originally published September 7, 2014
Every so often while sifting through the corrugated rubble of history, one lands upon a figure who is a trifle harder to figure out than the rest. Whatever may have spirited his soul this way or that gets lost in the grey ink of facts and dates, leaving (for those of us who care) a certain freedom for speculation.
Was Gilbert Gifford an English hero? Was he a traitor? A coward? His actions directly led to one of British history’s most infamous executions, but the footsteps that led him there may have been driven by precisely the opposite intent. Such is the riddle that four centuries of dust and distortion have thrown across his legacy.
I’d like to paint Gilbert with passionate swirls – not moved by an allegiance to politic or royal hullabaloo, but by the colors of his faith. Not his faith in Catholic dogma, though undoubtedly that old rhythm spent a considerable amount of time tip-tapping upon the inside of his skull. I’m talking about his faith in flesh, in love, and in the non-negotiable immediate.
In short, Gilbert danced to his own boogie.
The 16th century was a sketchy time to be religious in Europe. If you were Catholic, you kept your mouth shut around Protestants and vice-versa. Gilbert Gifford was born to a recusant Catholic landowner in Staffordshire. This label of ‘recusancy’ was given to those who continued to wear their Catholic jerseys long past the time when the Church of England (Anglicanism as we know it today) was chosen to be the home team. It took a certain amount of guts on the part of John Gifford, and to some extent that chutzpah was carried on by his son.
Because of John’s status – he had been a Member of Parliament and an esteemed resident of Chillington Hall, perhaps the most bodaciously named country home in the West Midlands – Gilbert had tremendous access to quality education as a young lad. That’s not to say he excelled at it; after all, he had been expelled from priest school at the English College in Rome. But he did work his way up to the rank of deacon in 1585. That’s right around the time Gilbert met a man named John Savage.
Savage was a student and a former soldier. Perhaps it was Gilbert’s devotion to Catholicism, but for whatever reason, the two of them became friends. John let Gilbert in on a huge secret: he was part of what would come to be known as the Babington Plot. This was an elaborate scheme to assassinate Queen Elizabeth (a protestant and ardent supporter of the Church of England), to replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots (naturally, a Catholic). Mary was presently serving time, a sentence imposed by her cousin, Elizabeth.
John brought Gilbert in on the plot, along with Gilbert’s cousin William Gifford and his buddy, Christopher Hodgson. Gilbert was on board. He travelled to Paris, where the Catholic League was heartily in control of French politics. There he met Thomas Morgan and Charles Paget, two confidants of Mary’s, and two very willing conspirators in Elizabeth’s assassination. We will never know precisely what role Gilbert was to play in the master plan of the Babington Plot, mostly because the guy went and got himself busted.
Sir Francis Walsingham was the head of Queen Elizabeth’s security forces, and was constantly on the lookout for Catholic rousers of potential rabble – and those who were returning home from Ultra-Catholic France were certainly worthy of a bit of questioning. Gilbert was picked up by Sir Francis at the Port of Rye and brought to London for a sit-down. It didn’t take long for Gilbert to flip.
Gilbert agreed to act as a double-agent for the royals. One 20th century historian believes that Gilbert’s true loyalty lay with Queen Elizabeth, suggesting that he’d only been going along with the plot to appease his buddies, and that he himself may have approached Sir Francis and plotted out his double-agent-ness. But I don’t buy it. All evidence points to Gilbert being trapped, like Big Pussy Bonpensiero on The Sopranos. He had no choice but to help Sir Francis bring down the Babington Plotters, simply to save his own pelt from getting roasted.
Under an assumed name (ascribed to him by Sir Francis), Gilbert traveled to Chartley Hall in Staffordshire to visit Mary in her cell. No one knows how he pulled it off, but somehow Gilbert earned Mary’s trust. He agreed to smuggle encrypted letters in and out of prison for her, stashing them in beer barrels. Also, apparently beer barrels were a common fixture in sixteenth century English prisons. Wow, we’re learning heaps of stuff today.
I’d like to think that Gilbert was a little taken with the deposed monarch. She stood for the very same faith to which Gilbert’s father had devoted his soul, even in the face of a grumbling majority of Protestants. She was a woman of power, who apparently never lost touch with the grace and decorum with which she would be expected to reign, should she ever be given another chance to do so. Also, she was a bit of a looker, if those old paintings are any clue. Maybe Gilbert really wanted to help her out – perhaps not to the point of regicide, but who knows?
Except that he gave those encoded letters right to Sir Francis Walsingham. Including the one in which Mary gave assent to the murder of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth.
Once that letter had been decoded, Gilbert knew the Babington Plot was going to fail. He took off for France without Sir Francis’s permission, most likely because he figured that his role in exposing the conspirators would become rather obvious, and his life would be in danger. He was ordained as a priest in Rheims in 1587, the same year in which Mary was executed for her complicity in the plot. There are many question marks floating around the periphery of Gilbert’s fleeing, but it seems to me that he had betrayed his faith, and perhaps his heart. He may have been trying to run away from himself.
One thing we do know is that later that same year, Gilbert’s running led him to a Paris brothel, where he was caught in bed with a woman as well as a male servant of the Earl of Essex. In August of 1589 he was handed twenty years in prison for acting against the interests of the Catholic Church, a sentence considerably harsher than any given to the molesty priests of the past few decades – but that’s a story for another day.
A famine the following year took Gilbert’s life at the young age of 30. The romantic in me wants to believe he died more of a self-broken heart, having sold out the beautiful Queen Mary in order to save his own skin. At least that’s the shade of aqua-blue in which I choose to paint between the biographical lines of Gilbert’s life. He may have been a coward, but his heart was unflinching; four centuries later he merits that smidgen of nobility.