Francis Walsingham: Life Story

Chapter 3 : Joining Royal Service

Whatever Walsingham’s personal feelings for Anne, he had a duty to remarry and provide an heir, and, in 1566 he took a second wife, also a widow, Ursula St Barbe. Ursula was wealthy, with a life interest in her first husband, Robert Worseley’s, estates in the Isle of Wight, although this became entangled in legal disputes after the death of her two sons in an explosion in one of the properties. Since the earliest of Walsingham’s own letters to survive is to a friend, asking him to exhort Ursula to consider remarriage, we can perhaps infer that although undoubtedly practical, the marriage was also one of affection. Ursula had a sister, Edith, whose husband, Robert Beale, became one of Walsingham’s closest friends. The couple had two daughters – Frances and Mary.

The minimal records suggest that Ursula took her full part in the activities expected of the wife of one of Elizabeth’s ministers – she went to Paris with Walsingham, sent gifts to the queen, and managed the joint household, first at Parkbury, then, later, at the new property they purchased at Barn Elms, near Lambeth in London, where Queen Elizabeth stayed on at least three occasions.  The couple also had a country home at Odiham in Hampshire.

But Walsingham was not to enjoy country life for long. On 19th August 1568, he was summoned by Sir William Cecil, Principal Secretary to the queen. Walsingham undoubtedly knew Cecil – the latter had been a member of Edward VI’s government, was closely connected with Walsingham’s uncle, Sir Anthony Denny, and was a member of the godly circle that had surrounded Edward VI and Elizabeth in the 1540s and early 1550s.

The conversation with Cecil related to the embarrassing appearance of Mary, Queen of Scots, in England. Queen Mary had escaped Scotland following the loss of the battle of Langside. Throughout the period of Mary’s personal rule in Scotland, Cecil had worked to undermine her authority, and to promote misunderstanding between Mary and her Protestant nobles. He was utterly convinced (not without some justification) that Mary had her eyes on the English throne, and was also certain (with no apparent justification in 1568) that Mary would go to any lengths to obtain it, including the overthrow of Elizabeth.

Cecil had heard from the English ambassador in France, Sir Henry Norris, that Mary would have French support (largely from her Guise relatives, rather than her former brother-in-law, Charles IX or mother-n-law, Catherine de’ Medicis) to take the English crown. He also feared that thousands of English subjects, many of whom were still Catholic, would support such a scheme. Norris identified an Italian Protestant, Franchiotto, who was willing to act as a spy, and Cecil required Walsingham’s Italian language skills to communicate with Franchiotto.

Walsingham had found the job he was born for – his numerous family and business contacts among the merchants of London, his linguistic skills, his attention to detail and his burning zeal for Protestantism, made him the ideal spymaster. He never doubted that plots existed, and never tired in sniffing out the most trivial incidents that could hint at conspiracy. He gathered every rumour he could from contacts in France and Spain, and presented them to Cecil, with the words which have come to define him ‘There is less danger in fearing too much than too little.’

Walsingham’s talents, and his single-mindedness, were soon recognised by his enemies – one French correspondent wrote that he was ‘a very skilful man of business and very clever but also so impassioned with regard to his religion that for this respect alone his advice frequently swerves from the paths of temperance and wisdom.’

Cecil and Walsingham’s fears proved timely. In 1569, the North of England rose up in revolt, in the last great popular rebellion before the Civil War. Led by the Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland, the Northern Rising sought to restore the Mass, and, perhaps, although the earls were coy about this, to place Mary, Queen of Scots on the English throne. Also involved, although he was a Protestant, and certainly did not intend to overthrow Elizabeth, was the 4th Duke of Norfolk, who hoped to marry Mary.

Norfolk had not been alone in his plan, which was supported by Elizabeth’s favourite, the Earl of Leicester, but his failure to inform the queen made her suspicious and resulted in his despatch to the Tower of London. Nervous that the plot had come to light, Norfolk’s brother-in-law, the Earl of Westmoreland, moved too early, and the foreign support anticipated from France and Spain did not materialise.

One of the names associated with the Rising was Roberto Ridolfi, a Florentine banker based in London, who undertook financial business for Cecil. He also undertook secret activities for Pope Pius V. In 1569, he transferred cash from the Spanish ambassador, de Spes, to John Leslie, Bishop of Ross, Mary, Queen of Scots’ personal representative. Cecil found out about the transaction, which involved such a large sum (£3,000) that he asked Walsingham to interrogate Ridolfi.

Ridolfi revealed that the money had originally come from Pius V, and he also admitted to knowing about the plan for Mary to marry Norfolk. Nevertheless, orders were given, probably from Elizabeth herself, that Ridolfi was to be released, in return for giving up any information he had about Mary, and a promise to desist from meddling further in English politics.

The following year, Walsingham wrote to Cecil that Ridolfi ‘would deal both discreetly and uprightly’, in the matter of English interests in the Low Countries and Flanders. This has been taken to mean that Walsingham had persuaded Ridolfi to change sides and become a spy for the English government. This is perhaps supported by the fact that, in 1571, Ridolfi was received by Elizabeth herself, who gave him two horses, as well as a passport. At the same time, he was still promoting the match between Norfolk and Mary, but the English government soon had all the details.

When Ridolfi left London, he went to Rome, where he continued to promote a Catholic invasion of England, to put Mary on the throne, married to Norfolk. However, his envoy to the Bishop of Ross was captured. Whether Ridolfi was a double-agent can never be proved. Wisely, he did not return to London, but returned to his home city of Florence, where he died many years later.