Francis Walsingham- Elizabeth I’s Spymaster: Guest Post by Elizabeth Hill-Scott

This guest post by Elizabeth Hill-Scott is the last in a series of posts linked to the life and execution of Mary Queen of Scots. The first is about the Babington Plot, which sealed her fate, this can be found here. The second was about Fotheringhay Castle, where she was executed. It can be found here.

He was a scholar, lawyer, diplomat, Member of Parliament and Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth I from 1573-1590. But he will always be known as ‘The Spymaster’. His motto? There was less danger in fearing too much than too little.

Imagining England in 1553, there were good reasons to be fearful. This was especially true for devout Protestants like Francis Walsingham. Shaped by his studies at King’s College, Cambridge, when Mary I took the throne and returned England to Catholicism, he knew there was only one thing to do. Flee.

Walsingham was not one to take pledges he didn’t believe in then practice in secret. He spent the next five years overseas while ‘Bloody Mary’ ruled. He used that time wisely. He learnt languages, the law and connected with movers and shakers within foreign courts. It was only when Elizabeth became Queen, on the death of her sister, that Walsingham returned. And it was not just to live in Protestant England but to serve and protect it.

The accession of the young Elizabeth I did not bring peace and harmony to the nation. It was still bitterly divided both by what religious practice England should follow and whether Elizabeth, to some still the bastard daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, was the rightful heir. From day one conspirators were everywhere, so Francis Walsingham’s role began to take shape out of necessity.

Walsingham’s Rise to the Top

So how did Walsingham come from back from the wilderness to become the Queen’s most trusted adviser for 13 years? 

Walsingham became a Member of Parliament and then Ambassador to France in 1570. He started working under William Cecil, later made Baron Burghley, the Queen’s then Principal Secretary.

Cecil was busy with matters of state, including desperately trying to make Elizabeth marry, and intelligence gathering increasingly became Walsingham’s responsibility.

Intelligence gathering accelerated when the Queen’s cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, an absolute magnet for conspirators, arrived in England. Walsingham became Secretary of State (formerly called Principal Secretary) in 1568.

Walsingham’s Relationship with Queen Elizabeth I

According to some accounts Elizabeth, despite promoting and knighting him in 1577, respected but did not like Walsingham.

It does seem they were very different personalities. Compared to the vivacious Queen, Walsingham was shrewd, serious and dower. During a time when it was easy to lose the confidence of the Queen (and your head), this only makes the longevity of their relationship even more fascinating.

Perhaps, because Walsingham was so committed and focused on one thing, her safety and, as a consequence, Protestant England, she never had to fear he could be turned or wanted more.  

John de Critz, Sir Francis Walsingham (c.1585), National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons

The Growth of the Secret Intelligence Service

After thwarting plots like the Northern Uprising of 1569, it became clear Walsingham needed more assistance to track plotters and break coded messages. And so, the Secret Intelligence Service grew.

There are mixed views on whether he had a decent budget to employ the best or whether the Queen was stingy, and most expenses came from his pocket. You’d like to think, considering all his efforts were to save her throne and her life, it was the former.

Walsingham’s Spies

He used his overseas network to post spies. These spies, often young budding recruits, had numerous tasks.

Tasks included covertly reporting back on the attitudes of Catholic countries and The Pope. This information would allow Walsingham to trace lines of communication between Catholics at home and abroad to track any plots developing.

His spies also needed to infiltrate close enough to feedback on any military moves. We know Walsingham was able to get detailed reports Spain was mobilising her Armada with sights firmly set on an English invasion.

Finally, spies spread disinformation. On one occasion, they helped mask the preparations of Sir Francis Drake to raid Cadiz Harbour in 1587.

To join up the circle of intelligence, spies were posted in England. Interception of letters and messages were crucial to intelligence gathering. Walsingham often planted people and double-agents in the households and meet-ups of suspected traitors.

Spy Tradecraft 16th Century Style

In the 16th Century, you couldn’t capture plotters on CCTV entering a Castle or listen in on a phone call between traitorous nobles. But tradecraft, alongside HUMINT or human intelligence, became so important during this time that Walsingham even set up a spy school.

Desired skills included forgery, using invisible ink, and learning the exquisite skill of lifting the wax seal of a letter so that it could be undetectably opened and read.

Yet, interception only took them so far if the messages were in a secret code. Methods used by plotters included letters of the alphabet being shuffled, replaced with numbers or even signs of the zodiac. Sometimes, you could only understand the coded message by placing an additional piece of paper on top with strategically placed holes punched in it.  

Walsingham Gets It Wrong

Francis Walsingham didn’t always get it right despite more resources, skilled spies, and an extensive network. In 1569 he misread the deeper intentions of The Ridolfi Plot.

Roberto Ridolfi, a Catholic and international banker, could travel between countries without raising too much suspicion.

He found himself in jail because of a rumour he had distributed money to dissenting nobles linked to the earlier Northern Uprising. Walsingham released him convinced by a charming Mr Ridolfi during his interrogation that it was untrue. Ridolfi was a spy for The Pope and went on to conspire with The Duke of Norfolk for (you’ve guessed it) the assassination of Queen Elizabeth in favour of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Walsingham’s Biggest Test – Removing the Threat of Mary Queen of Scots

Make no mistake, for Walsingham, getting rid of Mary, Queen of Scots was his life’s work. Completing this mission would test his network and relationship with Elizabeth I to the limits. And it all culminated around The Babington Plot.

When in Paris, Englishman Anthony Babington, after whom the plot is named, became involved with supporters of Mary, Queen of Scots. They wanted her to escape, the in effect, imprisonment she was under in England and to assassinate Elizabeth.

Babington had letters for Mary as he returned home. With the involvement of a Catholic priest, John Ballard, coded messages were sent to and from Mary. They hid them in the stopper of a beer barrel. Thanks to Walsingham’s double-agent Gilbert Gifford, these letters were intercepted and decoded by Thomas Phelippes. They showed Mary encouraged the conspirators trying to help her.

Mary was taken to Fotheringhay Castle and put on trial in October 1586. It must have been an agonising wait for Walsingham. Despite his interceptions and the evidence before her, Elizabeth procrastinated. She did not sign Mary’s death warrant until 1st February 1587. She clearly needed convincing that the threats would reduce with Mary gone not increase (something I imagine Walsingham told her daily).

The Death of a Pivotal Figure in English History

With a feeling of ‘mission accomplished’, Walsingham died three years later, aged 58, having been married twice and leaving two children (who chances are barely saw him).

As someone who devours all things espionage, Sir Francis Walsingham is a truly fascinating historical character.

Unusually, for someone holding the post of adviser to the monarch, if you play the ‘What If’ game of alternative history, things could have been very different without him.

Would an assassin have got to Elizabeth I without his spy network? Would one of the many plots have succeeded? Would England have been less prepared for the Spanish Armada and potentially lost?

The success of any one of these could have taken English history down a completely different path, especially when you consider Queen Elizabeth chose to have no heir.


The National Archives

The History Press


British Heritage


Tudor Times

Elizabeth Hill-Scott – Bio
Elizabeth Hill-Scott is the founder of Smart History Blogging, which gives you smart ways to save
time, grow your traffic, make money, and write about what you love.

A life-long history fan since she saw her first English Castle on a school trip, Elizabeth teaches
entrepreneurs and bloggers who want to start or grow a successful niche blog in the fascinating field of history.

She is also a post-graduate and communications expert who spent over 15 years advising senior UK politicians and public figures.

Connect with Elizabeth
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