Queen Elizabeth I had a triumvirate of intelligent, capable and industrious men who served on her council for many years. There was William Cecil, Lord Burghley who served as Secretary of State and Lord High Treasurer. Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester, was Elizabeth’s favorite and probably the love of her life. He served faithfully and diligently as a Privy Councilor. Probably the least recognized of the three was Francis Walsingham. He is best known as Elizabeth’s “spymaster”.
Francis Walsingham was born, probably in Chislehurst, Kent c. 1532 into a wealthy Protestant family. His father was William Walsingham, a successful London lawyer and his mother was Joyce Denny, daughter of Sir Edmund Denny. Francis was enrolled as a student at King’s College, Cambridge until 1550-1 when he began travelling on the Continent. He returned to England in 1552 and enrolled at Gray’s Inn to qualify to be a lawyer. When the young, Protestant King Edward VI died in 1553, he was succeeded his elder sister, Queen Mary Tudor who was a staunch Catholic. Many wealthy Protestants went into exile on the Continent, including Francis. While in exile, he continued his studies in law at universities in Basel, Switzerland and Padua, Italy.
Queen Mary I died five years later and was succeeded on the throne by her Protestant sister, Queen Elizabeth I. Walsingham returned to England and was elected to Elizabeth’s first Parliament. In 1562, he married Anne, daughter of Sir George Barne, Lord Mayor of London. The marriage did not last long as Anne died in 1564. Francis was married again two years later to a widow with an ample estate named Ursula St. Barbe. They had a daughter Frances in 1567 and he bought a house in London.
By 1569, Francis was working with William Cecil to neutralize plots against Queen Elizabeth. One of the first plots invoking the name of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots, who by this time was a prisoner in England, was known as the Ridolfi Plot. A man named Roberto di Ridolfi’s scheme called for the marriage of Mary to the Catholic Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk and an invasion by the Spanish Duke of Alba with 10,000 men from the Netherlands. Elizabeth I would be dethroned, Mary would replace her and England would be brought back to the Catholic fold under the Pope. Francis wrote propaganda denouncing the marriage and would eventually interrogate Ridolfi in his own house. Ridolfi managed to continue to conspire but when his messenger was caught at Dover 1571, he was in Europe at the time and never returned to England. The Duke of Norfolk was arrested and executed in 1572. Mary was confined and watched more closely, being treated essentially as a traitor. She admitted to knowing Ridolfi but not of the plot.
Walsingham was a proponent of a diplomatic alliance with the French as opposed to the Spanish and worked to foster this alliance. He was named the French Ambassador in December 1570. During his time in France he cultivated contacts all over Europe and concluded an agreement with the French. The French Protestants or Hugenots and other European Protestant interests supported a revolt against the Spanish in the Netherlands. Catholic opposition to this Protestant revolt resulted in the murder of the Hugenot leader Gaspard de Coligny and the massacre of many Protestants on Saint Bartholomew’s Day in August of 1572. Francis was in Paris on the day of the massacre and his personal safety was in doubt. He sheltered as many Protestants in his home as he could. Ursula, who was pregnant at the time, fled with their four year old daughter and went back to England a few months later. Francis joined them and his new baby girl Mary in April. He was now considered a trustworthy and competent administrator by the Queen and Cecil.
In December, Francis was appointed to the Privy Council and given the position of joint Principal Secretary eventually becoming sole Secretary. He worked on advancing trade around the world with England and weaving a network of spies. He also retained a seat in Parliament which he held until his death and obtained other minor offices. He was to be knighted in 1577. In 1579, Elizabeth granted him a home at Barn Elms and he travelled to the Netherlands on a special embassy to work out a peace deal and gather military intelligence. In 1580, his younger daughter Mary died. During a period of political unrest in Scotland in 1583, Francis visited the Scottish court on a fruitless mission to further English interests. This assignment was unsuccessful but a mutual defense pact, the Treaty of Berwick was ultimately signed in 1586.
Francis never forgot the atrocities he witnessed during the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre. He demonstrated Protestant zeal in tracking down priests and conspirators and sanctioned the use of torture to garner information. He used informers and intercepted correspondence. On his staff were a cryptographer named Thomas Phelippes who was an expert at deciphering codes and forgeries. Another man named Arthur Gregory was adept at breaking and repairing seals without being detected.
In the early 1580’s there were tensions between England and France. The reign of the French King Henri III was unstable. Francis was finding the English ambassador Edward Stafford to be suspicious and unreliable. In fact, he was in the pay of the Spanish and passing intelligence to them. In 1582, letters from the Spanish ambassador in England, Bernardino de Mendoza were intercepted and found to contain evidence of a conspiracy among Catholic powers to again try to invade England and put Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne. A man named Nicholas Throckmorton was implicated. After six months of surveillance, Throckmorton was arrested and tortured. He named Mendoza under torture resulting in him being expelled from England. Throckmorton was executed in 1584.
Queen Elizabeth’s safety was now decidedly precarious. In March of 1585 Parliament passed the Act for the Surety of the Queen’s Person. This Act allowed for a process to legally try any claimant of the throne connected to plots against Elizabeth. Walsingham instructed the keeper of the Scottish Queen to block any route for clandestine correspondence. He then constructed a secret route by which all incoming and outgoing correspondence could be examined by Phelippes and Gregory by putting the letters in a barrel of beer. In this way, letters from a Catholic nobleman named Anthony Babington were deciphered, showing yet another conspiracy. Only this time, the Scots Queen sanctioned the plot which included plans to assassinate Elizabeth. Babington and his associates were arrested and executed. Mary was put on trial in October 1586 for violating the Surety Act and found guilty. On February 8, 1587, Mary was beheaded at Fotheringhay Castle. Francis was in disgrace with the Queen for a short time over this debacle.
Also during this time, Francis was receiving intelligence from his agents in Europe that the Spanish were making zealous preparations for an English invasion. He worked diligently to prepare the country. With a little luck, good winds, expert ships, captains and sailors, the Spanish Armada was dispersed without any damage to England in August of 1588. Intelligence was a normal part of the principal secretary’s job but Francis was very adept at expanding and exploiting links across the Continent. His industrious preparations, conscientiousness and thoroughness may have saved England and the Queen’s life. He was a ruthless but loyal and faithful servant of the Queen.
Starting in 1571, Francis had numerous health problems and was known to take time off to stay home and try to recuperate. He complained of pains in his head, stomach and back and not being able to pass water. This suggests the possibility of testicular cancer, kidney stones, a urinary infection or diabetes. He was to die at home on April 6, 1590. His burial took place with a simple ceremony the next day and he was buried in Old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.
Resources: “Sir Francis Walsingham: A Courtier in an Age of Terror” by Derek Wilson, “Elizabeth’s Spymaster: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War that Saved England” by Robert Hutchinson, “Her Majesty’s Spymaster” by Stephen Budiansky