Francis Walsingham: Life Story

Chapter 12 : The End of the Queen of Scots

With the new legislation in place, it was only a matter of time before Mary was caught in the net. Her downfall was the Babington Plot – another conspiracy by romantically-minded Catholic young men who dreamed of freeing the queen, and who were willing to assassinate Elizabeth in the process.

Walsingham was aware of the plot from its initiation, and some of his actions might be seen as entrapment, but, of course, the plotters did not need to get involved, and Mary was free to reject the notion of Elizabeth’s assassination. When the incriminating letter from Mary was intercepted in Walsingham’s office, his assistant drew a gallows on it – Mary had hanged herself.

Queen Mary was tried in late 1586, with Walsingham amongst her judges at Fotheringhay Castle. Part of her defence was an accusation that Walsingham had deliberately manufactured evidence against her. He responded with the words ‘I as a private man have done nothing not beseeming an upright and honest man, neither for the public person which I bear have I done anything not belonging to my place. I confess that I have been careful of the safety of the queen and the realm and have curiously sought to find the plots against her.’

Mary accepted his explanation, and said that, as she would reject the slander she had heard of him, so he should refuse to believe lies about her. Nevertheless, quite where Walsingham drew the line is open to debate. His brother-in-law and friend, Robert Beale, later wrote that ‘with money he corrupted priests, Jesuits and traitors to betray the practices against this realm’.

Whether Mary had been entrapped or not, there was never any chance that she would be acquitted, and she was sentenced to death. It was not until February that Elizabeth was induced to sign the death warrant, which she handed to her other secretary, William Davison, with instructions to pass it to Walsingham, joking that ‘the grief thereof would go near to kill him outright’.

Despite Walsingham’s vast network of agents, his work was undermined by no less a figure than the English ambassador in Paris, Sir Edward Stafford.  Stafford was the great-grandson of Margaret, Countess of Salisbury, and also of 3rd Duke of Buckingham, both of whom had been executed by Henry VIII. His parents, William and Dorothy, had been Protestant exiles during Mary I’s reign, whilst his great-uncle was Cardinal Pole, and his brother Thomas had been executed by Mary I for treason.

Either for financial or religious motives, Stafford began acting as a spy for Spain, and his information often undermined the English government’s policy. It has been suggested that Stafford was acting as a double-agent for Burghley, planting false information on the Spanish. This seems plausible, but whatever the truth, he did not get on with Walsingham and reduced the level of information reaching Walsingham from Paris

Whilst Walsingham may have rejoiced in Queen Mary’s sentence, his relief was soon tempered by grief. On 17th October 1586, his beloved son-in-law, Philip Sidney, died, aged 31, as a result of wounds received at the battle of Zutphen. Walsingham paid for an extraordinarily expensive funeral, and also cleared Sidney’s debts. Pleas for financial aid from Elizabeth, or from Sidney’s uncle, Leicester, fell on deaf ears.

In parallel with Walsingham’s desire for Elizabeth to take an active part in European politics, he also promoted the expansion of English influence in the Americas. He became a promoter of schemes supporting ‘plantations’ (the mass movement of people to new lands) in Virginia. He also, more controversially, supported the ‘plantation’ of English Protestants into Ulster and Munster in Ireland.

The arguments given in favour of plantations in Ireland were partly religious, but were also promoted as improving governance – the native Irish or Anglo-Irish lords ruled their territories like feudal magnates – punishing or pardoning at whim, settling disputes with the sword and pursuing blood feuds. For this mode of government to be replaced by the orderly, law-driven, tax-raising model that had been established in England would, in theory, benefit the people of Ireland.

The reality was, of course, far more complex, and the cultural, social and legal structures of Gaelic Ireland were neither understood, nor respected, by those who wanted to see Ireland reshaped in English fashion. Walsingham received reports about conditions there in the 1580s by men such as Ludovic Briskett, who complained that the Irish universally inclined ‘to disobedience’.

The failure of Protestantism to gain a hold in Ireland stoked the fears of Walsingham and his colleagues that the country was out of control. Spain was eager to exploit opportunities to weaken England, and subsidised uprisings there, as well as sending soldiers. The country descended into a brutal series of uprisings and bloody reprisals which brought about wide-spread famine and disease.

The answer, thought Walsingham and many others, was the ‘plantation’ of loyal English Protestants who would manage the land in the English arable fashion, rather than the traditional cattle-herding of the Irish. The land would be divided up into ‘seignories’ and sold to Englishmen. One of the first of these was Walsingham’s cousin, Edward Denny. He and Walsingham jointly invested in some six thousand acres in County Kerry. Eventually, Walsingham sold his stake to pay the debts left by his son-in-law, Philip Sidney.

The Irish plantations promoted by Walsingham and others proved disastrous, and their miserable legacy lives on.