Francis Walsingham: Life Story

Chapter 11 : Plots

Walsingham returned to England, and his duties as Principal Secretary. Over the following years he greatly expanded the element of the Secretaryship which dealt with information gathering. He and Burghley had already built up a network of informers and agents. The majority were genuine merchants, diplomats, students and others who travelled widely or lived abroad but some were professional ‘intelligencers’ or spies.

They would gather information locally, using friends and informers, and send it back to Walsingham’s headquarters at his house in Seething Lane, London. There, he and his assistants would create codes, decipher messages, and plan campaigns. He began to recruit agents in more dangerous places – suborning a member of the French ambassador’s household to pass copies of correspondence from Mary, Queen of Scots.

Walsingham was by no means the first government official to use spies. Fifty years before, Thomas Cromwell had had numerous informers, but Walsingham developed the practice into a more-or-less official arm of government. Elizabeth, however little she liked listening to his gloomy warnings, believed in his devotion to her security, and knighted him in 1577. He was also honoured with the post of Chancellor of the Order of the Garter.

Despite the workload of the Secretaryship, Elizabeth still prized Walsingham’s diplomatic skills. In 1583, he was sent on embassy to James VI – the purpose was to encourage the Scots king to accept an English pension, in return for maintaining the positive relations with England that had been built up by his regents, and abandoning any ideas of reviving the Auld Alliance with France.

Pessimistic as ever, Walsingham thought that the only language the young king would hear was that of the sword. Rather than treating the seventeen-year-old king with the deference that might have been expected, Walsingham harangued him with threats and told him that ‘young princes were many time carried into great errors upon an opinion of the absoluteness of their royal authority and do not consider that when they transgress the bounds and limits of the law they leave to be kings, and become tyrants.’

This was not the sort of language that kings expected to hear, and Walsingham realised that he had allowed his tongue to run away with him, in pronouncements that Elizabeth might feel were aimed at her as well. He wrote to Burghley for advice. He hastened to say, for transmission to the queen, that he believed James was going beyond the bounds of acceptable kingship.

Worried though Walsingham may have been about offending the queen, he continued to exceed his authority by sounding out Scottish lords who might be persuaded to ‘bridle and forceJames to depend on Elizabeth, rather than French or Spanish support. Elizabeth, disinclined as always to undermine other monarchs, refused to be party to such a scheme.

There was some good news for Walsingham – in September 1583, his fifteen-year-old daughter married Sir Philip Sidney, whose Protestant credentials and zeal for the cause matched Walsingham’s own.

Whilst Walsingham had been absent in Scotland, his agents were still intercepting the correspondence of the Queen of Scots. A young man named Francis Throckmorton (whose father had been vice-President of the Council for Wales and the Marches, to Sir Henry Sidney) confessed, after torture, that he had been carrying letters for Queen Mary, as part of an international conspiracy to free her, and to put her on the English throne. Queen Mary’s cousin,  Duke Henri of Guise, the English priest, Robert Parsons, and the Spanish ambassador to England, Mendoza, were all implicated. Nothing concrete could be attributed to Mary herself.

A conspiracy in favour of Mary first hatched in 1582 was also discovered – it was predicated on an overwhelming Spanish victory in the Netherlands, and this knowledge was enough for Elizabeth’s council to increase pressure on her to aid the Dutch. It was finally agreed that significant support would be given to the Dutch, and Walsingham’s friend, Leicester, was dispatched to lead the forces. Philip Sidney also joined the expedition.

At home, the Bond of Association was approved by Parliament, Walsingham being one of its greatest proponents. The Bond, which became seen as a sign of patriotism, provided that all the signatories would band together to avenge Elizabeth if she were assassinated. Parliament also passed a law that any beneficiary of an assassination would be accounted guilty of treason, even if he or she had had no hand in the crime. This was squarely aimed at Queen Mary and James VI. Whilst this may seem to be overkill, and not every loyal Protestant subject was comfortable with the Bond, the assassination of William of Orange in 1584 made fears for Elizabeth’s safety realistic.