very complex cipher that consisted of 23 symbols that were to be substituted for the letters of the alphabet (excluding j. v and w), along with 35 symbols representing words or phrases. In addition, there were four nulls and a sybol which signified that the next symbol represents a double letter. It would seem that the French Embassy had already arranged for Mary to receive a copy of the necessary codebook. (6)
Gilbert Gifford took the sealed letter to Francis Walsingham. He employed counterfeiters, who would then break the seal on the letter, make a copy, and then reseal the original letter with an identical stamp before handing it back to Gifford. The apparently untouched letter could then be delivered to Mary or her correspondents, who remained oblivious to what was going on. (7)
The copy was then taken to Thomas Phelippes. Cryptanalysts like Phelippes used several methods to break a code like the one used by Babington. For example, the commonest letter in English is "e". He established the frequency of each character, and tentatively proposed values for those that appeared most often. Eventually he was able to break the code used by Babington. The message clearly proposed the assassination of Elizabeth.
Walsingham now had the information needed to arrest Babington. However, his main target was Mary Stuart and he therefore allowed the conspiracy to continue. On 17th July she replied to Babington. The message was passed to Phelippes. As he had already broken the code he had little difficulty in translating the message that gave her approval to the assassination of Elizabeth. Mary Queen of Scots wrote: "When all is ready, the six gentlemen must be set to work, and you will provide that on their design being accomplished, I may be myself rescued from this place." (8)
Walsingham now had enough evidence to arrest Mary and Babington. However, to destroy the conspiracy completely, he needed the names of all those involved. He ordered Phelippes to forge a postscript to Mary's letter, which would entice Babington to name the other men involved in the plot. "I would be glad to know the names and qualities of the six gentleman which are to accomplish the designment; for it may be that I shall be able, upon knowledge of the parties, to give you some further advice necessary to be followed therein, as also from time to time particularly how you proceed."
Simon Singh, the author of The Code Book: The Secret History of Codes & Code-Breaking (2000) has pointed out: "The cipher of Mary Queen of Scots clearly demonstrates that a weak encryption can be worse than no encryption at all. Both Mary and Babington wrote explicitly about their intentions because they believed that their communications were secure, whereas if they had been communicating openly they would have referred to their plan in a more discreet manner. Furthermore, their faith in their cipher made them particularly vulnerable to accepting Phelippes's forgery. Sender and receiver often have such confidence in the strength of their cipher that they consider it impossible for the enemy to mimic the cipher and insert forged text. The correct use of a strong cipher is a clear boon to sender and receiver, but the misuse of a weak cipher can generate a very false sense of security." (9)
Walsingham allowed the letters to continue to be sent because he wanted to discover who else was involved in this plot to overthrow Elizabeth. Eventually, on 25th June 1586, Mary wrote a letter to Anthony Babington. In his reply, Babington told Mary that he and a group of six friends were planning to murder Elizabeth. Babington discovered that Walsingham was aware of the plot and went into hiding. He hid with some companions in St John's Wood, but was eventually caught at the house of the Jerome Bellamy family in Harrow. (10) On hearing the news of his arrest the government of the city put on a show of public loyalty, witnessing "her public joy by ringing of bells, making of bonfires, and singing of psalms". (11)
Babington home was searched for documents that would provide evidence against him. When interviewed, Babington, who was not tortured, made a confession in which he admitted that Mary had written a letter supporting the plot. At his trial, Babington and his twelve confederates were found guilty and sentenced to hanging and quartering. "The horrors of semi-strangulation and of being split open alive for the heart and intestines to be wrenched out were regarded, like those of being burned to death, as awful but in the accepted order of things." (12)
Gallows were set up near St Giles-in-the-Field and the first seven conspirators, led by Babington, were executed on 20th September 1586. Babington's last words were “Spare me Lord Jesus”. Another conspirator, Chidiock Tichborne, made a long speech where he blamed Babington "for drawing him in". (13) The men "were hanged only for a short time, cut down while they were still alive, and then castrated and disembowelled".
The other seven were brought to the scaffold the next day and suffered the same death, "but, more favourably, by the Queens commandment, who detested the former cruelty" They hung until they were dead and only then suffered the barbarity of castration and disembowelling. The last to suffer was Jerome Bellamy, who was found guilty of hiding Babington and the others at his family's house in Harrow. His brother cheated the hangman by killing himself in prison. (14)
Francis Walsingham rewarded Gilbert Gifford for his role in destroying the conspiracy by granting him a pension of £100. He moved to France where he was described by the English ambassador, Sir Edward Stafford, as "the most notable double treble villain that ever lived, for he hath played upon all the hands in the world". In December 1587 Gifford was arrested in a brothel and, as a priest, consigned to the archbishop's prison. No verdict against Gifford is recorded, but his enemies ensured that he stayed in prison in Paris, and he died there in November 1590. (15)
Mary Queen of Scots, ousted as queen by her own Scottish subjects, had thrown herself on her cousin Elizabeth, for protection. Elizabeth had replied by placing this dangerous heir to the throne of England in semi-captivity. Many of Mary's coreligionists regarded her as the rightful queen, and Walsingham, with the Ridolfi plot still in mind, knew that Mary was not averse to giving encouragement to the men who schemed on her behalf.
Walsingham was determined to get rid of Mary, and Gifford would be the means. Gifford was installed in a country house close by the one occupied by Mary. It was not long before Mary's people heard of the good young Catholic gentleman who, it was said, secretly professed undying loyalty to the Catholic queen. Mary summoned him. She was convinced of his sincerity and suggested he should become her messenger. Gifford, on one knee and kissing her hand, swore that he was prepared to die for her and his religion. Thus Gifford became, if not the first double-agent, certainly one of the more treacherous.
Gifford devised a method of smuggling letters to the queen in the beer barrels that were regularly delivered to her household. They were brought out in the same way so that Mary, largely out of touch with the outside world before Gifford's arrival, now had a perfect means of two-way communication with her supporters. Mary's correspondence was always enciphered. She never revealed the cipher to Gifford but, once he had the letter from the beer barrel, he opened it, copied the enciphered contents, sealed it so cleverly that no one could have known it had been opened, and delivered the letters in the usual way. The copies, however, were sent to London where they were deciphered by Thomas Phelippes. Mary was using a simple substitution cipher plus inserted code signs. Once the code had been broken, subsequent messages, even when the cipher key was changed, provided no security.
As the plots to put Mary on the throne thickened, so Walsingham's noose was drawn tighter. Anthony Babington, the most recent young Catholic gentleman to fall under Mary's spell, had already secured numerous assurances from fellow Catholics that, if there was a sudden vacancy of the English throne, they would rise in support of Mary's cause. Philip of Spain would supply an army and all that was needed was Mary's co-operation.
Gifford was still a youth, even younger than Babington, and yet he conducted his deliveries with confidence and guile. His aliases, such as Mr Colerdin, Pietro and Cornelys, enabled him to travel the country without suspicion, and his contacts within the Catholic community provided him with a series of safe houses between London and Chartley Hall. However, each time Gifford travelled to or from Chartley Hall, he would make a detour. Although Gifford was apparently acting as an agent for Mary, he was actually a double agent. Back in 1585, before his return to England, Gifford had written to Sir Francis Walsingham, Principal Secretary to Queen Elizabeth, offering his services. Gifford realised that his Catholic background would act as a perfect mask for infiltrating plots against Queen Elizabeth. In the letter to Walsingham, he wrote, "I have heard of the work you do and I want to serve you. I have no scruples and no fear of danger. Whatever you order me to do I will accomplish."