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Authors: Robert Hutchinson

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Elizabeth's Spymaster

BOOK: Elizabeth's Spymaster
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Praise for Robert Hutchinson


‘Robert Hutchinson’s lucid and learned volume gives us a vivid portrait of Walsingham … an excellent book’
Independent on Sunday


‘An accessible, authoritative account … The author is very good at evoking the atmosphere of suspicion and paranoia during Elizabeth’s reign … makes Elizabethan statecraft immediate and entertaining’
Book Magazine

‘Hutchinson neatly combines his expert knowledge with an impressive narrative suspense and a mordant sense of humour … a darkly informative read’
Waterstone’s Books Quarterly

‘Impeccably researched … the author has constructed what almost amounts to a thriller in this gripping narrative which raises issues still immensely relevant to our own troubled times’
Good Book Guide


‘A brilliantly readable account of Henry’s last years’
Sunday Times

‘The scholarship of this book is meticulous … Hutchinson brilliantly conveys the atmosphere of terror … a gripping narrative … Hutchinson provides an across-the-spectrum grand slam portrait of the second Tudor monarch. No one writing about Henry VIII in the future will be able to ignore this magnificent book’
Daily Express

‘Hutchinson’s narrative, level-headed and carefully researched, is the more enjoyable for being so consistently unedifying’

‘This book may be called biographical history at its best and the corruption it portrays still has the power to shock’
Contemporary Review

‘A lively, accessible account … Hutchinson’s enthusiasm for the subject is evident on every page’
Waterstone’s Books Quarterly

Robert Hutchinson is a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in London and an expert on the Reformation in England. He is a tutor in church archaelology for the University of Sussex Centre for Continuing Education, and the consultant on church monuments to the Diocese of Chichester Advisory Committee. He was a contributing author to
The Archaeology of the Reformation
and has written numerous papers on ecclesiology and church monuments. His acclaimed account of intrigues and conspiracies at the court of Elizabeth’s father,
The Last Days of Henry VIII,
is published in paperback by Phoenix.




To my mother,
who gave me the precious gift
of a love of history


Praise for Robert Hutchinson


Author’s Note




‘Serviceable to Our Age’

‘The Poison Against This Estate’

Her Majesty’s Secret Service

The Babington Plot

The Trial of Mary Queen of Scots

Thirst After Her Blood’

Defeating the Armada

Death in Penury


Walsingham’s Spy Network



Dramatis Personae




Author’s Note

Sir Francis Walsingham is one of the great unknown heroes of English history. By right, he should rank with Horatio Nelson, the Duke of Wellington and even Sir Winston Churchill as one of the great patriotic defenders, against all-comers, of this island state, its monarchs, governments, beliefs and creeds. But as befits a man very much of the shadows, his star has traditionally been eclipsed by many, not least by William Cecil, Baron Burghley, his fellow Minister in Elizabeth’s government.

It is time to redress that imbalance and recount how one man’s single-minded, ruthless campaign to protect his sovereign and state, in truth, changed the course of European history.

This is a grim, dramatic tale of subversion, cruelty, greed, disloyalty and deception. If those human failings seem familiar to us in the twenty-first century, it is because four hundred years on, they are still very much with us in the realms of international politics, diplomacy and espionage.

Walsingham would not have felt uncomfortable with the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Acts that have passed onto Western nations’ statute books in recent years. Indeed, he would have felt thwarted and handicapped by the modern notion of the importance of human rights and the restrictions on harsh methods of questioning imposed by Western societies. In the 1585
Act for the Surety of the Queen’s Person,
he and Burghley produced a startling example of counter-terrorist legislation
that was tantamount to lynch law: empowering ordinary citizens to hunt down and kill on sight any successful conspirator against Elizabeth I’s life. The measure also extended to such conspirators’ associates and descendants, if claimants to the throne.

Today’s dictum that ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’ was just as true in the 1580s. To Walsingham, faced with a succession of plots against his queen and state, the many English Catholics covertly practising their religion were potential terrorists and assassins. Most of his suspects were therefore subjects of his own queen – individuals driven by a breathtakingly strong religious faith into becoming the enemy within. Their courage and fortitude, however misguided and dangerous their aims in the eyes of those in authority at the time, still have the power to astonish and fill us with wonder today.

In Walsingham’s time, dealing with the enemies of the state was much more straightforward than it is in the twenty-first century. The critical path to the neutralisation of the threat they posed was frequently taken and brutally simple: betrayal; arrest; imprisonment; interrogation, often under torture; confession; the semblance of a legal trial; and finally a horrific, barbarous execution. Walsingham’s weapons against them were his spies and informers – mostly motivated by the prospect of hard cash rewards, some drawn from the dregs of Tudor society – the insidious arts of state propaganda and a raft of punitive penal legislation.

For all his considerable erudition and culture, Walsingham did not hesitate to employ torture to extract the information he sought from a prisoner. In 1575, whilst investigating allegations of secret channels of communication between the sequestered Mary Queen of Scots and the outside world, Walsingham told Burghley darkly, ‘Without torture I know we shall not prevail.’ He employed all the black instruments of the police state at his disposal to crush the treason and sedition he saw around him, including the establishment of the first internment camp in England – he sent obdurate Catholics to Wisbech Castle in Cambridgeshire. Walsingham, ever a man with wide vision, even had a plan to exile obstinate recusants to a new colony in North America.

After the close-run defeat of the Spanish Armada, England’s most famous sea captain, Sir Francis Drake, paid this tribute to Walsingham’s role in the defence of the realm:

I will not flatter you, but you have fought more with your pen than many in our English navy fought with their enemies … But that your place and most necessary attendance about her majesty [could not] be spared, your valour and desserts in such place opposite to the enemy [would have] showed itself.

Largely unrecognised by Elizabeth, his parsimonious and havering sovereign, it is time to award Walsingham his proper place in English history by shining a light into the dark corners of the murky world he inhabited – a realm of deceit, deception and betrayal. Even as a man of high moral principles, he would have firmly believed that his game was worth the candle.

Robert Hutchinson


This book could not have been written without the help and active support of many friends and colleagues, not least my dear wife Sally, who has lived with the dour persona of Francis Walsingham for more time than she cares to remember. Anyone who writes about this statesman and spy master will inevitably be greatly in the debt of Conyers Read, who produced the magisterial three-volume biography of him in 1925. Research has moved on considerably since then and perceptions of the reality of Elizabethan governance have changed, but his work retains enormous perception and value.

Much of the material for this book has been drawn from contemporary sources and my grateful thanks are due to all those whose patience and kindness have assisted me in tracking down documents and rare books. In particular, I would like to thank Robin Harcourt Williams, Librarian and Archivist to the Marquis of Salisbury at Hatfield House; Bernard Nurse, Librarian, and Adrian James, Assistant Librarian, of the Society of Antiquaries of London; the ever-willing and helpful staff at the former Public Record Office (now the National Archives) at Kew; the Manuscripts and Rare-Book Departments at the British Library; Kay Walters at the incomparable library at the Athenaeum Club; the Revd Father Jerome Bertram for much help, as always, with Latin translations; Sister Mary Joseph OSB, Librarian of the Venerable English College in Rome; Alison Waggitt for the index; Ian Drury of Weidenfeld & Nicolson
for all his encouragement; to Ilona Jasiewicz, managing editor, for her manifold kindnesses and patient assistance; Lisa Rogers for her painstaking care and considerable editing skills; and finally Marcel Hoad and his team at Fowlers for their invaluable support in so many ways.

To all these kind people, I would like to pass on my grateful thanks. I must point out, however, that any errors or omissions are entirely my own responsibility.

Shall Honour, Fame and Titles of Renown
In Clods of Clay be thus enclosed still?
Rather will I, though wiser Wits may frown,
For to enlarge his Fame extend my Skill.
Right gentle Reader, be it known to thee,
A famous knight doth here interred lye,
Noble by Birth, renown’d for Policy
Confounding Foes, which wrought our Jeopardy.
In Foreign Countries their intents he knew
Such was his Zeal to do his Country good,
When dangers would by Enemies ensue,
As well as they themselves he understood.
Launch forth ye Muses into Streams of Praise,
Sing and sound forth praiseworthy harmony;
In England Death cut off his dismal days,
Not wronged by Death but by false Treachery:
Grudge not at this imperfect Epitaph
Herein I have expressed my simple skill,
As the First fruits proceeding from a Graft
Make then a better whosoever will.

An acrostic poem – the initial letter of each line spelling out Sir Francis Walsingham’s name. Written by ‘E. W.’ – probably his grand-daughter, the poet Elizabeth Walsingham – and placed over his tomb in Old St Paul’s Cathedral, London. It was lost in the Great Fire of London in 1666.


‘My mind is far from malice.
call God to record that as a private person, I have done nothing [unbecoming to] an honest man. Nor, as I bear the place of a public man, have I done anything unworthy
… I
confess that being very careful for the safety of the Queen and realm, I have curiously searched out practices against the same.’


It is his dark, deepset eyes that immediately arrest your attention. Staring out of the painting, they seem hooded, thoughtful, even quizzical, as if they seek to peer directly into the viewer’s mind, mercilessly probing and exploring one’s most private thoughts and innermost emotions. The portrait of Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth I’s principal Secretary of State, painted around 1587 probably by the fashionable artist John De Critz the Elder,
is an uncompromising study of an equally uncompromising man. More than four centuries later, the authority and intense energy of his personality, captured by this stark, dour likeness, remain wholly undiminished.

BOOK: Elizabeth's Spymaster
6.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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