Ridolfi plot

Ridolfi plot

The Ridolfi plot was a Roman Catholic plot in 1570 to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I of England and replace her with Mary I of Scotland. The plot was hatched and planned by Roberto di Ridolfi, who, an international banker, was able to travel between Brussels, Rome and Madrid to gather support without attracting too much suspicion.


The Duke of Norfolk, a cousin to the Queen and wealthiest landowner in the country, had been proposed as a possible husband for Mary ever since her imprisonment in 1568. This suited Norfolk who had greater ambitions and felt Elizabeth persistently undervalued him. [Williams, Neville, "The Life and Times of Elizabeth I", (Book Club Associates, 1972), pg 91.] In pursuit of this, he agreed to support the Northern Rebellion, though quickly lost his nerve and tried to call it off. However, the rebellion was not under his control and went ahead anyway, with the Northern earls trying to foment rebellion among their Catholic subjects to prepare for a Catholic Spanish invasion by the Duke of Alba, governor of the Netherlands. [Starkey, David, "Elizabeth I: Apprenticeship", (Vintage, 2001), pg 322.]

After the rebellion failed, the leaders were executed and a purge of Catholic sympathisers in the priesthood carried out. Norfolk was imprisoned in the Tower of London for nine months and only freed under house arrest when he confessed all and begged for mercy. [Williams, "Life and Times", pg 101-2.] Pope Pius V issued Regnans in Excelsis, a papal bull excommunicating Elizabeth, shortly afterwards, which commanded all faithful Catholics to do all they could to depose her, though the majority of English Catholics ignored the bull. [Dures, Alan, "English Catholicism, 1558-1642", (Longman, 1983), pg 17.] In response, Elizabeth became much harsher to Catholics and their sympathisers. [Starkey, "Elizabeth I", pg 322.]


Roberto Ridolfi, a Florentine banker and ardent Catholic, had been involved in the planning of the Northern rebellion, had been plotting to overthrow Elizabeth as early as 1569. [Elton G.R., "England under the Tudors", (University Paperback, 1978), pg 297.] Observing the failure of the rebellion, he came to the conclusion that only foreign intervention could restore Catholicism and bring Mary to the throne, and began to contact potential conspirators. Mary's advisor, John Lesley, the Bishop of Ross, gave his assent to the plot as the only way to free Mary. [Williams, "Life and Times", pg 102-3.] The plan was to have the Duke of Alba invade from the Netherlands with 10,000 men, foment a rebellion of the northern English nobility, murder Elizabeth, and marry Mary to Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk. Ridolfi optimistically estimated half of all English peers were Catholic, and could muster in excess of 39,000 men. [Williams, "Life and Times", pg 102.] Norfolk gave verbal assurances to Ridolfi that he was Catholic, though as a pupil of John Foxe, he remained a Protestant all his life. [Dures, "English Catholicism", pg 17.] [Lockyer, Roger, "Tudor and Stuart Britain, 1417-1714", (Longman, 1964), pg 186.] Both Mary and Norfolk, desperate to remedy their respective situations, agreed to the plot. [Jenkins, Elizabeth, "Elizabeth the Great", (Phoenix Press, 1958), pg 176.] With their blessing, Ridolfi set off to the continent to gain Alba, Pius V and King Philip II's support.

However, the Duke of Alba feared that if the plot should be successful, it would lead to Mary, Queen of Scots, a former Queen of France whose mother was a member of the prominent Guise family, occupying the throne of England. The consequence of this would be an England wedded to Mary's beloved France, an outcome which the Spanish feared.


In 1571, Elizabeth's intelligence network was sending her information about a plot against her life. She was also sent a private warning by the Grand Duke of Tuscany, who had learned of the plot against her. Charles Baillie, Ridolfi's messenger, was arrested at Dover for carrying compromising letters, and revealed the existence of the plot under torture. The Duke of Norfolk was arrested on September 7, 1571 and sent to the tower. [Weir, "Mary, Queen of Scots", pg 493.] Guerau de Spes, the Spanish ambassador, was expelled from the country in January, 1571. [Jenkins, "Elizabeth the Great", pg 179.] Ridolfi was still abroad at the time the plot was discovered, and never returned to England, becoming a Florentine senator in 1600.

Mary, when questioned, admitted to having dealings with Ridolfi, but denied any involvement with the plot. [Weir, "Mary, Queen of Scots", pg 493.] She was clearly implicated by the evidence, but Elizabeth refused to have her executed and vetoed a bill by Parliament that condemned Mary and removed her from the succession. [Smith, A. G. R., "The Government of Elizabethan England", (Edward Arnold, 1967), pg 28.] She feared that by executing a divinely appointed monarch, she undermined her own position. [Lockyer, "Tudor and Stuart Britain", pg 190.] Instead, she had the Duke of Norfolk executed for treason on June 2, 1572. [T.A.Morris, "Europe and England in the Sixteenth Century", (Routledge 1998), p334] However, Mary's status in England was transformed from honoured guest to treasonous pariah, and she was universally condemned by the governing elite: [Morris, "Europe and England", p334] her continued conspiring, especially in the Babington plot, eventually led to her execution on February 8, 1587. [Weir, Alison, "Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley", (Pimlico, 2004), pg 509.]

A very much fictionalised version of the Ridolfi Plot featured in the 1998 film "Elizabeth", which depicted Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk, as the chief conspirator. The film omitted the involvement of Ridolfi himself and included John Ballard, who was actually a Babington Plotter.

See also

* Throckmorton plot
* Babington plot
* Francis Walsingham


External links

* [http://www.marie-stuart.co.uk/England.htm Marie Stuart Society's account of the Ridolfi plot] .
* [http://www.gunpowder-plot.org/ridolfi.asp The Gunpowder Plot Society's account of the Ridolfi plot] .
* [http://www.elizabethi.org/uk/chronology/two.html Timeline of Elizabeth's reign from 1570 to 1603] .

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