August 3, 2012

Great Spooks 2 - Sir Francis Walsingham

Following the potted biography of Sidney Reilly in the “Great Spooks of History Series” I present Sir Francis Walsingham (c. 1530 – April 6, 1590)..

Walsingham was the main "spymaster" to Queen Elizabeth I of England. An admirer of Machiavelli, Walsingham was very temperamental, often capable of biting sarcasm and, of course, devious (goes with the job).

He never hesitated to use torture when questioning a man (or woman) if he thought it necessary. However, some charitably say he only used it as a last resort, and he surprisingly had a reputation for being charming and generous at times.

He studied at King's College, Cambridge from 1548 under Protestant teachers. In 1550, according to contemporary custom of young gentleman, he went on a “grand tour” of Europe and returned in 1552 to enroll as a law clerk (and student) at Gray's Inn, London.

The death of Edward VI and accession of Queen (“Bloody”) Mary, a Catholic, forced him to escape overseas (with many other Protestants) to continue his studies. A great irony is that this time he was a law student of the famous Jesuit University at Padua (now in Italy).

In those days religious differences (and violent religious persecution) were accepted and uppermost in people’s minds.

When Elizabeth I acceded to the throne in 1558, Walsingham returned to England and, through support of Sir William Cecil (Elizabeth’s Secretary of State and chief adviser) was elected to the House of Commons.

While Cecil and Walsingham were politicians they firstly saw themselves as servants of the Queen – synonymous then with being defenders of the Protestant (specifically Church of England) faith.

England does not appear to have had a formalised secret service until the early twentieth century so to serve the Queen Walsingham created his own personalised spy service. He cultivated languages and contacts that would later form his espionage network on the continent. The main intelligence target was Catholic (frequently Jesuit) activity and then to capture and execute Catholics seen as a threat to the English throne.

His network of spies may have included Christopher Marlowe, the playwright, and more certainly the cryptographer, Thomas Phelippes. He trained agents in intercepting and deciphering letters, creating false handwriting and breaking and repairing seals (on letters) without detection.

Walsingham's first major operation stemmed from the Elizabeth's order to unravel the
Ridolfi plot – a Catholic plot in 1570 to assassinate her and replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots.

In an early form of covert action Walsingham became active in soliciting support among English clergy for the (French Protestant) Huguenots. This was partly to destabilise that Catholic country and thereby prevent France from becoming an overwelming threat to England.

In 1570 Walsingham became Ambassador to France. After the
St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572 (in which 70,000 Huguenots may have been killed) his house in Paris became a temporary sanctuary of protestant refugees. He returned to England in April 1573.

Walsingham’s overt and covert foreign policy role was so successful that he was promoted to joint Secretary of State and in 1577 was knighted.

His most high profile operations were uncovering the
Throckmorton and Babington plots. The latter, to some more a case of entrapment by Walsingham than "discovery," would lead to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587. He was an active participant in her trial.

Dispatches from his agents from mercantile communities and foreign courts also provided some advance warning of the buildup of the Spanish Armada, although the warnings were initially disregarded by Elizabeth.

Americans might be particularly interested to know that recent research has uncovered evidence that the abortive first attempt to establish a permanent English settlement in North America, the famous lost colony at
Roanoke Island, might have been sabotaged by Walsingham. The sponsor of the colonization attempt, Sir Walter Raleigh, was Walsingham's rival at court.

Although a devout Protestant and an advisor on whom Elizabeth came to depend during the middle part of her reign, Walsingham received little in the way of material reward from the Queen. But he used considerable amounts of his personal income to maintain his intelligence network on the continent, paying the expenses of at least 50 (frequently aristocratic) spies.

Francis Walsingham died in April 6 1590, leaving considerable financial debt. One of the men who made England, which then became, Britain, “Great”.

By today’s standards the means that he used to extract confessions, by torture, would be considered criminal. But at that time the protection of the Queen (whose position was seen as “God given”) was considered paramount to the survival of the country. Active torture and prolonged imprisonment under hard conditions (eg. The Tower) were also considered useful deterrents to assassination plots.

If the term “assassin” is placed alongside “terrorist” I think the parallels to contemporary issues are obvious.