Remembering with beads: Anthony Babington’s rosary

A rosary is designed to help Christian believers remember the principal events in the life of Christ and his mother Mary. It operates as a mnemonic through the sense of touch: the experience of fingering each prayer bead provokes meditation upon the holy mysteries of the history of salvation. Especially associated with the Dominican friars, who promoted this form of private devotion as a component of their veneration of the Virgin, in the wake of the Counter Reformation the rosary became a powerful symbol of confessional identity and militancy. In countries such as England where Catholicism was a persecuted minority, its possession and use was both an act of religious resistance and an incriminating sign of adherence to a false religion. The example illustrated here is associated with Anthony Babington, the young nobleman convicted of conspiring with Mary Queen of Scots to assassinate Elizabeth I and executed as a traitor in London in September 1586. It is said that he used this rosary in the Tower of London and held it as he expired. Its survival attests to its preservation as a relic of a man who some regarded not as a terrorist intent upon murdering his anointed monarch, but as a glorious martyr for the Catholic cause. AW

The Babington Rosary

York Minster

Further reading

Anne Winston-Allen, Stories of the Rose: The Making of the Rosary in the Middle Ages (Pennsylvania, 1997)

Anne Dillon, ‘Praying by Number: The Confraternity of the Rosary and the English Catholic Community, c. 1580-1700’, History, 88 (2003), 451-71.

Lisa McClain, ‘Using What’s at Hand: English Catholic Reinterpretations of the Rosary, 1559–1642’, Journal of Religious History, 27 (2005), 161–76.

Penry Williams, ‘Babington, Anthony (1561-1586)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Bibliography (Oxford, 2004), (accessed 23 July 2017).

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