Without Secure Encryption, Heads Will Roll

Mary Queen of Scots

Mary Queen of ScotsAfter Mary Queen of Scots stepped down from her throne in Scotland in 1567, the Babington Plot was hatched by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth. This plot would frame Mary for conspiring to kill Protestant Queen Elizabeth and reclaim England’s throne under the guise of making England a Catholic nation once again.

In 1584, the legal groundwork was laid to set up Mary’s future indictment with the introduction of a “Bond of Association.”  Approved by Elizabeth’s Privy Council, it removed anyone from the line of succession who is accused of or has another individual plot against the Queen. It applied even if an individual claimed ignorance of the assassination attempt.

Walsingham Leads the Investigation to Indict Mary

Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s present Secretary of State and head of espionage planned to accuse Mary of attempting to assassinate Elizabeth and have Mary executed. As a part of this attempt, Gilbert Gifford, an exile who worked to restore the monarchy’s Catholic status by plotting against Queen Elizabeth, was offered his freedom after his own arrest, if he became a spy for Walsingham.

Gifford’s main task was to re-start communications with Queen Mary because Walsingham broke off correspondence with her due to an earlier assassination plot she was suspected of in 1584.

Walsingham used Gifford to talk with Mary and her supporters because Gifford raised no suspicion. A town brewer acted as a mule to dispatch messages to Mary via a water-proof cover on beer barrels, protecting the message like a client portal protects information. Gifford coordinated this message system with Guillaume L’Aubespine, France’s ambassador, in England.

Under confinement, Queen Mary was informed by Thomas Philips, another double agent, to expect a message from Gifford. Future communication would be relayed through diplomatic correspondence, reaching L’Aubespine, then Gifford, then Walsingham.

The Plot Thickens: Encryption and Decryption

Mary Queen of ScotsWalsingham encrypted correspondence for Mary with the help of a linguist and cryptographer. The royal encryption and decoding system revolved around a two-prong approach. Encoding and decoding involved character replacement for less or more commonly used letters depending on the need. The message would then be deduced based on the general context.

Walsingham’s encryption methods enabled the crown to decrypt and duplicate the correspondence. Walsingham resealed each piece of correspondence and returned it to Gifford for concealment. Gifford handed it off to the town’s brewer who got it to Mary through “hidden” transportation. Mary’s correspondence followed the opposite series of steps.

Intercepted Letters Meant “Hurry Up and Wait”

Walsingham intercepted every letter from Mary, helping him understand her thoughts. He simply had to wait for the right letter that contained Mary expressing her desire to assassinate Queen Elizabeth.

Meanwhile, John Ballard, a French ally of Mary, Jesuit clergy and representative of the Catholic Church, traveled to England to get the nod of approval from the higher-ups for a revolt against Queen Elizabeth and the appointment of Mary to the English throne.

John Savage, a former English soldier who plotted to overthrow Queen Elizabeth in the past gave his word to support another attempt to kill Queen Elizabeth. Further into 1586, Savage confirmed that English Catholics supported Queen Elizabeth’s overthrow if Spain’s support was guaranteed.

Walsingham knew all details of Queen Elizabeth’s assassination plot through Gifford and another spy who set up participants. Until he obtained overwhelming evidence to implicate Mary, he had to be patient.

Babington was deeply troubled by his involvement in the plot despite his approval of it. Upon Mary’s receipt of a letter dated June 28, 1586, she wrote to Babington reassuring him that their friendship was in confidence. Babington let Mary know the details of the plot to kill Queen Elizabeth. The correspondence documented an invasion of England and a revolt.

Decoded Document Leads to Death

Babington’s correspondence to Mary was seized and decoded before it reached Mary. She confirmed all of the assassination plot’s details, signaling her support of the importance of a foreign power to support a successful overthrow.  This letter would serve as damning evidence to charge, convict and execute Mary and Babbington.  

Babington eventually received Walsingham’s faked correspondence but was unable to respond because he was arrested under suspicion as a conspirator for the assassination of Queen Mary.

Along with her co-conspirators, Queen Mary was tried for the assassination conspiracy. She maintained her innocence at trial, despite incriminating correspondence with Gifford and was sentenced to death. Mary was beheaded in the presence of 300 of her countrymen and women.

People don’t get their heads chopped off anymore, but when security is breached during any transaction, they can lose their jobs – and have.

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