The Ridolfi Plot, 1571

The failure of the Plot, writes Cyril Hamshere, forms a complex story of espionage and counter-espionage; its events caused Elizabeth I to give up all ideas of restoring Mary Queen of Scots to the Scottish throne.

The first of the three main plots to replace Elizabeth I by Mary Queen of Scots as Queen of England, known as the Ridolfi Plot, started as a revival of the motives behind the Rebellion of the Northern Earls which had come to an ignominious end in 1569. That abortive rising had been prompted chiefly as an attempt to restore the Roman Catholic Church by the removal of Elizabeth who for the past decade had been established by her Parliament as Supreme Governor of the English Church.

The Earls of Northumberland and Westmorland had fled abroad; but the Duke of Norfolk, the Spanish Ambassador, Don Guerau de Spes, and the Pope’s secret agent, Roberto Ridolfi, were still present to revive their schemes.

Ridolfi was a Florentine banker who had started business in London during Mary’s reign. In October 1569 he had been arrested and interrogated by Francis Walsingham; next month he had been released on bail of £1,000; by the beginning of 1570 he had received an unconditional discharge since no firm evidence had been found against him. In the following August, Norfolk was released from the Tower through Elizabeth’s personal clemency. Immediately Norfolk was out, Ridolfi picked up the broken threads of Catholic intrigue.

The full implications of Ridolfi’s scheming should be seen against the background of the political situation in Europe at the time. The whole of Western Europe was torn with religious strife. Largely because of personal dynastic rivalries between the Empire, France and Spain, the Papacy had never succeeded in organizing a crusade against the Protestants.

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