Wednesday, 20 July 2011

First Great Secret Agent - Sir Francis Walsingham (Elizabethan Spymaster)

Sir Francis Walsingham
Sir Francis Walsingham was born in 1530 to the landed gentry. He came into historical focus when Queen Elizabeth I claimed the throne in 1558. On the accession of the Protestant queen, Walsingham returned to England and was championed by Sir William Cecil for many years in the early 1560s. His big involvement in recorded history came in domestic security and counter-espionage. He was to be the leading member of the English security facility and would work relentlessly on Her Majesties Secret Service – a Tudor spymaster for Protestant England and her many Catholic adversaries.



In 1569, Francis Walsingham’s spymaster career began in earnest when he was called before Sir William Cecil to uncover the Ridolfi Plot. This was a conspiracy to overthrow Queen Elizabeth and put Mary Queen of Scots on the English throne and restore England to Catholicism.

Ridolfi was an international banker and devout Catholic. (From a Protestant English perspective; an international villain and paymaster of Catholic terrorism.) He had secretly gathered followers among the English Catholic nobility and had the verbal agreement of the Queen’s cousin, the Duke of Norfolk – a Protestant who thought the Queen undervalued him.

In many ways and with the glorious benefit of hindsight; the Duke of Norfolk was a bad choice in all of this because he had been caught up in an uprising prior to Ridolfi's conspiracy and had got cold feet. He had been arrested and only narrowly escaped execution upon pleading guilty and asking for forgiveness. The Duke of Norfolk was a tainted man and a watched one too.


Francis Walsingham’s spy network was aware of the plot and was keen to secure solid evidence. His agents waited in the shadows letting the plot broaden and when the time was ripe, the Queen’s secret service struck. They arrested Ridolfi’s messenger at the port of Dover. The man’s name was Charles Ballie and he was about to board a ship to France. He had, upon his person, compromising letters and was under observation by Walsingham’s spy network. Under torture, the wretched and helpless Charles Ballie broke and confessed all, incriminating many plotters, including the Duke of Norfolk – the Queen’s cousin. The traitor was to marry Mary Queen of Scots upon Queen Elizabeth I removal from the English throne, by death.


The Spanish ambassador was expelled and Ridolfi escaped because he was abroad at the time. The Duke of Norfolk stood trial and was convicted of treason. He and many other plotters were executed for their involvement in the plot. Mary Queen of Scots knew of the intrigue but Queen Elizabeth would not sanction her execution. Instead, the Scottish Queen was removed from succession and her thinly disguised prisoner status was changed from honoured guest to treasonous pariah. For Francis Walsingham, his fine work in English domestic security was well received. He had secured the growing confidence of his Queen.


In 1571 Walsingham went to France as English ambassador. His mission was to support the French Huguenots in negotiations with the young King Charles the XI of France. The young French king was just beginning to try and take some control from his regent mother Catherine de Medici. Also, Walsingham was secretly supporting the Dutch Protestant revolt against the Spanish crown forces that were ruling the Netherlands as a Spanish province. For two years this careful intrigue went on, but his plans were foiled by a French Catholic backlash. It came in the form of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Francis Walsingham returned to England – his mission failed though he had furthered his trust and reputation for the work he had done in the turbulent environment of France.


From 1573 Walsingham continued to work for his Queen’s government and security and he also became vehemently opposed to the French attempts, with allies in the English court, to form a union through marriage to Queen Elizabeth and the French Duke of Anjou. This paid off - the marriage never happened, though probably not due to Walsingham’s objections alone. The Queen was far too old to have children and it was more a last throw of the dice in the marriage game. The English would play the French off against the Spanish one last time to stave off the inevitable confrontation that would one day come.


He went to Scotland and appeared in the Scottish courts brokering an alliance with them. The Scottish court had brought King James VI up as a Protestant. He was the son of Mary Queen of Scots but had not tried to act or protest too earnestly on his mother’s captivity. Walsingham laid inroads and agreements to the understanding that Scotland’s King James VI would one day become England’s King James I when Queen Elizabeth I died. This understanding secured compliance from Protestant Scotland – no longer an enemy at the back door.


In the meantime, Walsingham had strengthened his established spies amid Catholic communities in various parts of England and Europe. He caught another plotter named Francis Throckmorton and saw him executed in 1584. Once again, Mary Queen of Scots was involved from her captivity, though Walsingham could not secure a conviction against the imprisoned Scots Queen.


After this, Mary was watched all the more closely and another already infiltrated plot was allowed to broaden so that the spy watchers could see what influential people came into the light of treason’s Protestant eye. This was the Babington plot and when this conspiracy was unveiled with arrests, torture, and trials; Mary Queen of Scots was fully exposed to being involved. This time, there could be no leniency from Queen Elizabeth - Walsingham had uncovered the most advanced subversion of all. This led to Mary Queen of Scots execution in 1587 and triggered the Spanish backlash.


In 1588, the Spanish King sent his great Armada to the Netherlands in order to ferry a Spanish land army across to England. Spain would restore Catholicism in England and remove Queen Elizabeth. This never happened as England managed to defeat the Spanish Armada. It started the decline of Spain as the world’s superpower and laid England’s foundations for a future union with Scotland that would bring about the United Kingdoms and the eventual rise of a new empire.


This had been Sir Francis Walsingham’s great moment – the English nation had prevailed – the Queen had triumphed over her adversaries and he (Walsingham) had overcome formidable enemies to secure his great queen’s reign. He died two years later aged sixty but left a legacy of a man adapting to the changing new world of reformation. He championed progressive trade adventures and was regarded as an entrepreneur too, supporting voyages to the North West Frontier.

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