Francis Walsingham: Life Story

Chapter 9 : The Queen's Last Courtship

Walsingham urged intervention, supported by Leicester, but Elizabeth and Burghley disagreed. The Dutch, angry that Elizabeth would offer no further help, began to look again to the French. Alarmed by this, Elizabeth tried again to mediate, on the understanding that if Don Juan would not co-operate, she would offer help to the Dutch, but only if they refused French aid.

Walsingham and Lord Cobham were sent to take part in peace negotiations. With a retinue of some sixty gentlemen, he and Cobham landed at Dunkirk on 21st June 1578. During the embassy, Walsingham travelled to Antwerp, where he saw the eighteen thousand strong army led by William. He assured Leicester by letter that such a splendid force, would, unless God withdrew his favour, prevail.

Soon, Walsingham was writing to the Privy Council that there was no hope of harmony in the Netherlands, and that Don Juan of Austria was a supporter of Mary, Queen of Scots. England should come down firmly on the side of William and the northern states. Elizabeth rejected his advice. Not only did she not wish to send more money to William, she also wanted repayment of the sums already laid out. Elizabeth also suspected that he had not put much effort into the peace talks. ‘ We see not’, she wrote, angrily, ’that you did follow that course which you did know before your departure was our special meaning.’

Whilst Henri III of France was happy to see unrest in the Netherlands to aggravate Spain, he was unwilling to support the Protestants openly. He did, however, have a younger brother, born Hercule, but now known as Francois, who had exchanged the junior title of Duke of Alencon for Duke of Anjou, when Henri acceded to the throne. Anjou was eager to attain glory by defeating the Spanish and was more sympathetic to Protestantism.

Anjou did not, of course, have the resources to mount a serious campaign in the Netherlands unaided, so despite the huge age gap – he was twenty-three in 1578, to Elizabeth’s forty-five, he was now put forward by Henri as a suitor for her hand.

For Elizabeth, this was a potential solution – alliance to France by marriage would neutralise the threat of Mary Queen of Scots, give her an ally against Spain, if necessary, and, if peace could not be brokered in the Netherlands with Philip II, allow the Protestants to be aided without them being dominated by France. But she needed to know whether Anjou could be trusted, and she urged Walsingham to sound him out.

Walsingham and Cobham duly waited upon the duke and were pleased to find him ‘very wise, well-spoken and not so deformed as he was’. But Walsingham foresaw problems. Anjou was likely to succeed to the French throne – Henri III, although married, seemed unlikely to have children. For England’s king to be the king of France would create problems. Besides, Walsingham did not believe Anjou would go through with such a marriage. He was only pretending to agree ‘as a means to render her majesty more inclinable to allow of his proceedings here.’

Anjou signed an agreement with the Dutch on 13th August 1578, but he did not have much financial support from King Henri, so the need for a marriage with Elizabeth increased, and he sent his special envoy, Jean de Simier, to London in early 1579 to woo Elizabeth on his behalf.

Elizabeth was pleased with Simier, but was torn as to the right course. She consulted with her council, collectively and individually. Walsingham advised her against the match: he still did not believe Anjou to be serious, he feared the queen might die in childbirth and the risk of England becoming a vassal of France if Anjou became king there was too great. Besides these issues of state, the presence of a Catholic king in England would undermine the English church and give succour to English Catholics, whom he regarded as no better than traitors. It would be far better for Elizabeth to concentrate on supporting Protestants abroad with cash and men.

But Elizabeth was not, apparently, convinced by Walsingham’s negative views of the alliance. Anjou himself visited in the summer of 1579, and the two struck up a genuine connection. The queen was not, therefore, pleased when anti-French and anti-Catholic feeling ran riot in London, culminating in a libellous pamphlet published by John Stubbs, entitled ‘Disoverie of a Gaping Gulf whereinto England is Like to be Swallowed’.  The furious queen was with difficulty persuaded to reduce a charge of treason and Stubbs had his right hand severed.

Whilst Stubbs alleged that at least one Privy Councillor had been aware of the contents of his pamphlet before its publication, and it has been speculated that Walsingham was the man he alluded to, Walsingham’s biographer, John Cooper, argues that Stubbs line of argument was not completely consistent with the Secretary’s views.

Another outspoken critic of the Anjou match was Sir Philip Sidney, Leicester’s nephew, and Walsingham’s friend. His ‘Letter to Queen Elizabeth touching her marriage to Monsieur’ was a more polite and sophisticated version of Stubbs’ offering, but no less heartfelt, and no less aggravating to the queen, who banished him from court.

Elizabeth appeared genuinely to wish for the marriage to proceed. That summer, the majority of her council advised against it, but Walsingham was not included in the debates. He was at home, possibly ill once again, or perhaps dismissed from Elizabeth’s sight for his hostility to the match. The queen decided to press ahead anyway, and a treaty was drawn up.

The negotiations dragged on for another two years, but without the support of her councillors, Elizabeth would have struggled to obtain Parliamentary support. Not, in theory, necessary, as foreign treaties did not require Parliamentary consent, but with the crown’s finances no longer able to support government without taxation, the strength of Parliament was growing.

Eventually, the marriage plans petered out. Walsingham was readmitted to royal favour, and sent to France to negotiate another treaty, in which marriage was not mentioned.