England’s first ‘spymaster’ Sir Francis Walsingham was charged with keeping the Queen of England and her Protestant regime safe. The Roman Catholic threat was as unpredictable as it was violent, and in 1588 Spain’s Catholic King commissioned the Spanish Armada, a massive, sea-born invasionary force sent to overthrow the English Queen. It would prove to be Walsingham’s greatest challenge and the biggest threat to national security since the Norman invasion in 1066.
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True Spies Episode 55 - Her Majesty's Secret Service

NARRATOR: Welcome to True Spies. Week by week, mission by mission, you’ll hear the true stories behind the world’s greatest espionage operations. You’ll meet the people who navigate this secret world. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? 

This is True Spies Episode 55: Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

SIR FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: God’s people? They were Satan’s people - power-hungry, corrupt, and merciless. What started with a handful of soldiers spread like wildfire through the city. No, more like a fever. Ordinary men and women soon joined in with the killing. Once they began, they couldn’t stop, even if they had wanted to.

NARRATOR: The words of Sir Francis Walsingham, England’s principal secretary of state better known as England’s first ‘spymaster’, the office he held from 1573-1590. Walsingham was the man charged with keeping the Queen of England and her Protestant regime safe. Inspired by his surviving writings and historical research, True Spies brings Sir Francis back to life to tell his side of the story for the first time.

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: You have to remember that the Roman Catholic threat was not something that came out of the blue. Neither was the threat cooked up for political gain. It was real and it was growing by the day. 

NARRATOR: In 1588, Walsingham was to face his greatest challenge: the Spanish Armada. A massive, sea-born invasionary force commissioned by the Catholic King of Spain to overthrow the English Queen and banish her Protestant religion for good. It’s a story of how a fledgling intelligence service grew into the complex organism that is today. And how one True Spy’s vision and innovative spycraft helped ward off the greatest threat to national security since the Norman invasion in 1066.

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: I knew what these savages were capable of. I’d seen it with my own eyes. It wasn’t a choice. It was my calling.

NARRATOR: Our story starts in Paris, 1572. It was here, as English ambassador to France, that Francis Walsingham experienced the Catholic clampdown on Protestantism first hand. France’s religious wars had been raging for years. A fragile peace was procured through the marriage of the Catholic French King’s sister, Margaret, to the Protestant Henry of Navarre. 

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: It was never going to work. The Parisian Catholics regarded the Protestants as animals, witless heretics. Navarre, himself, was known in court circles as a country pig and Margaret was this great beauty from this ancient bloodline. It was a joke to think this was anything but a power move by the French crown.

NARRATOR: And sure enough, the truce didn’t even last the celebrations. 

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: I had my suspicions from the start. It was well-known that the French king was massively controlled by his scheming mother, Catherine de’ Medici.

NARRATOR: The wedding vows were barely uttered before the Catholics unleashed a horrifying frenzy of slaughter on the Protestant guests. Within just a few days, 6,000 Protestant men, women, and children had been murdered. It became known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: I managed to get my family out before it turned. But soon we were barricaded in the house. I slept not a wink. The screams filled the night. 

NARRATOR: Walsingham’s residence in St Germain became a refuge for those trying to escape this brutal death. When finally he dared leave, the River Seine had turned red.

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: A few days after the Paris massacre, I was summoned to meet with the French King. My diplomatic status had spared me my life. So with some trepidation, I set off on foot for the palace. It was as if hell had opened up and belched forth all its horror. It wasn’t just the river that ran red. The streets too had turned a sickly, sticky brown as the blood had dried. There were almost no persons to be seen on foot. Just bodies. Twisted, broken, butchered, naked bodies. As far as the eye could gauge. Nothing but death. No God stalked these streets. The devil himself had taken possession of the city and made it his playground.

NARRATOR: This unforgettable horror made an indelible impression on Walsingham and it was this single event that defined his vision of an England returned to Catholic rule. He never wrote down a word of what he saw but he never, ever forgot. Walsingham returned to London in 1573 where he took up the role of first secretary that he would hold till his death. 

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: It was clear that the Queen’s Service, as it was known, was too small and could only ever be partially effective. It needed to grow - and fast.

NARRATOR: Times were changing. Under Walsingham’s leadership, international espionage - or 'spiery' as it was then known as - was to transform beyond recognition. Paranoia, suspicion, betrayal - these were the currency of the day. Everyone was a suspect. Everyone was a potential agent. Anyone could be turned. Nothing was certain. Trust was more precious than gold.

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: Burghley, the chief secretary and my boss - he had this, I suppose you’d call it a catchphrase: “Seek peace, but prepare for war.” What he meant, which I completely agreed with, was whatever the diplomatic line, the state’s only option was to imagine - and plan for - the worst outcome. The Protestants in Paris allowed themselves to be lured into a trap. That was unforgivable. If they’d looked hard enough, or had wanted to look, they’d have seen things for what they were. It was as much on them as it was on the double-crossing French monarchy.

NARRATOR: With Walsingham at the helm, the English Service was transformed. His aggressive program of recruitment saw his network of ‘intelligencers’, as they were known, expand into a vast network of agents that spanned the known world. 

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: It’s not like we had a choice. We had to refine our ways of doing this or be damned.

NARRATOR: So who was this man who pledged his lifelong allegiance to Elizabeth? And what sparked this obsession with surveillance that made him one of her most vital subjects? Walsingham’s early details are sketchy. Born, probably, in 1532, to a devout, well-appointed Protestant family, he chose to flee the country when Mary Tudor briefly returned England to Catholic rule. Fearing persecution, Walsingham traveled extensively through Europe and it was this experience that provided him with first-hand knowledge of the complex socio-political landscape of the continent he was to need so often in his work. But it also showed him how fragile the Protestant faith was. 

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: When Elizabeth succeeded Queen Mary, she opted to restore the Church Of England founded by her father, Henry VIII. But the Catholics refused to even recognize the legitimacy of her birth, let alone her chosen faith.

NARRATOR: Catholicism was still the majority faith of Europe and its principal practitioners had no plans to release their iron grip on the religious practices of men and women.

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: They denounced her as the ‘bastard heretic’. We all knew that it would only be a matter of time before they would try and remove her. The crown was barely on her head before they began plotting to have her replaced. You see, the Armada wasn’t some spontaneous act, a whim. The Armada was something that had been stirring since the moment the Queen ascended to the throne. The Armada was inevitable.

NARRATOR: In 1559 the Spanish King, Philip II, took possession of the Low Countries - what we now know as modern-day Holland and the Netherlands. He re-enacted an edict against Protestant thought. An intense period of persecution followed. 

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: Well, the appropriation of the Low Countries was clearly the first hostile act against Protestant expansion. 

NARRATOR: This was a religious war and, to some, it looked like Spain was winning. However, in the early years of her reign, Queen Elizabeth showed a certain degree of tolerance towards the ‘old religion’. Aware of how fragile her position was, and how small and depleted her army, Elizabeth sought alliances, even marriages, that would forge peace between the two faiths. Her predecessor Mary Tudor was, after all, married to Philip of Spain - the same Philip who went on to conquer Holland. England had already had a Spanish King. 

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: Mary Tudor and Philip of Spain barely had a marriage. One can only be grateful that her miserable five-year reign failed to bear fruit. With no heir, the Spanish designs on the English throne were stalled. Stalled, but not vanquished.

NARRATOR: While Europe’s Catholics plotted, it soon became clear that Elizabeth’s greatest threat was much, much closer to home. Inside her own family, in fact, in the form of another woman named Mary, Mary Stuart. Mary Queen of Scots was the Queen’s cousin. She was also a devout Catholic and capable of inspiring an uprising amongst [the] many English subjects who remained loyal to the old faith. Those same subjects who believed her, and not Elizabeth, to be England’s true Queen. Mary Stuart soon became the focal point of the burgeoning industry of plots aimed at making her England’s monarch, and herein lay Elizabeth’s dilemma.

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: If Elizabeth believed the monarch was appointed by God, which she did, then she had to recognize that the Queen of Scots was also appointed by God. To kill a monarch was to break God’s immutable law. So if we couldn’t kill Mary, then we had to outsmart her and her allies at every turn. 

NARRATOR: It’s here, in thwarting the numerous plots to oust Elizabeth, that Walsingham’s secret service came of age. Over the next 20 years, he would amass an intricate, complex, and multi-layered network of agents from the seminaries in Paris and Rome to the Spanish court, to the Vatican itself. And, in doing so, he would see into the hearts of men, developing perhaps the most essential skill of all: a sharp instinct for human weakness. It was this that made Walsingham such an effective recruiter of his ‘intelligencers’. 

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: Men are quite simple, you know. If you look hard enough, you’ll find their weakness. Very few are without sin and even fewer without some foible, some past mistake which they wish to keep hidden lest it damages their reputations, their marriages, their financial interests. 

NARRATOR: Walsingham knew that most people could be ‘turned’ or ‘recruited’ depending on their circumstances. A heady mix of religious ideology and ruthless pragmatism ruled the hearts of Elizabethans. Both could be used to Walsingham’s advantage. And then there was money. 

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: If we found a man’s financial dealings to be less than spotless, we could be sure to turn all but the most committed zealot. And we even turned a few of those!

NARRATOR: And it was with this discovery that Walsingham and his network of recruiters defined the single most effective recruiting tool they possessed, as effective today as it was 500 years ago. Almost anyone could be bought. And in a time when letters of credit, gambling debts, foolhardy investments, and the boom-bust cycles of England’s complex inheritance laws could ruin a man at any stage of his life, Walsingham knew that background checks into his target’s finances would be the key to winning them over to his cause. When word spread there was money to be earned, some even volunteered for service. 

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: When a man has the bailiffs knocking on his door, it’s surprising how quickly he will abandon his sacred principles for a bag of coins. 

NARRATOR: Walsingham’s spy network was so extensive it incorporated aristocrats, traders, and politicians alongside humble messengers and kitchen porters. And Catholics. For all their declarations of loyalty to Pope Sixtus V, some Catholics were adept at playing the long game, where survival was more important than any single religious ideology. In other words, even hardened Catholics could be flipped. When faced with being tortured in a dank and disease-ridden jail, the most zealous of priests could be convinced to turn against his faith. A good example of a Walsingham recruit was Anthony Standen, a ‘Catholic adventurer’ who skillfully played both sides for financial gain and, his loyalty for sale, supplied regular reports of the Armada’s readiness directly to Walsingham - all for the love of money. This network was to play, perhaps, the most vital role of all in the spymaster’s mission to thwart the King of Spain’s plans to invade England, and there had been plenty of practice. Amidst the dozens of low-level plots to either assassinate or drive Elizabeth into exile, there were three notable attempts that could have succeeded had Walsingham’s ‘spiery’ failed.

: Ridolfi, Throckmorton, and finally, Babington. All united in their desire to topple the Queen and replace her with a Catholic monarch.

The last of these was the most notorious. The Babington conspiracy was foiled in 1587 and it is significant to our story for two reasons. First, it led to the trial and execution of Mary Queen of Scots, an act that was seen by Catholic Spain as the final provocation to war. And the second reason to pay attention to the Babington plot is that it’s here that we see Walsingham’s spycraft come of age. It’s also where we find its dark side. For despite his lofty ambition and public insistence on the honorable activities - ‘nothing unbecoming an honest man’ he would insist at Mary’s trial - Walsingham’s practices were not above torture and forgery. When examined, the lines blur between duty and a darker, shadow world of fanaticism and obsession. Obsession: a theme we will see return more than once in the telling of this tale. 

: I wasn’t doing this on my own. I needed good people, people I could trust, which weren’t many, believe me.

Walsingham’s most loyal lieutenant was a man called Thomas Phelippes. Phelippes was a skilled interrogator and one of the key members of Walsingham’s inner sanctum, one of the few men he trusted. He was also a brilliant codebreaker. It was Phelippes who studied the ancient texts that would enable him to crack the complex, seemingly impenetrable ciphers that were used to pass letters between Mary Stuart, imprisoned at Chartwell Hall, and her would-be liberators, led by Babington. In a slow but brilliantly executed pincer movement, Walsingham had the secret messages - hidden by Babington in barrels of ale - copied, deciphered by Phelippes, and then resealed, returned to their hiding place and allowed to reach their destination. The messages were kept moving - without, it seems, any suspicion that they were being read - for one crucial reason. Under a new law - the Act of the Queen’s Surety - special powers had been granted to apprehend and, if found guilty, execute those who plotted to overthrow Elizabeth. But in the case of Mary, Elizabeth’s reluctance to move against her cousin reared its head again. So Walsingham’s mission was not solely to gather evidence. It had to be the right evidence. He had to prove Mary’s active involvement in the plot, and he had to have it in writing. The other reason the surveillance operation was so successful was that the man responsible for supplying the messages to the imprisoned Queen - Gilbert Gifford - had been turned by Walsingham. The spymaster was in his element but it’s here, too, that we find Walsingham crossed a line. As the conspirators readied to make their move, a final letter from Mary to her supporters was intercepted. Although to some it may have been incriminating enough, the letter was doctored - under Walsingham’s instructions - to incriminate her further. Phelippes forged a postscript in Mary’s hand that requested Babington supply her with a full list of her liberators. Thus implicating her beyond any doubt.

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: No forged evidence was ever presented at trial. That’s all I have to say on the matter.

NARRATOR: After he got wind of the authorities closing in on him, Babington tried to flee but was, alongside 19 others, quickly apprehended. Elizabeth personally ordered the most cruel death possible: the men were hanged, drawn, and quartered at the Tower of London. This unspeakably barbaric punishment involved the subject being hanged till nearly, but not completely, dead. Then their innards were removed and placed on their torso before beheading and ‘quartering’ of the body, which was then dragged through the streets by horses. The entire spectacle was custom built to deter anyone thinking of conspiring against the Queen. Never let it be said that the Protestants were above such acts of cruelty. Elizabeth had a political purpose in this demand for brutal retribution. She secretly hoped that such a public display of authority would deflect from demands for Mary’s trial and execution. She was wrong. And she was wrong mainly because Walsingham had no intention of letting Mary off the hook. 

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: It was too great an opportunity to miss.

After years of painstaking surveillance, he finally had her where he wanted her - and he was going to finish the job.

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: This heinous act of treason could not, must not go unpunished. But one wrong move and both Burghley and I knew the Queen would swiftly change her mind. This was as much a game of wits as anything.

NARRATOR: Through careful stage-managing of the trial and its aftermath, the two men finally convinced Elizabeth to do what had once been unthinkable. To sign the warrant for Mary’s execution. Knowing how difficult this decision had been for the Queen, Burghley and Walsingham swiftly ensured that there was no room for the Queen to change her mind. The execution was hastily arranged to be held at Fotheringhay Castle on 8th February 1587. It took three blows of the axe to remove Mary’s head. An eye witness reported the dead Queen continued to mouth the prayer she was uttering when the axe struck for fifteen minutes after her death. The Scottish queen was dead.

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: Relief? No, I felt no relief. What kind of a question is that? We were less safe, not more. 

NARRATOR: Why? Because in reality, Walsingham’s desire for Mary’s head was all part of a bigger plan to provoke Spain into an all-out attack. Walsingham’s capacity for detail was matched with an equal skill for seeing the bigger picture. In this regard, he was the master tactician, a great mind overseeing a vast chessboard of options. And slowly, painstakingly maneuvering his pieces while never losing sight of the game. Provocation of the enemy was a strategic policy to ‘annoy’ Philip II of Spain into action. Walsingham had stepped beyond the role of mere spycraft into the realm of statecraft. He was now designing an all-out campaign against his enemy, which some have likened to the Cold War - only it wasn’t all cold. As part of this strategy, Sir Francis Drake, arguably the greatest sailor of his age, was encouraged to launch a successful series of sorties to the newly conquered Spanish Indies. His haul more than paid for the venture, and once again struck a blow at Spanish confidence and pride. Drake’s other accomplishment was to destroy vast quantities of iron hoops and oak staves - the materials used to make the barrels that stored both food and wine. The resulting shortage of food storage on the Armada ships was a major problem, resulting in a significant amount of the invaders’ food supplies rotting onboard. In addition, Walsingham had somehow convinced the Queen to commit funds to assisting the Dutch rebellion against Spain’s imperial presence. The pressure on Spain was mounting.

: One thing we knew about the King of Spain was his religious conviction was matched by his pride. England had slipped through his hands once. He wasn’t going to let it happen again.

NARRATOR: The other factor encouraging the Spanish to move sooner rather than later was the rumor that had spread to the Spanish court that Mary Stuart had left a Will hidden at Chartwell. In this Will, it was said, she had named Philip as her heir and the next King of England. The only problem was, the Will did not exist. So where had this rumor come from, and how had it spread to Spain?

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: Who says we couldn’t occasionally have some fun at their expense? If you’re driven by ideology then you are vulnerable to believe things you want to believe. Rebuilding the Catholic church on these shores - the English Enterprise as they insisted on calling it - had taken hold root and branch in their twisted minds. Anything that could justify these measures and the lengths they were prepared to take, would be pounced on by them. That I could guarantee. The idea of the Will came to me as we were preparing the incriminating documents for Mary’s trial. And to be honest, had the Will existed it could well have helped us, as it could have been used as evidence. But believe me, we searched every nook of her residence, and there was no such record. 

NARRATOR: The question remained, would this strategy of provocation succeed or fail? And where would it lead?

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: We knew that if their troops so much as touched down on English soil, we were doomed. Our small army and hastily assembled militias were no match for what my sources warned us was up to 30,000 of their seasoned men. We had to keep them from landing. But they still had the element of surprise over us. Both intelligence communities were furiously briefing and counter-briefing against each other. It was the biggest gamble of my career.

NARRATOR: By 1587, Walsingham’s intelligence network had for some time been supplying him with information regarding the Spanish Armada. Through a stroke of genius, Walsingham had gone outside the obvious channels - which he feared were being potentially misdirected by Spanish counterintelligence - and recruited English merchants into his network. In return for diplomatic favors in resolving local trade disputes, these merchants could watch the ports, without suspicion, and also provide accounts of unusual trading activities - bulk orders of shipping materials for example - that would provide evidence of a vast fleet being prepared for the invasion. And, of course, the greatest asset was the intelligence that came out of Spanish ports. That is until the King of Spain suddenly embargoed English trade ships. Although primarily an overt act of protectionism, the embargo also throttled Walsingham’s Spanish surveillance operation. It was a major blow. And had Walsinhgam lost his nerve, it could have been a fatal one. With his intelligence now less than reliable, Walsingham’s success in provoking King Philip into attacking could easily backfire if he was unable to gain precise details of when, and where the Spanish fleet was destined to strike.

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: It was a setback, no doubt about it. But we still had plenty of other channels of intelligence open. We just needed them all to agree with each other. That was the real challenge. It was extremely hard to get a consensus. Some sources claimed the fleet was up to a year away from being ready. Others said it was much more imminent.

NARRATOR: Then, suddenly, in May 1588 the compromised intelligence networks started to report the same news: the Spanish Armada had already set sail for England, heading for what the Spanish believed would be a swift and decisive victory. Taken by surprise, Walsingham and his fellow Privy Councillors had to move fast. Their next steps would decide the future of England.

NARRATOR: Walsingham’s intelligence had confirmed that the Spanish Armada had departed from Lisbon and was heading for England. His plan to provoke the Spanish into the attack had achieved its goal. But he also knew that there were several factors working against the prospect of the English successfully repelling the attack. The first was scale. Despite having a strong, but smaller Navy, the English defenses were weak. Relying on hastily assembled and poorly trained militias were no match for the might of the seasoned Spanish forces. Secondly, troops cost money to maintain - money which the state didn’t have and didn’t want to spend. After one false alarm, Elizabeth immediately stood down the paltry forces she was financing to save money. 

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: Wars are expensive, what can I tell you? And yes, the Queen was, shall we say, conservative with the royal purse. Her father had wrecked the state finances and, well, money was tight. It was clear to me that in the time we had, getting her to spend the kind of sums we needed - which would require raising considerable debt - and then furnishing a land force capable of repelling the Spanish army… Argh, to even speak of it makes me sick. It was just a fantasy. It would never happen, however compelling our argument. 

NARRATOR: Added to this, the English crown’s capacity to raise capital was also limited, almost non-existent. And finally, even if the intelligence regarding the fleet’s departure was 100 percent accurate, there was still no way of predicting when and where it would land. Walsingham had engaged in an elaborate feasibility study, examining the English coastline for optimal sites for a hostile landing force. His proposal - quickly nixed by the Queen - was to deploy a standing force at each possible point of attack. But, with the added wild card of unpredictable sailing conditions thrown in, it was becoming clear there could never be a consensus as to where, or when, the Armada would appear. But in regards to lack of funds, Walsingham had already displayed another flash of brilliance in his solution. 

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: It was simple really. If we couldn’t raise the money to build up a defense force, then we would have to make sure that the Spanish would have trouble raising money to equip the attacking fleet. 

NARRATOR: Walsingham is perhaps being a little disingenuous when he suggests this was ‘simple’. But owing to his network of contacts, and huge talent for strategic planning, he managed to put several spanners in the works when Philip II of Spain went to raise credit with the European banks. Although a great power, as we’ve already covered, Spain had been pursuing several costly campaigns abroad, and her coffers needed replenishing. With his options narrowed by Walsingham’s meddling, the Spanish King was forced to approach the Vatican for funds. In principle, Pope Sixtus was favorable towards the Spanish request but we’re talking vast sums of money. Millions of gold ducats then, translating into billions now. 

The Pope drove a hard bargain and, after finally agreeing, insisted half the funds would only be released when the Spanish touched down on English soil. A kind of no-win, no-fee option. In retrospect, Walsinghams’s disruption of Spain’s finances showed extraordinary foresight. The Spanish fleet of 130 ships was understocked as a result and when both disease and starvation struck, the full strength of the fighting force was severely compromised before it had even reached France. The other strategic error made by Spain was its plan to boost the troop numbers with additional soldiers based at Flanders in Belgium. This meant a time-costly detour to restock before the invasion could be mounted. As it turns out, the diversion never happened; the Spanish plans had already been damaged by other factors. But before the final showdown between the English and Spanish ships, there remained the issue of the Queen. Right up until the last moment, Elizabeth wished to pursue a diplomatic solution to the Spanish conflict. She was now beyond the age of child-bearing - and marriage in all but a token fashion was off the cards - but diplomacy was still the preferred route out of this. 

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: Frustrating? No. This is what she is meant to do. She couldn’t be seen to be warmongering any more than she could be seen to persecute her wretched cousin. The Queen had a public image to protect - Gloriana and all that. It was up to us lot behind the scenes to do her dirty work. Not that she was beyond reproach or folly. When we were sentencing Mary we discovered that the Queen had approached her jailor to see if he would dispatch the Queen of Scots in secret rather than go through the spectacle of a public execution. Can you imagine how that would have gone down? If it was as simple as that I could have sent Phelippes her way years ago and saved us all a lot of trouble!

NARRATOR: These throwaway remarks belie the fact that Walsingham’s relationship with Elizabeth was a complex one. They were exact contemporaries but their dispositions could not have been more different. As well as her ability to inspire her people, Elizabeth was known amidst the court for her indecisiveness, her capacity to prevaricate and avoid decisions. She also was capable of hot-headedness, occasional flashes of rage, and perhaps worst of all, acts of pointed cruelty that seemed motivated by jealousy, pride, malice, or all three. A case in point was her refusal to give her blessing to Walsingham’s daughter’s marriage to Sir Philip Sidney. Why? Walsingham could never ascertain. 

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: I wouldn’t call it difficult. We had the unenviable task of bringing the Queen bad news as well as good. So inevitably she had mixed feelings about us and how we operated. I think in some ways she wanted to know we were there, but not in plain sight. Which suited me fine. 

NARRATOR: Indeed, as soon as he got the chance, Walsingham moved out of the center of London. From here he could still reach the capital easily but was able to stay away from the incessant gossip, grime, and hedonism of court life. A Protestant through and through, Walsingham set himself apart from the court, maintaining his incredible work ethic and dealing with the ever-growing volume of intelligence that passed across his desk. But despite his protestations, Walsingham’s relationship with the Queen was not without its flare-ups. One such incident involved one of Elizabeth’s own ladies-in-waiting. 

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: Ha ha, that. I’d put it from my mind, but yes, the Queen and I had words, as you say. The Lady in question was found to be a member of a conspiracy to supply letters to the Queen of Scots. I know... the Queen’s own staff. I mean, I can laugh now but at the time I was spitting mad. There, in the very same chamber as her majesty, was a papist plotter. And what did the Queen do? Nothing. Why? Only she can tell you that. And yes, of course, I was bloody angry. We were laboring night and day to protect the Royal person. And here, in broad daylight, was one unmasked. I can’t go into it now. It’s too frustrating. 

NARRATOR: However much she didn’t like the idea of being beholden to the man she once described as her ‘dark moor’, Elizabeth knew she relied on Walsingham more than she would ever be prepared to say out loud. And perhaps that was part of her mystique. She somehow managed to maintain an air of unpredictability, of unknowableness, even in the face of such unrelenting scrutiny from both her allies and her enemies. There was always a part of her she would keep hidden. 

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: It’s not even that complicated. She had no heir, you see? What choice did we have? The Tudors were not secure. The Faith was not secure. It wasn’t personal. My duty was to protect England, Protestant England, by any means necessary. That’s all there is to it. You can try and dissect the psyche of the Queen all you like. My concern was with the survival of the House of Tudor. Anything else is just speculation and gossip.

NARRATOR: Before the Armada was spotted off the coast of England, Walsingham’s intelligence operation had gone into overdrive. Not only was he receiving regular reports from out of Spain; he had also managed to acquire an agent inside the household of the Spanish Naval commander-in-chief. In addition, he had made attempts to spread false intelligence, counter-briefing known Spanish agents in the hope that they would carry inaccurate summaries of the English readiness to their masters. 

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: Papists are a superstitious bunch. I managed to start spreading rumors of a great storm foretold by mystical forecasters. And you know, I heard recruitment in Lisbon was badly affected by this. You believe some of what these people believe, you’ll soon start believing anything. 

NARRATOR: Beneath this bravado, Walsingham knew that it would not be long before intelligence would have to give way to military tactics. He even went so far as to order new armor from the Low Countries and pay for his own private militia of 50 men. 

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: I wasn’t going to hide behind the office. If I was putting the lives of our sailors and soldiers at risk, well, I had to be prepared to do the same. I knew what these people were capable of. I wasn’t going to face them defenseless.

NARRATOR: And then, on the 19th July, the Spanish fleet was spotted off the southwest coast of England. A series of beacons, custom-built to send word as fast as possible back to London, was ignited. This was the moment Walsingham had been waiting for. Early on 21st July, the smaller but faster English ships sailing out of Portsmouth engaged with the crescent-shaped Spanish fleet. 

On 23rd July, after a further skirmish with the English, the Spanish were forced to retreat to Calais on the French coast. There the Spanish awaited orders of their rendezvous with the additional troops to be supplied by the Duke of Palma. However, communications were slow and Palma’s troops were also depleted by disease. The diversion to Calais was to prove fatal for the Armada. While the Spanish galleons waited for orders, the English switched tactics. Under the command of Lord Howard of Effingham, Sir Francis Drake and Rear-Admiral Sir John Hawkins, the English launched a fireship attack on the Spanish fleet. 

These were wooden boats filled with pitch, brimstone, gunpowder, and tar that were set alight and sailed by night directly into the anchored Spanish ships. With no way of evading the attack, the Spanish were sitting ducks. The fearsome sight of these huge, burning boats prompted them to scatter. As the invading fleet attempted to escape, they headed up the east coast of England. Still under attack from the English cannons, the decimated Spanish had no other option but to try to return home.

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: So who knew my false predictions of hostile weather would be correct? In the end, it was the stormy Irish sea that finished them off. English weather - our greatest weapon!

NARRATOR: It was to be a harrowing defeat for Spain. Some 6,000 Spanish soldiers and sailors were lost at sea; 25 ships were wrecked off the coasts of Scotland and Ireland, and; 1,500 sailors washed up on Irish soil where they were hunted down and slaughtered by English troops. The remainder of the fleet sailed for home. Of the 130 ships that left Lisbon, only six returned. It was a victory that soon passed into the annals of history, and then myth, for the English people. And for Elizabeth, it became one of the defining moments of her reign. The Queen knew that the combined forces of her Secret Service and Navy had saved not just her, but the whole nation, from conquest. And what of Walsingham? Finally, it seems, the Queen’s gratitude that had so eluded him in the past, was forthcoming.

: Pah. I didn’t do it for gratitude or favor. There are greater things than the vanity of princes and men, you know. 

NARRATOR: The defeat of the Armada was the culmination of Walsingham’s life’s work. At only 55, the first secretary should have gone on to fight and win more battles but it was not to be. Cancer killed him on 6th April 1590, just two years after the defeat of the Armada.

Principal secretary of state. Privy councillor. Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Chancellor of the Order of the Garter. Head of overseas espionage. Chief of national security. Devout Christian. Walsingham had been all of these and now he was gone. And the bittersweet irony was that despite his great care in protecting the nation, he left his widow and children with the large debts which he had accumulated during his service. The Queen’s reluctance - refusal even - to properly fund her secret service meant that Walsingham had to pay for some of it out of his own pocket. And on the relatively meager first secretary’s salary, this had wreaked havoc with his finances. 

So the question remains unanswered: what drove this most brilliant and devoted of men to dedicate his life, wealth, and health to the Protestant cause and the wholesale transformation of the English secret service into the gold standard in intelligence? It wasn’t money. The Queen’s legendary prudence made quite sure of that. It wasn’t fame or glory; both of which he avoided wherever possible. And it can’t even be reduced to faith. He was a devout man, yes, but he was not a zealot. His occasional propensity for torture and forgery contradicted the teachings of the New Testament. It was what he had witnessed in Paris all those years before.

FRANCIS WALSINGHAM: After The Saint Bartholomew’s Day killings, I could never look into the eyes of a Catholic again without seeing the blood of the slain. I knew what darkness lurked in their hearts. And whenever I questioned my methods or my motives, I had only to think of that walk to see their King, and all doubts, all equivocation was gone. It was never a choice. Philip II and his Pope wanted to bring their carnage to these shores. I was prepared to die stopping them. That’s all there is to it.

NARRATOR: Francis Walsingham was buried without the usual state proceedings befitting a man of his rank. The Great Fire of London destroyed his humble grave in 1666. But his legacy cannot be erased.

I’m Vanessa Kirby. Join us next week for another encounter with True Spies. We all have valuable spy skills and our experts are here to help you discover yours. Get an authentic assessment of your spy skills, created by a former head of training at British intelligence, now at SPYSCAPE.com.

Guest Bio

Cambridge University-educated lawyer Sir Francis Walsingham (c. 1532-1590) served as principal secretary to Queen Elizabeth I of England. He rose from relative obscurity to become one of the advisors who directed the Elizabethan state, overseeing foreign, domestic, and religious policy. He also served as English ambassador to France in the early 1570s. While working as Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, he also ordered the execution of Mary Queen of Scots.

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