This article was first published in the October 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine


Looking around him in the winter of 1583, Sir Francis Walsingham saw treason lurking in every corner. A young gentleman named John Somerville had been picked up on the road from Warwickshire, waving a pistol and threatening to see the queen’s head stuck on a pole. Renegade Catholic priests were spreading their ‘poison’ among subjects in the north and the West Country. A Jesuit mission was trying to tempt King James VI to invade from Scotland.

The most shocking discovery had been made in London, where Francis Throckmorton was caught in the act of selling secrets to hostile foreign powers. His interrogation in the Tower of London revealed that an army had begun to assemble in Normandy, bankrolled by Philip II and co-ordinated by English exiles in Paris. A rebellion of the Catholic nobility had been timed to coincide with the invasion.

As Queen Elizabeth's security chief, Walsingham was haunted by the fear that England would succumb to the tyranny of Rome. His advice to the queen sounded a constant alarm, to wake up to the Catholic threat at home and abroad. One of his earliest surviving letters, written when he was working as an agent of Elizabeth's chief advisor William Cecil, warned that "there is nothing more dangerous than security". It seems an odd thing to say, until we realise that 'security' in Elizabethan English meant overconfidence or carelessness – what we would call a false sense of security.

Appointed principal secretary to the queen, Walsingham saw it as his God-given role to protect her from harm. Time after time, that meant convincing Elizabeth to take action when all her political instincts told her to delay. Why was Elizabeth in danger? We think of the Virgin Queen, the magnificent ‘cult of Elizabeth’ at the royal court and popular celebrations in the towns and countryside. No previous monarch had inspired the bonfires and bell-ringing which marked the anniversary of Elizabeth’s accession day each 17 November. But public displays of loyalty were organised in the knowledge that her rule was less secure than it appeared. Broad as it was, the Elizabethan church settlement still excluded those who believed in the real presence of Christ in the mass, or who could not accept the queen as supreme governor of the church.

By the mid-1570s, Catholic recusants (from the Latin for ‘to refuse’) were cutting themselves off from English parish life. They turned instead to missionary priests ordained in Douai, Rheims and Rome. The majority wanted simply to be left alone to practise their religion in private. But a smaller number of political radicals were not prepared to wait until all memory of the old faith had faded away. Encouraged by their spiritual leader, Cardinal William Allen, they began to plot as well as pray for revolution.

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Walsingham’s psychology was deeply rooted in his Protestant belief. His lawyer father had died when he was an infant, leaving Francis in the care of his mother’s family. His uncle Sir Anthony Denny was close to Henry VIII during the 1540s, keeping Protestant hope alive at court when the king’s own enthusiasm had waned.

Walsingham’s faith was quickened by his studies at King’s College Cambridge and Gray’s Inn during the radical years of Edward VI’s Reformation. Unlike his future colleague William Cecil, he chose exile in Switzerland and Italy rather than accept the old religion restored by Queen Mary in 1553.

The burning of Protestant preachers and laypeople forever linked Catholicism with persecution in Walsingham’s eyes, a world view terrifyingly confirmed when he witnessed the St Bartholomew’s Day massacres as ambassador to Paris in 1572. When he joined the privy council as secretary to the queen the following year, Walsingham had the chance to put his Protestantism into action.

Researching my book The Queen's Agent, I was struck by Walsingham's ability to recruit agents from deep within the Catholic community. The state papers in the National Archives and the British Library introduce some remarkable characters who worked in the Elizabethan secret service. Some were godly Protestants, like Walsingham himself, but others were motivated by power or the chance for profit.

Nicholas Berden’s credibility in Catholic circles left him free to circulate among English exiles in Rome and Paris, and whatever he learned was passed on to Walsingham. Berden claimed to be inspired by “the safety of my native country”, but he also enriched himself with bribes from Catholic gentlemen desperate to protect their families at home. Arrested as a Catholic priest, Anthony Tyrell chose to defect rather than to die; his reward for turning informer was a Church of England living on the Essex marshes.

Most enigmatic of all is Gilbert Gifford, the boyish Catholic missionary who convinced the Catholic Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots – effectively a captive in England since her doomed attempt to seek asylum in 1568 – that he could smuggle letters out of her country-house prison without them being read by her enemies. As Mary discovered at her trial, the operation was a sting: Walsingham himself had set it up, assisted by his chief cryptographer, Thomas Phelippes, who drew a gallows on his copy of Mary’s letter, activating the 1586 Babington Plot.

But Gifford’s role is hard to read, not least because he subsequently slipped back to Paris to be ordained as a priest. Perhaps he had hoped to cut the political radicalism out of English Catholicism, gambling that Elizabeth would never allow Mary to be executed; or maybe he simply wanted to save his own skin. Whatever lay behind Gifford’s bargain with Walsingham, his moral flexibility contrasts with the stoicism of other Catholic priests on the scaffold, facing death with a calm which soon saw them venerated as martyrs.

Was the playwright Christopher Marlowe a Walsingham spy? Marlowe was mysteriously absent from his Cambridge college for a period in the mid-1580s, when the Catholic mission to reclaim England was at its most intense. The case rests on the order of the privy council to award Marlowe his MA on grounds that he had been involved “in matters touching the benefit of this country”. Beyond this is mainly rumour, but there is some intriguing circumstantial evidence to link him to Walsingham. Marlowe was close to Francis’s cousin Thomas Walsingham, a literary patron who saw some service as a courier for the crown. Richard Baines, a turncoat Catholic priest who alleged that Marlowe was both an atheist and a homosexual, was Walsingham’s mole in the English seminary in Rheims.

My hunch is that Marlowe was already too well-known to have gone undercover in France. But he could certainly have informed on the connections between the university and the Catholic community in exile.

Box of examinations

Walsingham’s London house in Seething Lane no longer exists, but a handwritten inventory gives us a glimpse into the contents of his study. Lists of the recusant Catholics in every county were filed with a ‘box of examinations’ of papists and priests. There was a ‘secret cabinet’ where Walsingham’s will was found the day after his death. Secretaries guarded his cipher-alphabets and conducted experiments with invisible ink. Maps of the fortifications at Dover harbour and the English plantations in Ireland testify to the breadth of his responsibilities in government, while documents relating to “the discovery of unknown counties” remind us that he was patron to the explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert.

When the royal court moved up the river to Richmond, Walsingham had another house at Barn Elms: modest by the standards of Cecil’s mansions, but boasting a garden full of exotica and enough stabling for his formidable postal system. Elizabeth visited Barn Elms on several occasions, acknowledging her debt of gratitude to Walsingham despite their often-turbulent personal relationship.

Walsingham’s control of official correspondence made him a key player in what is sometimes called the ‘monarchical republic’ of Elizabeth I. Like Cecil and the Earl of Leicester, Walsingham believed that it was his duty to govern for the queen if her womanly ‘irresolution’ left her incapable of taking the necessary steps to ensure her own safety.

Her councillors’ exasperation at Elizabeth’s reluctance to commit took dramatic form in February 1587, when a meeting at Seething Lane secretly authorised the release of Mary Stuart’s death warrant. Elizabeth’s fury when she found out is legendary. But Walsingham had achieved the outcome for which he had been working since his days as ambassador to France.

Security meant more than protecting the queen’s person from an assassin’s bullet. It was intricately bound up with foreign policy, which for Walsingham was based on the principle of taking the fight to the enemy. Her duty to God, as well as her own safety, demanded that Elizabeth become protector to the embattled Protestant communities in the Netherlands and France. But Cecil was painfully aware that England could not sustain a lengthy military campaign.

The voices of her two closest councillors can be heard giving conflicting advice to the queen, Cecil playing to Elizabeth’s natural sense of caution while Walsingham urged her to stand up to Spain. Cecil was nearly always the favourite, but his disgrace following Mary’s execution gave Walsingham enough space to argue that Francis Drake should be unleashed “to annoy the King of Spain”. The resulting raid on Cadiz was a spectacular success, delaying the Armada for a year while also revealing the massive scale of Spanish mobilisation. Walsingham’s construction of a new fortified harbour at Dover suddenly seemed worth all the expense.

The death of Mary Stuart and the sea-war against Spain were major victories for Walsingham, but he didn’t have it all his own way. Paris was the nerve-centre of the English Catholic resistance, yet Walsingham’s spy network in the city was repeatedly disrupted by Elizabeth’s ambassador to the French court. Sir Edward Stafford was a gambler, in politics as well as his private life. To keep his creditors at bay, Stafford struck a cash-for-secrets deal with his Spanish counterpart and the Duke of Guise, who had hoped to lead the invasion of England in 1583. Walsingham knew that Stafford was leaking statistics about Elizabeth’s navy, and yet Stafford remained in post, protected by his mother Lady Dorothy’s position as a gentlewoman of Elizabeth’s privy chamber.

When Walsingham lost his long struggle against illness in 1590, he had little to show for his 20 years in royal service. The offices which the queen had grudgingly granted him barely covered his costs as principal secretary, let alone the debts which he inherited from his son-in-law Sir Philip Sidney. William Cecil founded a political dynasty, but there was no one to inherit Walsingham’s network of agents or carry forward his legacy. Walsingham’s enemies condemned him as the agent of a tyrannical state, while even his allies preferred to forget about his methods.

There is no denying that his role as Elizabeth’s security chief led Walsingham into some very dark places. However, for him the ends justified the means: entrapment, blackmail and torture were all legitimate tactics in the war against the Antichrist. “Above all things,” he told Leicester in 1571, “I wish God’s glory and next the queen’s safety.” Queen Elizabeth survived, and Walsingham’s conscience was clear.

Dr John Cooper teaches history at the University of York. He is historical consultant to the Royal Armouries and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. His book The Queen's Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth I is published by Faber and Faber in October.

The climate of fear

Walsingham's success in placing his agents within the English Catholic community made it impossible to know who to trust. Catholic plotter Anthony Babington’s friend ‘sweet Robin’ kept Walsingham supplied with intelligence about the plan to free Mary Stuart and kill the queen. Ordained as a missionary priest in Rome, Anthony Tyrell turned informer on the congregations attending his secret masses. Stool-pigeons were dropped into jails to see what they could learn from the Catholic prisoners.

Walsingham’s undercover operations were accompanied by a relentless campaign of propaganda and violence. In 1585 priests and Jesuits were given 40 days to leave the realm on pain of treason. Catholicism survived the reign of Elizabeth, in country houses with their priest-holes, and in distant parts of the kingdom such as Lancashire, Wales and Cornwall. But the human cost was dreadfully high: 200 priests and laypeople executed, many now venerated as martyrs by the Roman Catholic church.

Plots foiled, failed and imagined

Walsingham was introduced to intelligence work by William Cecil. When Roberto di Ridolfi was arrested in 1569 for laundering money for the Queen of Scots, Walsingham was entrusted with his interrogation. Elizabeth allowed Ridolfi back to Italy, where he persuaded the pope to fund a Catholic uprising under the Duke of Norfolk. But news of the plot leaked, Norfolk was executed, and the Queen of Scots revealed in her true colours. Was Ridolfi the first of Walsingham's double agents?

We can be more certain about Francis Throckmorton, caught up in a conspiracy between Philip II and the Duke of Guise to restore Catholicism to England. When Walsingham's men broke into his house in November 1583, they discovered a letter to Mary Stuart and a list of English harbours where foreign troops could land. "Somewhat pinched" on the rack, Throckmorton revealed that English nobles would have mobilised a fifth column to support the invasion.

The Throckmorton plot sealed the fate of John Somerville, a disturbed young man imprisoned for threatening to shoot the queen. Government propaganda seized on Somerville's story as further evidence of treason within the Catholic community. When he was found strangled in his cell, the crown tried to claim it was suicide.

The facts of the 1586 Babington Plot have been established beyond reasonable doubt. Walsingham authorised a dead-letter drop for the Queen of Scots; Mary used it to plot Elizabeth's assassination with Anthony Babington. Yet mystery still surrounds Gilbert Gifford, the double agent who persuaded Mary that she was safe to talk to her supporters. Gifford was subsequently ordained as a Catholic priest in Paris: still spying for Walsingham, or to atone for Mary's execution?

Walsingham the wedding planner

Walsingham is mainly remembered as a spymaster, but the state papers also reveal his long struggle with the queen’s marriage. Elizabeth faced the same problem that had tormented her sister Mary: until she gave birth to an heir, no one could be sure that the religious question had been settled for good. And as a descendant of Henry VII, the Catholic Queen of Scots had the next best claim to the throne.

Rhetorically, Elizabeth was wedded to England. But she knew it was her duty to settle the succession, and in 1571 she despatched Walsingham to France to make her a match. The Duke of Anjou was 19 and a devout Catholic; Elizabeth was 38, and would never allow the mass to be celebrated on her soil. Walsingham sweated to reconcile French and English demands, but the death of 5,000 Protestants during the St Bartholomew’s Day massacres took the marriage off the agenda and harrowed Walsingham to the core.

When talks resumed in 1579, they focused on the even-younger Duke of Alençon. Walsingham was now opposed to a French match, which would bring ‘diversity in religion’ and subject the ageing queen to the danger of childbirth. Yet Elizabeth became deeply attached to her ‘Frog’, showering him with gifts and inviting him into her privy chamber.


Walsingham withdrew from court, his health in ruins. Only in 1581 did Elizabeth finally give in, attending a pageant in which amorous knights were repulsed from the Castle of Perfect Beauty. From now on, she would be the Virgin Queen.