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About this text

  • Title: The Whore of Babylon: Plots on the Queen's Life
  • Author: Natalie Giannini
  • Editors: Frances E. Dolan, Anna Pruitt
  • Coordinating editor: Brett Greatley-Hirsch
  • Research assistants: Shannon Ford, Natalie Giannini, Natalie Grand, Tara Pederen, Vanessa Rapatz, Keri Wolfe, Barbara Zimbalit

  • Copyright Vanessa Rapatz, Shannon Ford, Natalie Giannini, Natalie Grand, Tara Pederen, Keri Wolfe, and Barbara Zimbalit. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: Natalie Giannini
    Editors: Frances E. Dolan, Anna Pruitt
    Not Peer Reviewed

    The Whore of Babylon: Plots on the Queen's Life

    Plots on the Queen's Life

    Natalie Giannini

    1There were numerous plots on Queen Elizabeth's life during her reign, and many of these were motivated by a desire to place Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne and to restore Catholicism to England. The Northern Rebellion of 1569, the Ridolfi Plot of 1571, The Throckmorton Plot of 1582 and finally, the Babington Plot of 1586, which resulted in the trial and execution of Mary, are all examples of large-scale conspiracies in which multiple nations and plotters played a part. In The Whore of Babylon we see the Empress and her councilors plotting on a large scale to invade Fairyland and overthrow Titania; however, Dekker seems more interested in the plots that were smaller in scale and closer to home. The plotters featured in the play were English and had connections or positions at court and so were in close physical proximity to the Queen. The Parry Plot on which the character of Paridel is based, the Lopez plot on which Lupus/Ropus is based, and the Squire Plot to which Time and Plaine-dealing refer, were all attempts made on the Queen's life by those who had intimate knowledge of or close contact with her. By focusing on these homegrown plots, Dekker breaks down the binaries that the play purports to uphold: England / Babylon, Protestant / Catholic, Titania / the Empress, and just / unjust. This blurring of the distinction between Titania and the Empress and the just and unjust is especially evident when we look at the historical record of these plots and see that those plots represented by Dekker are also those that were (and are) the most controversial. Of the four plots portrayed in the play, only one, The Squire Plot, a plot that is only mentioned second hand in the play, was uncontested, while the executions of Parry, Lopez and Campion were seen by many Elizabethans as politically motivated and unjust.

    The Campion "Plot" (1581)

    Edmund Campion, on whom the character Campeius is based, was an ambitious scholar of theology who was known for his rhetorical powers. In the 1560s he held various prestigious positions at Oxford; he gave a welcoming address to Queen Elizabeth when she visited the University; and he promised to become very successful within the Church of England. Then, suffering a crisis of faith, Campion renounced Protestantism and became a Catholic; he secretly left England for the English College of Douai in France and joined the Jesuits, a society of priests reporting directly to the Pope and dedicated to the spread of Catholicism. Their mission was to convert England back to Catholicism.

    The Jesuits' plan was to send Catholic priests to England, who would then secretly convert as many English citizens as they could, establishing a base of support. This mission was particularly dangerous, because in the 1570s Pope Pius V had excommunicated Elizabeth and commanding her Catholic subjects to work towards her overthrow. Because of this, the Elizabethan government had made the conversion of an English subject to Catholicism treasonous, which, in turn, made the Jesuit mission dangerous, for if a Priest was caught, he would be tried and most likely executed for treason. This is what happened to Edmund Campion. After acting as a not-so-covert agent for Rome in England (he published a number of texts challenging the English government and the officials of the church), Campion was captured. Although Campion was tortured for months, he never denounced his faith and actually defended it eloquently in public during "scholarly" debates set up by the English government. These debates were meant to humiliate Campion and the Catholic Church publicly, but the obvious unfairness of the debates (Campion had no access to texts other than the Bible and was often not told of the subjects until moments before the debate, while his opponents had often prepared for weeks) and Campion's rhetorical skill despite this disadvantage compromised this goal.

    In the end, Campion was tried for treason. He was at first accused of attempting to convert an English citizen, but his indictment was quickly changed and he was accused of conspiring with Rome to raise rebellion, encourage foreign invasion and overthrow and kill the Queen. He was found guilty and executed in 1581. Many scholars have argued that The Whore of Babylon conveys unambiguously anti-Catholic sentiments, but the fact that Dekker groups Campeius with Paridel and Ropus undermines this argument. Many Elizabethans saw both Dr. Parry and Dr. Lopez as unjustly executed scapegoats for various political factions. In pairing Campion/Campeius with these two figures, Dekker is clearly raising the possibility that Campion's death was a result of the same political game, although Dekker does reduce the subtle threat a man like Campion offered into the simpler one of a direct assault on the queen.

    The Parry Plot (1585)

    5Whether the Parry plot was an actual attempt on the Queen's life or an attempt to curry favor with the Queen, Elizabethans were (and historians remain) undecided, but Dr. William Parry was found guilty of treason and executed in 1585 regardless. Parry was of dubious character; he was often in debt and his only claim to power was a tenuous connection to Elizabeth's closest advisor, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who gave Parry a position as an intelligencer (a spy) for the Queen's government. Dekker, too, spent years in debtor's prison and failed to curry favor with royal patrons. Harris argues that "perhaps these similarities between the two men can help explain the otherwise unexpected pathos which informs Dekker's presentation of Parydell's neglect by a Fairyland court that seems less exemplarily nurturing than poisonous in its dealings with scholar-writers" (Harris 69).

    Parry enjoyed some early success when, posing as a plotter in order to spy on Catholic circles on the continent, he was able to offer Cecil and the Queen important intelligence. As a reward, Parry was given a pension, a seat in the House of Commons, and an audience with the Queen during which he entertained her with stories of his experiences posing as a plotter. Then in 1582, Parry converted to Catholicism and through various Catholic officials contacted Pope Pius V and offered to kill Queen Elizabeth. In return, he desired a papal dispensation for the act, in effect a license to kill and a promise of forgiveness. In his correspondence with various Catholic officials, represented in The Whore of Babylon as Como, the Papal secretary of state, Compeggio, the Nuncio of Venice (a political and religious ambassador from the Vatican), Ragazzoni, the Nuncio of Paris, and a Jesuit named Palmio, it became clear that the officials were suspicious of this known spy's conversion to Catholicism, his offer to assassinate the Queen, and his demand for a document incriminating the papacy. At no time in the correspondence did Catholic officials mention, let alone endorse, an assassination attempt on the Queen. Their counterparts in the play are correspondingly reticent and noncommittal (see TLN 1559-1606).

    On returning to England, Parry attempted to involve a rival spy, Edward Neville, in the plot. Parry told Neville his plan of killing the Queen while she was taking her daily walk in the Palace gardens. After months of plotting, Neville decided to give Parry up to officials and Parry was taken to the Tower. He told officials that he was only posing as a plotter as he had done before in order to gain intelligence for the Queen and Cecil in an attempt to gain more favor, but the mid-1580s were a plot-rich time and as a result Parry was quickly executed.

    In The Whore of Babylon, Dekker follows the known history of Parry's plotting, but he does change the chronology of the events and, significantly, he adds an initial scene in which Titania pardons Paridel for "intent of ill" (TLN 848). Titania's reason for the pardon is that

    We would not save them, that delight to kill,
    For so we would our selves: bloud wrongly spilt
    Who pardons, hath a share in halfe the guilt.
    You strooke, our lawes not hard, yet what the edge
    Of Justice could take from you, mercy gives you
    (Your life.) Yo have it signed, rize.
    (TLN 849-54)

    In adding this scene, Dekker illustrates Titania's mercy and Elizabeth's lack of it. Dr Parry's "intent of ill" (TLN 848) was questionable, but "the edge / Of Iustice" (TLN 852-53) and Elizabeth still had him put to death for treason. It seems that by Dekker's standards, the sovereign who does not pardon, "hath a share in halfe the guilt" (TLN 851).

    The Lopez Plot (1594)

    10Dr. Lopez was Elizabeth's physician from 1581 until 1594, when he was accused and found guilty of plotting with the Spanish King, Philip II, to poison the Queen. Lopez was a Portuguese Jew who settled in London in 1559. He became the Earl of Leicester's physician and when the Queen's physician died, he was recommended and hired for the position. Many Jews in England were of Portuguese descent, driven out of Portugal by the Portuguese Inquisition of 1537-1540. Immigration did not translate into religious freedom, and many Jews officially converted to Christianity while covertly continuing to practice Judaism. Lopez was such a covert Jew, sometimes called conversos, crypto-Jews, or marranos. When Portugal was annexed by Spain in the 1580s, Portuguese Jews became politically useful to the English government, which was in conflict with Spain. Lopez seems to have been employed at different times by Elizabeth's councilors, Walsingham and Cecil, as an intelligencer. Then in 1594 after the death of Walsingham, the Earl of Essex, attempting to establish the credibility of his own intelligence network, claimed to have uncovered a plot by Lopez and Spanish authorities to poison the Queen. Although neither Elizabeth nor her councilors were wholly convinced of Lopez's guilt, she signed his death warrant. Historians are still debating the existence of the plot and Lopez's culpability in it. Many think that, like Parry, Lopez might have been working as a spy posing as a plotter who unfortunately got caught up in the politics at court. As a Portuguese Jew who had done very well under Elizabeth, there was just no motive for Lopez to work with his avowed enemy, Spain, for her downfall.

    In The Whore of Babylon, we see Lupus/Ropus in communication with the Empress (TLN 1363-1419) and we see him serve a concoction to Titania (TLN 1995-2025), but we do not actually know if the brew is poisonous because Fideli (perhaps a figure for Essex) rushes in to proclaim Ropus's guilt. Although Ropus begs Titania to "here my tale but out" (TLN 2023), Fideli refuses for her and Ropus is immediately taken off stage and sent to his death. Immediately after Ropus is ushered off stage, Paridel enters the scene where the other characters are talking about Campion. The concentration of plots in this particular scene is representative of the heightened threat during certain periods of Elizabeth's reign. Many historians claim that these crises were exacerbated by Elizabeth's councilors, who often encouraged and exploited the Queen's fear of assassination to gain power. Essex's use of Dr. Lopez may have been an example of this.

    The Squire Plot (1598)

    The Squire Plot is one of the strangest attempts on Elizabeth's life. Edward Squire worked in the Queen's stables until he enlisted to sail with Sir Francis Drake to the West Indies. During the voyage, Squire was separated from his crew and captured by the Spanish. He was returned to England on the condition that he would resume his position in the stables and attempt to kill the Queen. This he attempted to do by rubbing poison on the Queen's saddle, as Truth and Plaine-dealing mention in the play (TLN 1842-45). But Squire's attempt failed. He then quit his position in the stable again, this time to join an Essex voyage. On the voyage, he attempted to poison Essex by using his old method, rubbing poison on furniture; again, it failed. Meanwhile, the Spanish, angry at having paid the man for services not rendered, informed the English government about Squire's plot. He was then captured and executed in 1598.

    This plot is merely mentioned in passing in The Whore of Babylon and so, has little significance in the play as a whole. It is however, worth mentioning two things in relation to the Squire Plot: first, that once again Dekker focuses on a plot carried out by an Englishman and not a foreigner; and second, that Dekker found the solid evidence of this plot less noteworthy than the weak evidence of the Parry, Lopez, and Campion plots.