Considered the first British spymaster, Francis Walsingham held the position of the modern day Foreign Secretary and head of MI5 and MI6. A sixteenth-century ‘M’, he commanded a network of over 50 agents all over the country and throughout Europe as far east as Turkey, and usually supported this elaborate espionage network from his own pocket. Speculation has even placed the playwright, Christopher Marlowe in Walsingham’s web of spies.
During his ambassadorship in Paris he witnessed the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, in which targeted Huguenots (French Calvinist Protestants) were brutally assassinated. This event reinforced his hatred of Catholic regimes, providing the self-justification for torturing suspects and condemning the guilty to a traitor’s death. A fierce Protestant, he would have been riled by the fact that an overtly Roman Catholic image of the holy Virgin and Child has been discovered by X-ray, painted beneath his portrait now hanging in the National Gallery.
Walsingham counteracted a number of conspiracies against Elizabeth I: the most prominent being the Babington plot of 1585. A trainee priest named Gilbert Gifford was intercepted coming to England from France, employed to act as a messenger between Mary, Queen of Scots, and her supporters on the Continent. Walsingham convinced Gifford to become a double agent and helped construct a route for Mary’s correspondence that would pass through his own hands. These intercepted letters exposed a planned invasion of England by the Spanish and a plot to murder the Queen, directly implicating Mary in the plot against her cousin. Seven conspirators, plus Mary were tried, condemned and executed, all thanks to the king of Tudor espionage, Francis Walsingham.
Given his religious intolerance and love for intrigue, contemporary sources often portray Walsingham as a ruthless, sinister and devious man, similarly portrayed in fiction. Film after film (Elizabeth, Elizabeth R, Elizabeth I, Elizabeth: the Golden Age), portrays Walsingham as a dour, puritanical official, a skull-capped sycophant in Elizabeth’s court. Historians are beginning to sympathise with this shadowy character, appreciating that he was an educated, cosmopolitan figure, who supported exploration and colonisation. Enormously loyal and leaving an impressive legacy, Walsingham was admirably driven by his monarch and his faith.