Francis Walsingham was the son of successful London lawyer, with court connections. His paternal uncle was constable of the Tower of London, and his mother’s brother, Sir Anthony Denny, was the gentleman of the Privy Chamber who told Henry VIII that it was time to prepare for death.
Walsingham’s father died when he was a small child, and his mother’s second husband, John Carey, was even more closely integrated into court circles. Carey’s sister-in-law was Mary Boleyn, sister of Queen Anne Boleyn.
This connection led to Walsingham probably spending part of his childhood at Hunsdon, the royal palace where Carey was bailiff, and where Henry VIII’s children often lived, particularly the younger two, Elizabeth and Edward. Walsingham attended King’s College, Cambridge, and then Gray’s Inn, although he did not take his degree, nor practice later as a lawyer.
Born around 1530, Walsingham came to adulthood in the reign of Edward VI. His family and friends were closely associated with the evangelical Protestantism that characterised Edward’s reign, and Walsingham became a dedicated Protestant. His beliefs were uncompromising, and he was unable to conform when the Catholic faith was restored under Mary I, choosing exile in the Protestant enclaves of the Holy Roman Empire, and Padua, instead.
During this period of exile, he became acquainted with many of the men who would later lead the Elizabethan church, and also with John Russell, Earl of Bedford. It was as a protégé of Bedford’s that he entered Parliament in its first session of Elizabeth’s reign in 1559.
He sat again in 1563, but did not at that time have any government role, merely being in the commission for the peace in Hertfordshire. During the 1560s, he married twice. His first wife, Anne Barnes, died after two years of wedlock, leaving him with a step-son, Christopher Carleill, but no children of his own. His second wife, Ursula St Barbe, also a widow when they married, would be his companion for the rest of his life.
In 1570, Sir William Cecil, Secretary to the queen, whom Walsingham had known since the reign of Edward VI, asked him, as a man fluent in Italian, to take part in an investigation into an Italian merchant in London, Roberto Ridolfi, who was suspected of treason. Ridolfi had apparently been orchestrating a plot involving Mary, Queen of Scots, captive in England, the Duke of Norfolk, who sought to marry Mary, the Pope and French and Spanish Catholics abroad who wished to depose Elizabeth and replace her with Mary.
The ramifications of the Ridolfi plot have never been entirely unravelled – it is possible that Ridolfi was a double agent, and certainly Walsingham later managed to turn a number of Mary’s adherents into spies for the English state.
Cecil, and presumably, Queen Elizabeth, were satisfied with Walsingham’s work, and in late 1570, he was appointed as ambassador to France, to negotiate a treaty with the French king, Charles IX, and his formidable mother, Catherine de’ Medici.
Walsingham’s political outlook derived from his determination to promote Protestantism at home, and to persuade Elizabeth to aid Protestants in Europe, particularly in the Netherlands, which were chafing under the rule of their overlord, Philip II of Spain. Whilst the problems in the Netherlands were not entirely religious (many Catholics also objected to Spanish rule) Walsingham was convinced that Elizabeth should support her co-religionists there, led by Louis of Nassau, and later, Louis’ brother, William of Orange.
He therefore promoted the idea of alliance with France, to the detriment of Spanish power, vigorously. He was not responsible for the parallel negotiations for Elizabeth to marry Charles IX’s brother, Henri, Duke of Anjou, but he approved them – even though the thought of a Catholic king of England was anathema.
The marriage negotiations came to nothing, but Walsingham and his colleagues were successful in the negotiation of the Treaty of Blois, which agreed a mutual defence pact. Shortly after the treaty was agreed, Walsingham was caught up in the Massacre of St Bartholomew, one of the bloodiest incidents in the whole religious turmoil of the sixteenth century.
The Huguenot king of Navarre, Henri, was in Paris to marry Charles IX’s sister, Marguerite of Valois. With a vast number of Huguenot nobles and gentry in the capital, the leader of the most reactionary Catholic party in France, the Duke of Guise (with the knowledge or even active encouragement of Charles and Catherine), ordered the assassination of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, leader of the Huguenots. The result was carnage, as thousands of Huguenots were slaughtered in the streets, and the violence ran out of control throughout France.
Walsingham, his wife and daughters, and Philip Sidney, a family friend, were unable to emerge from his home in a Parisian suburb for some days. Eventually, Walsingham went to the court to hear the French king’s explanation of the Massacre, to relay to Queen Elizabeth. Charles and Catherine made little of it, and emphasised their devotion to Elizabeth. Deeply shocked and sickened by the whole affair, Walsingham requested leave to withdraw.
Elizabeth granted him permission to return, but, since Charles IX made it clear that if a replacement were not sent, he would consider it an insult, Walsingham had to stay until a new ambassador could be sent.
On his eventual return, he had a period of convalescence, before being appointed as one of the two royal secretaries. He continued in this role, eventually becoming the Principal Secretary, until his death in 1590.
As Secretary and a Privy Councillor, Walsingham became one of Elizabeth’s three closest advisors, along with Cecil (later Lord Burghley) and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Elizabeth did not have the warm personal relationship with Walsingham that she had with the other two, but she trusted him, and even gave him a nick-name, as was her wont with her inner circle. She called him her Moor or her Ethiop, probably in reference to his dark complexion.
All three were more militant than Elizabeth, and constantly pressed her to intervene militarily in favour of the Dutch Protestants. Walsingham was also very concerned about the presence of Mary, Queen of Scots. He was certain that she meant mischief, and, as he wrote to Cecil 'There is less danger in fearing too much than too little.’
During the 1570s and 1580s, the threat of war came closer. The Spanish campaign in the Netherlands stepped up, the French Wars of Religion continued to rage, with intermittent peace and war, and plots to free the Queen of Scots regularly came to light.
Walsingham developed a complex network of informers, spreading its tentacles around England, and into Europe. His constant watchfulness and doom-laden prophesies sometimes aggravated Elizabeth, but he was indefatigable in the service of the state.
By 1585, the spy network was so sophisticated, that Walsingham managed to infiltrate the ring of Mary, Queen of Scots’ closest allies. Patiently he waited, until he could draw Mary into an action that could be construed as contravening the Act for the Queen’s Safety 1585. This provided that any action that could result in the assassination of the queen, was not only treason for the perpetrator, but also for any beneficiary of the crime.
Walsingham has been accused of entrapment, and certainly, he was willing to condone a forged postscript to a letter from Mary, although the postscript was not used in evidence at her trial. For him, the ends justified the means – Mary was a threat to national security and the Protestant religion, and her despatch was essential.
Shortly after the trial of Mary, Walsingham attempted to retire from public life. He was deeply offended because, when his son-in-law, Sir Philip Sidney, died of wounds sustained at the battle of Zutphen, the queen refused to share in the payment of Sir Philip’s debts, leaving them to Walsingham to satisfy. He felt that she was ungrateful to both Sir Philip and himself. He was also in deteriorating health – a situation that Elizabeth commented, drily, would be improved when he saw her signature on Queen Mary’s death warrant.
Following the Queen of Scots’ execution, the war with Spain, that Walsingham had been predicting for twenty years, loomed closer. He was active in preparing England’s harbour defences, arranging troop musters, organising supplies for army and navy, and all the other preparations an imminent invasion requires. In 1588, he went to Tilbury, to see Elizabeth give her famous speech to hearten the troops.
The following year, he was hard at work again, but his health was declining. He had repeated kidney and urinary infections, and trouble with his eyes. He died in April 1590, working up to the last – a dedicated servant of queen and country.