The Chillington Estate in South Staffordshire, where the Gifford (currently spelt Giffard) family have lived since 1178, is a classic example of a gentry household – the people there were rarely the Great and the Good but staged memorable developments none the less. The best known incident in the history of the estate, the day Charles II spent in the oak tree at Boscobel on the estate escaping from defeat at the battle of Worcester in 1651, happened through the fortunes of war. But the previous. significant event involving the family followed the equally momentous visit of Elizabeth 1 in 1575.

When Elizabeth discovered that the family defied the Reformation to remain Catholics it was a blatant insult. Suffering the penalties of recusancy, the family remained defiant and sent their fourth son, Gilbert, to Rome to become a Catholic priest. He then shocked them by emerging as a key player in the downfall of Mary Queen of Scots. To this day, what he did is controversial, providing challenging historical research.

In Rome, Gilbert refused to toe the line: while never taking rebellion to the logical conclusion of become protestant, he became involved in a feud with the all powerful Jesuits, the shock troops of the Counter Reformation. When he returned to England at the end of 1585 he secretly sealed his rebellion against Catholic orthodoxy by agreeing to work as a double agent for Sir Francis Walsingham, the puritan diplomat who was Elizabeth’s principal spy catcher. And this is where the research problems begin.

There is no doubt that in 1586 Gifford was Walsingham’s key agent in the struggle against Mary’s conspiracies, notably by setting up the secret communication channel for her coded letters to plotters in London and the Continent which I have termed the ‘Brewer’s Sting’. Walsingham awarded him a pension of £100 per year – unheard of wealth for a freelance spy. The channel opened the way to the Babington plot, when Mary’s supporters realized that they could communicate with the Queen in her captivity in Chartley Manor in East Staffordshire. The Queen had been cut off from receiving letters, her French correspondence piling up in the French Embassy in London, but a brewer in Burton on Trent agreed for a price to smuggle letters in and out of Chartley in the bung of the weekly beer barrel. However he could not travel to and from Burton to London, which required a trusted courier. That role was taken by Gilbert Gifford, who convinced Thomas Morgan, Mary’s French emissary in Paris, of his loyalty. The plotters against Elizabeth 1 relied on Gifford’s courier service to communicate with Chartley, completely unaware that Gifford was passing all the letters to Walsingham.

The complexities of what Gifford was doing and the question of whether Walsingham controlled the Babington plot are notoriously puzzling. In her entry on Gifford in the Oxford History of National Biography, Alison Plowden coped by choosing to ignore Gifford’s history as a Babington plotter. She accepts that Gifford knew what was going on, and briefed Mendoza, the former Spanish ambassador, but ignores the way he had acquired the knowledge. As he was heavily involved in the plotting and Walsingham’s main agent this aids those who argue Mary was not guilty of plotting the murder of her cousin with Gifford aiding Walsingham in inventing the conspiracy. This is not supported by the two best recent biographers of Mary, Antonia Fraser and John Guy, but Fraser contends “The assassination plot against Elizabeth… changes character as it becomes clear that much of the plot consisted of mere provocation by which Walsingham hoped to entangle Mary” (Fraser 2002 p598). Whether what Walsingham – and by implication Gifford – did was provocation, cannot apply to what happened in Staffordshire. A courier is not an agent provocateur, and what Plowden describes is his work as a courier*.

The current block to my research is the difficulty of working out how Gifford got involved in Walsingham’s plan for the Brewer’s sting. The accepted view is that Gifford arrived back in England in December 1585 – probably the 4th though it is argued as late as the 20th – and was interviewed and turned by Walsingham. This provides an eye wateringly tight schedule in which Gifford had to agree to work for the Sting, go to the French Embassy – twice according to Fraser – convince the diplomats he was on the side of the Scottish Queen, obtain the letters, organize a Burton visit to see the Brewer, then visit him some hundred and fifty miles north of London and convey the letters. The date given by Fraser for receipt at Chartley is mid January “On the 16th January 1586… Mary Stuart **… received the first secret communication she had had for over a year”. (p600). Chartley of course – not Tutbury – had to be the location of the Brewers Sting – the washerwomen could not be isolated at Tutbury as they had to move out of the Castle to do the washing – there was no moat – but there was a moat at Chartley..

The current interpretation creates two problems. Firstly, if Walsingham had no contact with Gifford till December 1585 the Sting risked not having a courier. The Brewer is clearly in post much earlier, indicating Walsingham had a suitable courier in mind – and Gilbert Gifford was the perfect choice. Secondly, if Gifford did not agree to work for Walsingham till early December 1585, there was not enough time to make the arrangements before Mary received the Brewer’s first consignment on 16th January. Until Christmas Eve the Queen was at Tutbury and was only completely isolated when at Chartley.

It is the first factor which is the major stumbling block. The Sting had to be a real possibility before Gifford went to see Thomas Morgan in Paris on the way home from his seminary at Rheims. He left Rheims after becoming a deacon of the Catholic Church on 5th April 1585 and it is logical to assume after that point he could plausibly pose as a Catholic agent. When he arrived in England that December at Rye, Plowden argues “Gifford may or may not have already been employed by Walsingham’s secret service”, but this cannot be left open as a maybe if we are to understand how the Sting was set up. Gifford was undoubtedly a devious character willing to sell his services to the highest bidder. Plowden quotes Sir Edward Stafford, English ambassador in Paris stating Gifford was “the most notable double treble villain that ever lived”, and he had reason to say so. But to understand the nature of a double agent needs more than pantomime psychology and a willingness to play Judas. For Gifford, there is more to grasp than merely the character of a confidence trickster. He calculated what he could do and convinced others – notably Walsingham – that he could deliver. How, when and why he was doing this are the nuts that will not crack.

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* The key point relating to Chartley is that neither Walsingham nor Gifford visited though Mary knew Walsingham’s code breaker was a visitor – she described him – (Fraser 2002 p600) but no one in Mary’s camp knew why Phellipes was visiting.

**Both Fraser and Guy use the English not the Scottish spelling