Francis Walsingham: Life Story

Chapter 4 : Embassy to France

In December 1570, Walsingham was appointed as ambassador to France, to replace Sir Henry Norris. He sent his retinue ahead on 22nd December, and, after meeting Cecil and Leicester to receive final instructions on 24th, sailed at the end of the month from Dover, arriving at Boulogne on 1st January 1571. The trip to Paris, during which he was greeted by the various town governors, took a fortnight. Just outside the city, at St Denis, he met Sir Henry Norris and other English gentlemen resident in the city. 

Although ambassadors received a daily allowance – Walsingham’s diet was £3 6s 8d - this was never enough to fund the expenses of an embassy: as well as maintaining the household, the ambassador needed to entertain foreign dignitaries and pay his informers. Ambassadors were expected to defray much of the expense themselves. Walsingham, who was not especially wealthy, frequently complained that the post was likely to bring him to beggary.

One area of economy was the location of the house he rented - in the suburb of Saint Marceau on the left bank of the Seine. This was cheaper than the fashionable districts closer to the court and was occupied by tanners and cloth weavers. As was often the case with artisanal communities, Saint Marceau was a Huguenot area, where Walsingham and Ursula could feel at home and worship in the Huguenot Temple, and she joined him there in mid-March.

As the representative of Elizabeth I, Walsingham was treated with great respect, and two days after his arrival in the capital he went to the court to be formally presented to Charles IX, his brothers the Dukes of Anjou and Alencon, and the Queen-Mother, Catherine de’ Medici. Representatives of the Duke of Saxony, the Republic of Venice, the King of Scots (James VI) and the Prince of Orange hurried to pay their respects to the Queen of England’s ambassador. Over the following months, Walsingham regularly attended the court, waiting on King Charles and his brothers, the Queen-Mother, and also the new queen of France, Elisabeth of Austria, daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor. Ursula also attended the court and was received by the royal ladies.

At the heart of Walsingham’s instructions was the need to build an alliance with France, to counterbalance the strength of Spain, in particular, to offer succour to the Low Countries, who, legally ruled by Spain, were attempting to gain some measure of independence. Whilst Protestantism had spread in the Low Countries, it was not simply a matter of religious divide – there were many Catholics in the Low Countries who also wanted independence from Spain.

Walsingham himself never ceased urging Elizabeth to support the rebels, seeing it as a religious struggle. Elizabeth was ambivalent – she did not wish to support rebels against a monarch, and nor did she wish to provoke Spain, but, urged not just by Walsingham, but by Cecil and Leicester, she felt some obligation to aid her co-religionists.  The French government, whilst trying to clamp-down on their own Protestant (Huguenot) population, was eager to undermine Spanish power in the Low Countries.

The year before Walsingham’s arrival in Paris, the treaty of St Germain had granted control of four cities to the Huguenots – La Rochelle, Cognac, Montauban and La Charite – although only for a period of four years. The treaty had been largely the work of Jeanne III, Queen of Navarre, whose brother-in-law, the Prince of Conde, leader of the Huguenots, had been killed in the war leading up to the treaty. It was also agreed that Queen Jeanne’s Huguenot son, Henri of Navarre, would marry Charles IX’s sister, Marguerite.

Walsingham was instructed to encourage the observance of the treaty of St Germain, and to discourage King Charles from sending aid to Mary, Queen of Scots’ supporters in Scotland. Whilst Walsingham’s embassy was not overtly to promote any marriage for Elizabeth, one matter under consideration was a marriage between the queen and Henri, Duke of Anjou, brother and heir of Charles IX, despite an age gap of eighteen years between the couple, and a difference of religion. 

In this period of relative peace, Walsingham became acquainted with the new Huguenot leader, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, who, despite his religion, was on good terms with King Charles. Walsingham thought very highly of Coligny, who assured the ambassador of his devotion to Queen Elizabeth, and desire for her to marry either Anjou or Henri of Navarre.

Whilst King Charles and Queen Catherine hoped to mediate the religious differences that were so fierce in France, the Guise family (the uncles and cousins of Mary, Queen of Scots) were determined that the Huguenots should be extirpated, and that they should regain their political influence. They were hoping that, rather than marrying Queen Elizabeth, Anjou would marry Mary (who had once been married to his brother Francois II).