Francis Walsingham

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Francis Walsingham by John de Critz (detail)

Sir Francis Walsingham (c. 1532 – April 6, 1590) is remembered by history as the "spymaster" of Queen Elizabeth I of England. An admirer of Machiavelli, Walsingham is remembered as one of the most proficient espionage-weavers in history, excelling in the use of intrigues and deception to secure the English Crown. He was the head of the Secret Service and positioned agents in France, Spain, and Italy. His information gathering abilities led to Sir Francis Drake success in destroying part of the enemy fleet, Mary, Queen of Scots conviction of treason, and the forewarning of the attack on the Spanish Armada. He is widely considered as one of the fathers of modern Intelligence.

Early years

Francis Walsingham was born in Scadbury Park, Chislehurst, Kent in about 1532 to the family of William Walsingham and Joyce Denny. His father died the next year, and later, his mother married Sir John Carey, a relative by marriage of Queen Anne Boleyn.

Walsingham studied at King's College, Cambridge from 1548 with many Protestants but as an undergraduate of high social status did not sit for a degree. In 1550, he traveled abroad and returned in 1552 to enroll at Gray's Inn. The death of Edward VI and accession of Catholic Queen Mary saw him flee to continue his studies as a law student at Padua. Between April 1556 and November 1558 he visited Switzerland. He cultivated contacts among the leading Protestant statesmen on the continent.

Serving Elizabeth I

When Elizabeth I acceded to the throne, Walsingham returned to England and, through the support of Sir William Cecil, was elected to the House of Commons for Banbury in 1559 and then Lyme Regis in 1563. He also married a widow, Ann Carteill, who died two years later leaving Walsingham to care for her two children. In 1566, he married Ursula St. Barbe, widow of Sir Richard Worsley, and they had a daughter, Frances.

In the following years, Walsingham became active in soliciting support for the Huguenots in France. In 1569, Sir William assigned Walsingham to unravel the Ridolfi plot, his first government role. Walsingham also had links to the Earl of Leicester, Nicholas Throckmorton and to the second tier of Protestant officials now serving the queen.

In 1570, the Queen chose Walsingham to support the Huguenots in their negotiations with Charles IX. Later that year, he succeeded Sir Henry Norris as ambassador to France, seeking to prosecute a close alliance between England, Charles IX, the Huguenots, and other European Protestant interests in support of the nascent revolt of the Netherlands provinces of the Spanish Crown. When Catholic opposition to this course resulted in the death of Coligny and the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, his house in Paris became a temporary sanctuary for Protestant refugees, including Philip Sidney. He returned to England in April 1573 disappointed. But he had established himself as someone the Queen could trust. A century later his dispatches would be published as a portrait of "the Complete Ambassador."

After his return, Walsingham was appointed joint principal secretary ("of state": the phrase was not used at this time in England) with Sir Thomas Smith, succeeding Sir William Cecil. Smith retired unexpectedly in 1576 leaving Walsingham in sole charge.

Elizabeth called him her "Moor," perhaps due to his small, dark frame or a preference for somber clothes. She put up with his blunt, often unwelcome, advice because she valued his competence and industry, his passion for her security, and his grasp of foreign affairs.

On December 1, 1577, Walsingham received a knighthood. He spent the years between 1574 and 1578 consolidating his control of the routine business of the English state, foreign and domestic. This included the substantial rebuilding of Dover Harbour, and the coordination of support for Martin Frobisher's attempts to discover the north-west passage and exploit the mineral resources of Labrador. Walsingham was among the major promoters of the career of Sir Francis Drake and was a major shareholder in his 1578–1581 circumnavigation of the world. Walsingham's participation in this venture was calculated to promote the Protestant interest by provoking the Spanish and demonstrating the vulnerability of their Pacific possessions.

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.

Between 1578 and 1581, Walsingham was at the forefront of debate on the attempt by a group at court to encourage the Queen to marry the Duke of Anjou, heir to the French throne. Walsingham passionately opposed the marriage, perhaps to the point of encouraging public opposition. He believed that it would serve England better to seek a military alliance with France against Spanish interests.

Walsingham would have preferred more direct English intervention in the Low Countries, and eventually, after the deaths of both Anjou and William of Orange in 1584, English military intervention was agreed at the treaty of Nonsuch, 1585.

From 1585 to his death, Walsingham was deeply engaged, working closely with Cecil (now Baron Burghley), in preparing England for the war with Spain that could no longer be avoided, and in preparing for the arrival of the Spanish Armada, in particular by victualing the navy, organizing a domestic county militia, and fostering the Protestant aggression of the Bond of Association.

Walsingham secured in 1584 the overthrow of a dangerously non-aligned government in Scotland after years of reverses since the 1578 overthrow of the pro-English Regent Morton. Walsingham himself visited the Scottish court in 1583. This lurch towards Anglo-Scottish Protestant amity was at first tentative, but proved to be stable and to pave the way to the succession of James VI to the throne of England.

These were years of tension in policy towards France, with Walsingham skeptical of the unpredictable Henry III, while the English ambassador in Paris, Edward Stafford, argued the case for building on Henry's good intentions. There are reasonable grounds for believing that Stafford was compromised by the Catholic powers and in the pay of the Spanish state. This too was a battle Walsingham won; Stafford found Walsingham's grip of the bureaucratic machine, the Queen's confidence in him, and Walsingham's network of contacts, too formidable.


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

In November 1583, after months of surveillance, Walsingham had Throckmorton arrested. He extracted, under torture, Throckmorton's confession—an admission that he had plotted against Elizabeth with the Spanish ambassador, Bernardino de Mendoza, and others. The plot, which was apparently endorsed by Mary, called for a two-pronged invasion of England and Scotland along with a domestic uprising. Throckmorton was executed in 1584, and Mendoza was expelled from England.

Mary, Queen of Scots was not prosecuted. Walsingham became so concerned about Mary's influence that he became determined to hold her responsible for any further conspiracies. Babington's Plot was the result of that determination. Walsingham drew deeply on his contacts and agents among the English Catholic community and abroad on whose divisions he was adept at playing. This led to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587, for which Walsingham had worked since before his advent to power. He was an active participant in her trial and briefly experienced the Queen's displeasure in its aftermath.

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 meant that Walsingham remained in the dark about the Spanish strategy and the planned destination of the Armada. This, plus his naturally bold spirit, lay behind his regular encouragement of the more aggressive strategies advocated by Drake in particular. The Cadiz raid in 1587 wrought havoc on Spanish logistics, and Walsingham would have repeated this the following year if more cautious counsels had not prevailed.

In foreign intelligence, the full range of Walsingham's network of "intelligencers" (of news as well as secrets) will 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. Recent detective work by John Bossy has suggested that he recruited Giordano Bruno, although this remains controversial. Among his more minor spies may have been the playwright Christopher Marlowe, who may have been one of the stream of false converts with which Walsingham annoyed the foreign seminaries. A more central figure was the cryptographer Thomas Phelippes, expert in deciphering letters, creating false handwriting and breaking and repairing seals without detection.


Francis Walsingham died on April 6, 1590, leaving considerable financial debt, in part arising from his having underwritten the debts of his son-in-law and colleague, Sir Philip Sidney. His daughter Frances received only £300 annuity. However, she married well, to the Earl of Essex, and Walsingham's widow lived in proper state until her death. It may be that Walsingham's short-term debts concealed substantial potential wealth, and had he lived a little longer the precise outcome of the Sidney debts would have been clearer. After his death, his friends reflected that poor bookkeeping had left him further in the crown's debt than was fair, and a compromise was eventually agreed with his heirs. His public papers were seized for government use and his private papers were lost.


Walsingham was the first English statesman fully to embrace the challenges of the post-Reformation diplomatic world and the new European threats and alliances it offered. Meanwhile, closely linked to the mercantile community, he actively supported the most ambitious trade promotion schemes, including the Muscovy Company and the Levant Company. He supported Davis' voyages to the north-west frontier, and sought to follow Drake's circumnavigation with a military-diplomatic mission to the Far East to be led by his much loved stepson, Christopher Carteill.

In other affairs, Walsingham acquired a Surrey county seat in Parliament which he retained until his death, but he was not a major participant. In 1584, he was part of the committee that considered letters patent granted to Sir Walter Raleigh. He nominated some of his servants to prominent positions. He also received the appointments of Chancellor of the Order of the Garter and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Walsingham attracts controversy still. Catholic apologists, from the Victorian era onwards, have picked apart the various conspiracies to overstate his undoubted use of agents provocateurs. He regularly features in fringe debates particularly about the authorship of Shakespeare and the death of Christopher Marlowe. He attracts conspiracy theories.

His personality is difficult to capture from a distance. Courteous and polished as a diplomat, he portrayed himself as a plain-speaking and highly professional statesman. He was a devout and principled family man, who showed astonishing flair for the byways of intrigue and intelligence. The state papers testify to his high work rate. But at the time and in retrospect the close effective partnership around Queen Elizabeth of Burghley, Walsingham, Leicester, and Hatton defined the high Elizabethan age. Walsingham tends to be praised most highly by those critical of Elizabeth I's prevarications and changes of course. But it is more likely that it was a fruitful partnership of two very different individuals.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Budiansky, Stephen. Her Majesty's spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the birth of modern espionage. New York: Viking, 2005. ISBN 9780670034260
  • Haynes, Alan. The Elizabethan secret services. Stroud: Sutton, 2000. ISBN 9780750924634
  • Hutchinson, Robert. Elizabeth's spymaster: Francis Walsingham and the secret war that saved England. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2007. ISBN 9780312368227
Political offices
Preceded by:
Sir Thomas Smith
Lord Privy Seal
Succeeded by:
The Lord Burghley
Preceded by:
Sir Ralph Sadler
Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster
Succeeded by:
Sir Thomas Heneage
Honorary Titles
Preceded by:
The Marquess of Winchester
Custos Rotulorum of Hampshire
bef. 1577–1590
Succeeded by:
Sir George Carey


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