Walsingham, Francis

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Francis Walsingham

BORN: 1532 • Kent, England

DIED: September 6, 1590 • London, England

English statesman; spy

Francis Walsingham, who served as secretary of state to Queen Elizabeth I (1533–1603; see entry), organized and ran a vast spy network that kept the English informed about the potentially dangerous activities of rival powers, especially France and Spain. He also oversaw spy operations within England itself. He uncovered several plots against the queen, including one supported by Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots; 1542–1590; see entry). The fact that Elizabeth lived to enjoy a long and prosperous reign was due in large part to the work Walsingham did to keep her safe from her many enemies.

"There is less danger in fearing too much than too little."

Early life and education

Francis Walsingham was the only son of William Walsingham, a lawyer, and his wife, Joyce Denny. The family lived at Footscray in Kent, where Francis's birth most likely took place. William died when Francis was an infant, and Joyce Walsingham then married Sir John Carey, who was related by marriage to the family of Queen Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn (1507–1536).

Walsingham attended King's College at Cambridge University from 1548 to 1550, but he left without obtaining a degree. He spent the next two years traveling in Europe, where he learned Italian and French. When he returned to England he enrolled at Gray's Inn in London to prepare for a career in law and government. Soon after this, however, Mary I (1516–1558; see entry) became queen and began taking steps to restore the Roman Catholic religion in England.

Mary's father, Henry VIII (1491–1547; see entry), had rejected the authority of the Catholic pope and made himself the supreme head of the church in England. He took away property from Catholic monasteries and churches, and he outlawed the practice of the Catholic religion. He even executed Catholic leaders, including Sir Thomas More (1478–1535), who refused to accept his religious authority. Mary, however, had remained a Catholic, and she was determined to bring her religion back into power. To reduce Protestant power, she took away the Protestants' land and money. In many cases Protestants were convicted of heresy, or opinions that oppose established church doctrines (principles), and burned at the stake. England under Mary's rule was not a safe place for a loyal Protestant such as Walsingham.

The young Walsingham went back to Europe. He continued his study of languages, becoming one of the top linguists of his time. (Linguists study languages.) He also met many kinds of people and learned how to relate to them—a skill that would prove extremely valuable in his later career as a politician and spymaster.

After Elizabeth took the throne in 1558 and reestablished Protestant rule, Walsingham returned to England and began his political career. He was admitted to the bar as a lawyer in 1562 and the following year was elected to Parliament, England's legislative body. He married Ann Carteill, a widow with a son, in 1562. She died two years later, and in 1566 he married Ursula St. Barbe Worseley, the widow of Sir Richard Worseley. Ursula had two young sons from her first marriage, making Walsingham stepfather to three boys. But Ursula's sons were killed soon after the marriage; the boys had been playing with gunpowder when they died in an accidental explosion. Walsingham and his second wife had one daughter, Frances.

Diplomacy and espionage

The queen's secretary of state William Cecil (Lord Burghley; 1520–1598; see entry), soon discovered that Walsingham possessed great political talent. He employed Walsingham to find out whatever he could about foreign spies in London. Tensions were high at this time between England and its primary rivals, France and Spain, and Cecil needed to know in advance about any plots against England. Walsingham performed this job well, and Cecil recommended that the queen send him to France as her ambassador.

In France, which was still strongly Catholic, Walsingham tried to negotiate a marriage between Elizabeth and Henry (1551–1589), the brother of King Charles IX (1550–1574) of France. (Henry later became King Henry III.) This marriage would make France a strong ally of England and would help England overcome threats from Spain. But Elizabeth had no intention of marrying anyone, and Walsingham eventually abandoned this attempt. He went on to negotiate a defensive alliance between England and France, the Treaty of Blos, in 1572.

Later that year, when an uprising broke out against Spanish rule in the Netherlands, Walsingham convinced Charles IX to support the French Huguenots, Protestants who challenged Roman Catholic political power, who were aiding the rebels. After the rebels were defeated, though, the Huguenots faced increasing hostility in France. On August 24, 1572, rioting began in Paris as Catholic mobs raided Protestant districts of the city. The riots, which soon spread to other parts of the country, lasted for several days and resulted in the deaths of an estimated three thousand people in Paris alone. With anti-Protestant feeling at such an extreme, Walsingham felt it was dangerous for him to remain in Paris. He begged the queen to recall him to London, but she kept him at his ambassadorial post until 1573. By acting with great caution and diplomatic skill, Walsingham was able to establish friendly relations again with Charles's court before he finally left France. Even so, the traumatic experience of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, as the event became known, hardened Walsingham's negative view of Catholics and made him even more determined to resist their cause in England.

After returning to London in December 1573, Walsingham was admitted to the queen's Privy Council, the board of advisors that carried out the administrative function of the government in matters of economy, defense, foreign policy, and law and order, and its members served as the queen's chief advisors. He also became secretary of state, a position he kept until his death. He was elected to Parliament again in 1576, and was knighted in 1577. (A knight is a man granted a rank of honor by the monarch for his personal merit or service to the country.) In 1578 he was named chancellor of the Order of the Garter, the most distinguished order of English knighthood. Though Walsingham was not wealthy, he supported artistic and scientific ventures, including voyages of exploration, when he could afford to do so. The writer Richard Hakluyt (1552–1616; see entry) dedicated the first edition of his tales of exploration to Walsingham in thanks for his support.

Organized spy network

By the late 1560s Cecil had grown more worried about Catholic plots against Elizabeth. Mary Stuart, a cousin of the queen and a Catholic, had been forced to step down as queen of Scotland, and she had fled to England in 1568 in hopes that Elizabeth would protect her. Though Elizabeth agreed to this, allowing Mary to live in England under guard, Cecil was extremely suspicious of Mary. He feared that she would inspire Catholics to overthrow Elizabeth and make Mary queen instead. Although he kept a close watch on Mary, Cecil soon realized that he needed a whole organization of spies to keep him adequately informed about possible conspiracies. He knew just the man to create and run such a network: Walsingham.

Walsingham excelled at this new job. He hired many new undercover agents, increasing the number of English spies to more than fifty. He recruited many spies at Oxford and Cambridge universities. Without sufficient funding from the government, he paid many of his agents from his own income. Walsingham established a spy school to give agents the professional training they needed. In addition to traveling and seeking information, for example, they needed to know how to decipher coded messages. Some codes simply replaced regular letters of the alphabet with a set of shuffled letters or symbols. In other cases conspirators used invisible ink, made of onion or lemon juice, to write secret messages that could not be seen under normal conditions. When the paper was held near a candle, the invisible words appeared. In another method of secret communication, conspirators would write out a message that seemed innocent. But when it was covered with another paper that had a series of holes punched in it, the letters and words that showed through the holes conveyed the secret message.

The queen trusted Walsingham, though she did not make him one of her favorites. She often said that he knew her mind well. Sometimes, as a joke, she called him her "Moor," a term that referred to dark-skinned people from North Africa, because he always dressed in dark clothing and had a dark complexion. More often, however, she called him her "Spirit," because he guided her government so well. Walsingham seemed to be everywhere and to know everything that was happening, not only in London but in foreign nations as well. He became known, and often feared, as a man who could discover any secret.

The Throckmorton plot

In 1583 Walsingham uncovered a plot involving Francis Throckmorton (1554–1584), an English Catholic. Throckmorton had traveled to Europe and had befriended English Catholics there who were devising a plan to remove Elizabeth from power. According to this plan, French troops would invade England, free Mary Stuart, and restore Catholicism. Throckmorton returned to London to organize communications.

Walsingham learned of the plan and had Throckmorton arrested. At the time of his arrest Throckmorton was encoding a letter to Mary Stuart. He also had a list with the names of his co-conspirators and papers that identified locations that would be poorly protected against invasion. Throckmorton denied everything at first, saying that the men who arrested him had planted the papers on him. But Walsingham refused to believe this. Throckmorton was tortured on the rack to make him confess. His wrists and ankles were tied to a frame that was then stretched to cause intense pain. Throckmorton refused to confess after his first day on the rack. Walsingham ordered another day of torture, after which Throckmorton gave a full confession.

Throckmorton was executed for treason in July 1584. As was the custom for those found guilty of serious crimes, he was hanged, drawn, and quartered. In this especially cruel type of execution, the condemned man was first hanged, then cut down while still alive, disemboweled, hacked into pieces, and finally beheaded. The Spanish ambassador to England, who had been one of Throckmorton's chief contacts, was expelled from London.

The Babington conspiracy

In 1586 Walsingham discovered that Mary Stuart was communicating with Anthony Babington (1561–1586), the leader of a group of English Catholics. Walsingham suspected that she was part of a conspiracy to assassinate Elizabeth, but he had no real proof. So he used an undercover agent, Gilbert Gifford, to help get evidence that would convict Mary of treason.

Walsingham arranged for Gifford to act as a double agent. Pretending to sympathize with Mary, Gifford offered to carry letters between Mary and her supporters. He arranged for the letters that she sent and received to be placed in a beer barrel that was delivered to her residence, which was always under guard. Mary agreed to this plan, thinking that her communications would be hidden. But all of her messages were intercepted. Walsingham's agents deciphered the letters, reported their contents, resealed the letters, and sent them on to Mary as if nothing had happened. The correspondence continued without Mary suspecting that the government was aware of her secrets. Meanwhile, Walsingham ordered Gifford to befriend the English Catholics who were part of this plot. Gifford encouraged them to continue with their plans. Eventually he obtained what Walsingham needed: a letter from Mary to Babington that confirmed her support of the plot to assassinate the queen.

Walsingham had Babington and the other plotters arrested immediately. On September 13, 1586, they were tried and found guilty of treason. One week later they were hanged, drawn, and quartered in front of a huge crowd of onlookers.

Political Assassinations

Francis Walsingham's secret service operated at a time when the threat of political assassinations was very real. Attempts to murder kings and nobles often succeeded. William the Silent (1533–1581), leader of the Netherlands, survived an assassination attempt in 1582 but was killed by an assassin two years later. Henry III (1551–1589) of France died in 1589 after being stabbed with a poison dagger. Poison was so feared as a political weapon that people sometimes blamed it for deaths that probably had resulted from natural causes. For example, people believed a rumor that an uncle of Mary Stuart had died after handling coins that had been dipped in poison. In fact historians believe it is more likely that he died from a disease. In later times a story arose concerning a plot to kill Elizabeth with a poison dress. There is no evidence, though, of any poisonous clothing ever being sent to her court.

An actual plot to poison Queen Elizabeth was discovered in 1594. Roderigo Lopez, a Jewish physician who had moved to London from Portugal, was found guilty of this crime and executed. Evidence at the time seemed to show that he had been hired by the king of Spain to assassinate Elizabeth. Some modern historians, however, have questioned whether Lopez was actually the guilty party.

Though Walsingham urged Queen Elizabeth to execute Mary Stuart, the queen wished to avoid this extreme action. Even after Parliament insisted that Elizabeth sign Mary's death warrant, the queen refused. Finally, after repeated urgings from Cecil and Walsingham, Elizabeth reluctantly signed the warrant. Cecil and Walsingham immediately ordered the execution to take place. Mary was beheaded on February 8, 1587. Walsingham also had Mary's dead body stripped, her clothes burned, and her corpse sealed in a lead case.

The queen regretted Mary's execution and was so angry that Walsingham at first feared for his own safety. But Elizabeth eventually realized that he had acted in her best interests. Meanwhile, Walsingham was receiving extensive reports about Spanish preparations to launch an invasion of England. He tried to convince the queen to prepare for war, but she was slow in taking his advice. Walsingham's agents in Spain continued to intercept letters and orders that detailed Spanish war plans. This intelligence helped England plan a strong defense when the Spanish Armada, or navy, sailed against England in 1588. After several inconclusive battles in the English Channel, the Armada was blown off course by tremendous winds. England chased the Spanish ships north. As the Armada attempted to return to Spain, it encountered a severe storm that destroyed most of its ships. With the Armada defeated, England was safe.

During the last few years of his life Walsingham suffered ill health and heartbreak. His daughter's husband, Philip Sidney (1554–1586; see entry), who had been Walsingham's close friend, died of an infected wound received during a military campaign against the Spanish in the Netherlands. Not only did Walsingham lose his good friend and son-in-law, but he also inherited Sidney's debts and faced significant financial hardship in paying them off. Though Walsingham hoped that the queen would grant him some financial favors, she declined. He lived in relative poverty after that, and died in debt on April 6, 1590. He was buried, as he had requested, at St. Paul's Church in London.

In creating the most modern and efficient secret service of his time, Walsingham did more than any other person to protect the queen's personal safety. His espionage system became a model for later government agencies such as the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) in England and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the United States.

For More Information


Budiansky, Stephen. Her Majesty's Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage. New York: Viking, 2005.


Morris, Holly J. "Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid," U.S. News & World Report, January 27, 2003, p. 50.


Briscoe, Alexandra. "Elizabeth's Spy Network." BBC: Church and State: Monarchs and Leaders. http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/state/monarchs_leaders/spying_01.shtml (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"Conspiring Against the Queen." Renaissance Secrets. http://www.open2.net/home/view?entityID=15184&jsp=themed_learning%2Fexpanding_viewer&sessionID=−1152639025080&Name=object (accessed on July 11, 2006).

Freer, Alan. "Francis Walsingham: Elizabethan Spymaster." British Heritage. http://www.historynet.com/bh/blelizabethanspymaster/index.html (accessed on July 11, 2006).

"Sir Francis Walsingham, Knight." Tudor Place. http://www.tudorplace.com.ar/Bios/FrancisWalsingham.htm (accessed on July 11, 2006).