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Man in the Know The Queen’s Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth I

By John Cooper (Faber & Faber 375pp £20)

Throughout his long career Francis Walsingham dedicated himself to identifying and eradicating his country’s internal and external enemies. This grim ideologue is hardly the most sympathetic character of the Elizabethan age, but even those who most strongly disapprove of him cannot deny his energy and efficiency. For nearly twenty years Walsingham served Elizabeth I as her principal secretary, a post with multifarious responsibilities relating to domestic and foreign policy, and ‘subject to more cumber and variableness’ than any other in the kingdom. It is, however, as Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster that he is principally remembered. In that role, depending upon one’s point of view, he either performed wonders in safeguarding national security or acted as a merciless instrument of tyranny.

Walsingham was, literally, a militant Protestant. He constantly urged on Elizabeth the necessity of armed intervention on the Continent in favour of co-religionists who were suffering at the hands of Catholic monarchs. He argued that since the kings of France and Spain would turn against England once they had rooted out Protestantism within their own countries, it was in Elizabeth’s interests to aid those monarchs’ embattled Calvinist subjects. Yet what John Cooper calls ‘foreign policy driven by faith’ was not to the liking of the more pragmatic Queen Elizabeth. She had scruples about helping insurgents against anointed sovereigns, and rightly feared becoming embroiled in costly overseas conflicts. Such differences of opinion meant that her relations with Walsingham were frequently difficult. She once threw her slipper at him in a rage, and Walsingham complained of being the recipient of ‘many thwarts and hard speeches’. Unlike his colleague Lord Burghley, who amassed a fortune in royal service, he received few rewards at Elizabeth’s hands, and died heavily indebted. But while Elizabeth often found his advice distasteful, she knew the importance of being told what she did not want to hear, and she did not lightly reject his counsel. As for Walsingham, although there were many occasions when tensions between him and the Queen made him ‘weary of the

Walsingham: spycatcher place I serve in’, he remained in harness until his death in 1590.

Walsingham not only regarded it as naive to think that the Catholic powers on the Continent would refrain from attacking Elizabeth at the first opportunity, but he was equally adamant that the Queen’s own Catholic subjects menaced her safety. Accordingly he was tireless in hunting down the missionary priests who came into England after being trained at foreign seminaries to minister to those who clung to the outlawed Roman faith. The secretary kept himself abreast of Catholic activities by placing undercover agents in the gaols where Papists were incarcerated, hoping that unwary prisoners would confide secrets to those masquerading as friendly fellow inmates. He never doubted that captured priests merited execution, dismissing the argument that their work was purely spiritual and should not be construed as treason. His only worry was that what he indignantly termed the ‘constancy or rather obstinacy’ that the priests displayed on the scaffold would inspire compassion in onlookers and persuade some to embrace Catholicism.

It was in ferreting out Catholic plots against the Queen that Walsingham displayed his greatest ingenuity. He extracted information using the rack and the manacles, commenting on one occasion: ‘Without torture I know we shall not prevail.’ Catholic correspondence was intercepted and then entrusted to experts who opened and resealed letters with such skill that it was impossible to tell any tampering had taken place. Many of the letters were written in cipher, but this did not prevent Walsingham from discovering their contents. In a fascinating section Cooper outlines the methods used to encode letters, and the sophisticated techniques adopted by Walsingham’s cryptographers. At crucial times their task was made easier because Walsingham had in his pay a mole at the French embassy, who supplied him with the key to the various ciphers used by the Queen’s enemies. The Frenchman was only one of many double agents within Walsingham’s espionage web. Knowing ‘excellently well how to win men’s minds unto him, and to apply them to his own uses’, he turned Catholic operatives who fell into his clutches, ensuring that in future they passed on all the information entrusted to them.

Walsingham’s aim in all this was not simply to protect the Queen’s life and to gain forewarning of projected foreign invasions. He wanted to link the captive Mary Stuart to conspiracies against Elizabeth, and to uncover evidence that would force the Queen to execute her royal prisoner. Convinced that ‘so long as that devilish woman liveth’ his sovereign would never be safe, Walsingham devoted intense effort to proving that Mary was involved in criminal enterprises.

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