Francis Walsingham: Life Story

Chapter 10 : Spymaster

From the time Walsingham was appointed as Secretary in 1573, he maintained an avid watch over the queen’s security. Just as he thought Elizabeth too lax about supporting Protestants abroad, so he thought her negligent at home – not understanding why she would not immediately imprison anyone found corresponding with the Queen of Scots. If she did not heed his warnings, he wrote in January 1575, ‘the malady in time will grow uncurable and the hidden sparks of treason that now lie covered will, no doubt of it, break out into an unquenchable fire. For the love of God, Madam, let not the cure of your diseased estate hang any longer in deliberation.’

In the late 1570s, matters took a more serious turn, as the first Jesuit missionaries began to enter England. In the twenty years since Elizabeth’s accession, a consistent public policy of requiring church attendance and the dying off of older priests and those brought up in the old faith had brought about a gradual change in the religion of the general population, to Protestantism. But there were still pockets of Catholicism, especially further away from London and the south-east, which had been in the fore-front of the Reformation.

The Catholic church now mounted a rear-guard action, with seminary priests trained in the English College at Douai, and Jesuit missionaries entering the country – the former largely to minister to old Catholics, but the latter eager to make converts. The government, particularly Walsingham, suspected that their intention was not merely religious, but to undermine Elizabeth’s government and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots.

The first Catholic priest to be executed was Cuthbert Mayne, educated at Oxford and ordained into the Church of England, but a Catholic convert, who had slipped across to Douai for training. He was found sheltering in the home of Catholic gentry in Cornwall.

The royal policy of not enquiring too deeply into the true beliefs of ‘church-papists’ (those who conformed to the law but continued to hear Mass in private) and the recusants who refused to attend church at all, changed. Now, bishops were instructed to investigate the recusants, and estimate the value of their property. The nominal fine of 1s for non-attendance at Divine Service was increased to £20, and became a real burden.

Although the number of recusants recorded in 1577 was not huge – fewer than 1,600 in a population of several million - at least five hundred were ‘gentlemen’, leaders of local society and a focal point for Catholics, as well as potential protectors of priests. The gentry were also the source of the new recruits to the priesthood, often, like the famous martyr, Edmund Campion, educated at Oxford, which retained a strong Catholic culture.

The number of Catholics emerging from Oxford may have been the reason for Walsingham’s funding of a Professorship in Divinity at the university in 1586, with a radical Protestant proposed for the first incumbent.

The government began to hunt down the priests, finding them in priest holes, disguised as tutors, or travelling secretly by night. The priests were exiled or imprisoned, although security was lax, and Walsingham discovered in 1583 that Mass was being openly celebrated in Newgate prison. Some 96 priests and thirty-six lay Catholics were hanged as traitors by 1592. The authorities insisted that the executions were for treason, rather than for faith.

Walsingham, although not objecting to the executions in principle, was concerned that they would create martyrs, and suggested that no more than a few examples should be made.  There was also a burgeoning Catholic exile community in Paris, where hostile literature was being created by men such as Nicholas Sander. All this activity led to expansion in the number of agents Walsingham employed, both at home and abroad.

There were threats from Ireland too, where the Spanish had sent troops to support rebellion and from Scotland where the pro-English regent, Morton, had lost power, and James VI was flexing his muscles, supported by his Catholic cousin, Esme Stuart, Duke of Lennox. Philip II was increasing his power as he became king of Portugal and in the Netherlands, the new governor, Alexander Farnese, Duke of Parma, was establishing firm control over the southern provinces.

Walsingham continued to urge Elizabeth to be proactive – to send troops to William of Orange, to ‘rescueJames VI from the Duke of Lennox, and to root out Catholic priests ‘for nothing hath done more harm than the overmuch lenity that hath been used in that behalf.’

Elizabeth disagreed. A French alliance, she believed, was the best solution – it would neutralise the risk posed by the Queen of Scots, and hold Spain at bay. Interference in Scotland would aggravate Henri III, and should be avoided. Walsingham was not convinced. He did not trust the French, and thought that pursuing an alliance with Henri to the exclusion of other policies would be problematic if it did not materialise, and no other security measures had been taken.

Henri III was willing to make an alliance, but it had to be tied to a match with Anjou. In April 1581, a French embassy came to London to conclude matters. Walsingham was one of the councillors selected to negotiate the details. The English pushed for an alliance without a wedding, but the French were inflexible. The next step was a return embassy to France, and Walsingham was to form part of it. He was gloomy at the prospect – his last embassy abroad, to the Netherlands, had not ended well and he thought this matter was ‘of more danger’. He feared he would be ‘served with harder measure than I was’.

But Elizabeth was adamant. He must go and attempt to negotiate a wider treaty than that of Blois, to include a joint attack on Spain. This was music to Walsingham’s ears, but he did not think the French would be impressed at the actual level of military support Elizabeth would or could offer. He also complained that, since Elizabeth was still listening to talk of marriage, Henri would not compromise. In this he was right, and the embassy failed.