Francis Walsingham: Life Story

Chapter 6 : Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve

Walsingham’s fears for Elizabeth’s safety were not groundless. In January 1572, a plot to assassinate Cecil (now Lord Burghley) and free the Duke of Norfolk from the Tower was uncovered. At the heart of the plot was a man whom Walsingham knew – Edmund Mather, who had been secretary to Walsingham’s predecessor in Paris, Sir Henry Norris.

Burghley dead, Elizabeth was to be the next target, and the story would end with the elevation of Mary, Queen of Scots to the English throne, married to Norfolk.

Whether Queen Mary herself had any knowledge of this plot is unknown – Walsingham however, blamed her entirely. So long, he said, as ‘that devilish woman’ lived, Elizabeth would never be safe on her throne, and her subjects would never be safe in their beds. He urged the execution of both Mary and Norfolk. Elizabeth assented to the latter but would not countenance the former.

Whilst Walsingham was lying on his sickbed, Sir Thomas Smith and Sir Henry Killigrew were attending the French monarch. The Anjou match could not be progressed, but perhaps an alliance could be made anyway. Walsingham re-joined the embassy, which had to contend with King Charles’ inclination to support the traditional Franco-Scots alliance, and his former sister-in-law, the Queen of Scots.

The English made it clear that France would have to choose between Mary and Elizabeth. Since Mary was locked in an English castle, and was unlikely to regain her throne, even if the French did intervene on her behalf, the upshot was the Treaty of Blois, signed in June 1572, which confirmed that neither France nor England would aid each other’s enemies.   

Walsingham attended the oath-swearing ceremony in the Church of Saint German, riding there with Sir Thomas Smith, and the Duke of Anjou, whilst Elizabeth was represented by the Earl of Lincoln. For Walsingham, the treaty was a precursor to English and French intervention in the Netherlands. He was certain that, if the Prince of Orange had not been distracting Spain in the Netherlands, England would already have been attacked. He was in no doubt that an attack would come, and urged a pre-emptive strike.

For Elizabeth to fail to support the Netherlands would be a dereliction of duty. He later wrote that ‘religion is the matter principally to be weighed by Christian councillors in giving advice to a Christian prince, seeing the prosperity or adversity of kingdoms dependeth of God’s goodness, who is so long to extend his protection as we shall depend of his providence and shall not seek our safety (carried away by human policy) contrary to his word’.

Like Burghley and Leicester, Walsingham was inclined to see Elizabeth’s rooted aversion to war as feminine weakness, and consistent with her inclination to be irresolute. The truth is more likely that Elizabeth knew that England could not afford a major war, and that provoking Spain would be a dangerous ploy.

As noted above, the 1570 Treaty of St Germain mandated the marriage of Henri of Navarre to Marguerite, sister of Charles IX. Henri’s mother, Jeanne III, died in June 1572, but preparations for the marriage continued. Protestantism had spread widely amongst the French nobility and it was hoped that the marriage of the Huguenot Henri into the French royal family would ease tensions. Everyone who was anyone was in Paris to celebrate the wedding at Notre Dame on 18th August.

But Catholics and Huguenots could not be so readily reconciled. The ardently Catholic Guise family were angry at the treaty with England, and King Charles’ support for the Protestants of the Netherlands. They also distrusted the influence Admiral Coligny had over Charles. On 22nd August, Coligny was shot by a servant of the Duke of Guise. Only wounded, he accepted Charles’ offer of protection and decided to remain in Paris.

Two days later, early in the morning, whilst Coligny was still lying on his sick-bed, servants of the Duke of Guise broke in and killed him. Simultaneously, other Huguenot nobles were slaughtered by members of King Charles’ own guard, and the Duke of Anjou’s retinue. The violence spread – out into the streets of Paris and way beyond. Thousands of Huguenots were slaughtered, their homes sacked and their churches desecrated. Estimates of the numbers killed vary from 7,000 to as many as 70,000.

Whilst Huguenots were being slaughtered in the streets, Walsingham, his five-year-old daughter, Frances, and the pregnant Ursula were at home in their house at Saint Marceau. Also with them were Ursula’s brother-in-law, Robert Beale, who was Walsingham’s secretary, and the Earl of Leicester’s twenty-year-old nephew, Philip Sidney. English Protestants rushed to the embassy for sanctuary as did the French nobleman, Sieur de Briquemault.