Friday, January 20, 2012

Sir Francis Walsingham

Sir Francis Walsingham (c. 1532 – 6 April 1590) was Principal Secretary to Elizabeth I of England from 1573 until 1590, and is popularly remembered as her "spymaster". Walsingham is frequently cited as one of the earliest practitioners of modern intelligence methods both for espionage and for domestic security. He oversaw operations which penetrated the heart of Spanish military preparation, gathered intelligence from across Europe, and disrupted a range of plots against the queen, securing the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Early years

Walsingham studied at King's College, Cambridge from 1548 with many Protestants .In 1550, he travelled abroad, returning two years later to enroll at Gray's Inn. Upon the death of Edward VI and accession of Catholic Queen Mary I, he fled to continue his studies as a law student at the University of Padua. Between April 1556 and November 1558, he visited Switzerland. He cultivated contacts among the leading Protestant statesmen on the continent.

When Elizabeth I ascended to the throne in 1558, Walsingham returned to England and, through the support of Sir William Cecil, was elected as the representative to the House of Commons for Banbury in 1559 and then Lyme Regis in 1563. In 1569, Cecil assigned Walsingham to unravel the Ridolfi plot, his first government role.

In 1570, the Queen chose Walsingham to support the Huguenots in their negotiations with Charles IX. After his return, Walsingham was appointed joint principal secretary (the position which later became "Secretary of State") with Sir Thomas Smith, succeeding Sir William Cecil. Smith retired unexpectedly in 1576, leaving Walsingham in sole charge.

He was sent on special embassies to the Netherlands in 1578, and again in 1581 to the French Court, suggesting both the Queen's high confidence in his abilities, and also that she knew how to exploit his standing as a committed Protestant statesman to threaten the Catholic powers.


In the realm of counter-espionage, Walsingham was behind the discovery of the Throckmorton and Babington plots to overthrow Elizabeth I, return England to Catholicism and place Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne.

Prior to the attack of the Spanish Armada, he received a large number of dispatches from his agents from mercantile communities and foreign courts. Walsingham's recruitment of Anthony Standen in particular represented an intelligence triumph, and Standen's dispatches were deeply revealing. However the close security enforced by Philip II,King of Spain, meant that Walsingham remained in the dark about the Spanish strategy and the planned destination of the Armada.

In foreign intelligence, the full range of Walsingham's network of "intelligencers" (of news as well as secrets) may never be known, but it was substantial. While foreign intelligence was part of the principal secretary's duties, Walsingham brought to it flair and ambition, and large sums of his own money. He also cast his net more widely than others had done hitherto, exploiting the insight into Spanish policy offered at the Italian courts; cultivating contacts in Constantinople and Aleppo, building complex connections with the Catholic exiles.

Walsingham in Fiction

In Anthony Burgess' novel A Dead Man in Deptford about the life of Christopher Marlowe, the protagonist is shown fatally caught up in the webs spun by Walsingham.

The film Elizabeth gives considerable, although historically inaccurate, prominence to the espionage skills of Walsingham (portrayed by Geoffrey Rush). The film overstates Walsingham's influence, showing him triumphing over Burghley, and paints him as a Machiavellian, irreligious and sexually ambiguous politician. It inaccurately suggests that he himself murdered Mary of Guise, or personally had her killed. Rush reprised his role as Walsingham in the 2007 sequel, Elizabeth: The Golden Age.

Walsingham was played by Stephen Murray in the BBC series Elizabeth R (1970).

Walsingham was portrayed by actor Patrick Malahide in the Channel Four miniseries Elizabeth I

Walsingham appears as Christopher Marlowe's taskmaster in the BBC Radio 4 comedy series The Christopher Marlowe Mysteries.
Walsingham and his fictional niece appear in Lucy's Blade by John Lambshead

Walsingham provided the basis for Sir Nicholas Fury in Neil Gaiman's comics miniseries 1602

Sir Jack Wilton in The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier is the analogue of Walsingham in the "Glorianan Era". Wilton is also stated as being the first "M".

In Samuel Blumenfeld's The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection: A New Study of the Authorship Question (McFarland, 2008), playwright Christopher Marlowe's connection to the spymaster Walsingham and his cousin Thomas Walsingham is detailed.

In Mark Chadbourn's novel "The Silver Skull", Walsingham appears in his role as Elizabeth I's spymaster and secretary.

Learn more about the Elizabethan era and Sir Francis; Walsingham

Non-Fiction Books

Fiction Books 




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