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Gilbert Gifford (1561?-1590)

GILBERT GIFFORD or GIFFARD (1561?-1590), Roman catholic spy, belonged to the well-known Roman catholic family seated at Chillington, Staffordshire. His father, John Gifford (d. 1612), suffered imprisonment for recusancy. Gilbert is said as a schoolboy to have challenged a schoolfellow to a duel. After spending some months at Anchine he entered Douay College, then at Rheims under the direction of William Allen (1532-1594), 31 Jan. 1576-7. In the register he was described as 'clarus adolescens.' In 1579 he removed to the English College at Rome, and in October publicly defended theses embracing all philosophy before a large assembly of prelates and noblemen.

He and a friend and fellow-student, Edward Gratley, made the acquaintance at Rome of Solomon Aldred, a Roman catholic spy of Sir Francis Walsingham, who lived there with his wife, and had English secret service money to dispose of. Gifford readily entertained proposals to enter the English secret service at some future date. His superiors at the English College admired his intellectual capacity and did not suspect his intentions, but they complained of his dissimulation and deceitful character, and before 1582 expelled him on grounds that are not exactly defined. He returned to Rheims to teach theology on 23 June 1582, after having apologised to Cardinal Allen for past misconduct. On 29 March 1583 Allen wrote, objecting to his remaining at either seminary, Douay or Rome. In 1583 he paid a second visit to Rome. On 16 March 1584-5 he was ordained sub-deacon, and on 6 April 1585 deacon by Cardinal de Guise, in the church of St. Remigius at Rheims. He left Douay College on 8 Oct. 1585, and went to Paris.

Gifford definitely entered Walsingham's secret service in 1583. While at Rheims he seems to have become acquainted with John Savage, afterwards an associate of Babington, a Roman catholic, who had thought of killing Elizabeth. At Paris he placed himself in communication with Thomas Morgan, a representative of Mary Queen of Scots. Morgan gave him a letter (15 Oct. 1583) recommending him to Queen Mary, then confined at Chartley. He was represented to be an enthusiastic adherent who could be trusted to convey her private correspondence from and to Chateauneuf, the French ambassador and her chief agent in London.

He arrived in London about December, and was received unsuspectingly at the French embassy. Some catholic noblemen, as well as the Countess of Arundel and many catholic youths of good family, entertained him, but neither they nor members of his own family suspected his treacherous occupation. He soon presented himself to Phelippes, the chief of Walsingham's spies, and lived in his house for a short time, receiving instructions, and 'practising secretly among the catholics.' In January he went to Chartley and ingratiated himself with Queen Mary, who readily accepted his offer to direct the conveyance of her secret correspondence to London. Her gaoler, Sir Amias Paulet, knew that Gifford was an accredited government spy, and at first doubted his intentions, but quickly placed implicit trust in him.

Gifford had arranged with Phelippes and Walsingham to place all Mary's letters at their disposal. He had to adopt means to avoid rousing the slightest suspicion on the part of Mary or her London agent. Much importance attaches to his methods. He told Mary, the French ambassador, and others of Mary's friends that he secured the services of a catholic brewer of the village to take her letters in his barrels to a neighbouring catholic gentleman, who conveyed them to another catholic gentleman, and that the latter forwarded them by a servant to the French embassy in London. Letters were, he pretended, also sent from London in the same way when he himself or one of his trusted servants did not carry them direct. Mr. Froude accepted this story and, exaggerating its details, assumed that Gifford kept the letters he received from Mary only just time enough to copy them, and then at once sent them to London by means of his secret and circuitous device. As a matter of fact Gilford's account of his device was a lying tale, concocted to lull the suspicions of Mary and her friends.

He himself, on receiving Mary's letters from her, usually copied them in conjunction with Paulet, but he also invariably sent the originals to Phelippes's house in London, and Phelippes at his leisure employed some agent who could be trusted to deliver them to the French ambassador. A letter written by Queen Mary on 31 Jan. was thus not delivered at tho French embassy till 1 March. It lay in the interval in Phelippes's rooms. The French ambassador was nevertheless thoroughly deceived, and gave Gifford in March letters received for Queen Mary in the previous two years, which he had had no opportunity of sending her. All these Gifford took in batches to Phelippes, who deciphered them for Walsingham before forwarding them to Mary. In April Gifford was again at Chartley and still retained the full confidence not only of Queen Mary but of her keeper Paulet.

In the next few months he paid many visits to London and Paris. He was well acquainted with Anthony Babington, John Ballard, and their fellow-conspirators, and encouraged them to pursue their plot, at the same time keeping Walsingham well informed of its development. At Paris he saw Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador who had been expelled from London, and is reported to have given him the first intelligence of the Babington conspiracy. Mendoza freely promised Spanish aid. Roman catholic writers assert that it was Gifford who suggested and arranged the whole conspiracy. At present the better supported view is that the priest Ballard was its originator. Gifford continued to satisfy both his masters. He carried the fatal letters from Queen Mary to Babington, which contained her approval of the conspiracy, and duly showed them to Walsingham and his agents before they reached their destination. On 8 July 1586 he was in London,and gave Walsingham a book denouncing Parsons and the Jesuits which he and Gratley had written some time before. Walsingham highly prized the manuscript, and is said to have distributed printed copies.

By the end of July Gifford's work was done. All the details of Babington's plot were settled by the conspirators, and had been brought by Gifford to Walsingham's knowledge. He seems to have felt the danger of his position and hurried to Paris (29 July). After the conspirators' arrest he wrote to Phelippes and Walsingham, hoping that his departure would not be judged 'sinistrously.' On 3 Sept. he offered to do further work for Walsingham, but the offer was not accepted. That he was capable of almost any villany is clear, but that he was the ooncoctor of the Babington plot, and that he interpolated those passages in Queen Mary's letters which convicted her of complicity in the conspiracy and brought her to the scaffold, are charges that have some prima facie justification, but have not yet been proved.

Both sides soon suspected Gifford to be a traitor, although neither knew the exact extent of his treachery. His catholic associates were certainly cognisant of some portion of his action in England. Fitzherbert, writing from Paris (February 1586-7), hoped that he would 'prove honest.' In the spring of 1587 he travelled to Rheims and Rouen under the name of Jaques Colerdin. At Rheims he was ordained priest (14 March 1586-7), and expressed an intention of seeking a professorship at Rome. In 1588 he was again at Paris, dressed as disguised priests dressed in England. He quarrelled with Sir Charles Arundel, one of the chief English catholic exiles, who accused him of writing against the jesuits. In December 1688 he was found in a brothel and brought before the bishop of Paris. The bishop committed him to prison; Sir Edward Stafford, the English ambassador, made some endeavours to procure his release, but Gifford thought to serve his own ends better by bringing serious charges against Stafford. His catholic enemies proved more powerful than he anticipated, and he died in prison in November 1590. He announced to Walsingham in 1588 the arrival in Paris of Father John Gerard, and is said to have written to Cardinal Allen while in prison an account of the injuries he had done the catholic cause.




      Source:

      Lee, Sidney L. "Gilbert Gifford."
      Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. VII. Leslie Stephen and Sidney Lee, Eds.
      New York: The Macmillan Company, 1908. 1181-1182.




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