The Queen's Agent: Sir Francis Walsingham and the Rise of Espionage in Elizabethan England

The Queen's Agent: Sir Francis Walsingham and the Rise of Espionage in Elizabethan England

by John Cooper

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781453271667
Publisher: Pegasus Books
Publication date: 02/05/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 274,832
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

John Cooper studied and taught history at Oxford before moving to the University of York. Cooper often lectures on the Tudor period and is a regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement. He lives in North Yorkshire with his wife, the author Suzanne Fagence Cooper. 

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The Queen's Agent

Sir Francis Walsingham and the Rise of Espionage in Elizabethan England

By John Cooper


Copyright © 2012 John Cooper
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-7166-7



* * *

In 1529 a London lawyer named William Walsingham used the proceeds of his thriving practice to buy the manor of Foot's Cray, a dozen miles out of town on the road to the Kentish coast. As he and many like him were discovering, it was a good time to be a barrister. The name of Walsingham was well known in London, and William was able to trade on his contacts in city government and the royal household. King Henry VIII chose him to report on the possessions of the disgraced minister Cardinal Wolsey, and he was elected to a prestigious readership at Gray's Inn. In 1532 he was appointed under-sheriff of London, the highest position which a city lawyer could hope to achieve. His wife Joyce had already given him daughters who could be married into prominent families; all that he now lacked was a son.

Regular registers of baptisms weren't introduced until the later 1530s, so the year of Francis Walsingham's birth is uncertain. But if we count back from his admission to King's College, Cambridge then it was probably 1531 or 1532, the twenty-second year of King Henry's reign. Nor is the place known for sure, although Foot's Cray seems more likely than the family's London home near Aldermanbury in Cripplegate ward; mothers of means usually chose to have their babies away from the filth and pestilence of the city. Francis would have been christened as soon as he could safely be carried to the parish church, in a rite that was rich in sacramental ceremony. The devil was exorcised with salt and holy oil before the baby was immersed in the font and wrapped in a chrisom cloth. Children who died before they could be cleansed of original sin were believed to go into limbo rather than heaven, hence the urgency of getting them to baptism.

Some pedigrees trace the ancestry of the family back to the village of Little Walsingham in Norfolk. It would be ironic if Francis Walsingham, who grew to loathe Catholicism, could be connected to one of the greatest sites of pilgrimage in medieval England. Henry VIII prayed at Walsingham in thanks for the birth of his short-lived son Henry in 1511, before the Reformation swept away its shrine to the Virgin Mary. But the link with Norfolk is probably apocryphal. The earliest reliable evidence dates from fifteenth-century London, where the Walsinghams emerged as property-owners and members of the prestigious Vintners' Company. In 1424 the merchant Thomas Walsingham bought a country manor at Scadbury near Chislehurst, so staking his claim to be a member of the gentry. It was a pattern that would define the English upper class for centuries to come: owning land was a social passport out of the world of commerce. Thomas's grandson James had a long career, serving Henry VII as sheriff of Kent in 1486–7 and travelling to France with Henry VIII in 1520. He witnessed the fantastical Field of Cloth of Gold as one of the king's honour guard. James Walsingham had two sons, Edmund – who inherited the estate at Scadbury – and William, who was Francis's father.

Edmund Walsingham scrambled a rung or so higher up the social hierarchy. He earned a knighthood fighting the Scots at Flodden, and accompanied his father to France in 1520. Two years later he attended King Henry during the visit of the emperor Charles V to England. The sword and helmet that once hung above his tomb are now preserved at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds. His wife Anne owned a jewel depicting Henry VIII within a golden heart, a visible statement of her family's standing at court. In 1521 Sir Edmund was appointed lieutenant of the Tower of London, giving him day-to-day responsibility for the prisoners held there. He found himself guarding both the Protestant translator John Frith, burned for heresy in 1533, and Frith's great enemy Thomas More, beheaded in 1535 for his refusal to accept Henry VIII's supremacy over the Church of England. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester and another Catholic martyr, complained of harsh treatment at Walsingham's hands. The duties of lieutenant included supervising the torture of suspected traitors on the rack. Forty years hence, his nephew Francis would be authorising the same methods of interrogation.

William Walsingham had no prospects of a landed inheritance, so he turned to London and the law. Like Thomas More, he prospered on the legal business of the city. John Stow's Survey of London describes Aldermanbury as a street with many fair houses 'meet for merchants or men of worship', with a conduit of fresh water running down the middle. St Mary Aldermanbury had a churchyard and a cloister where the curious could see a shank bone reputedly belonging to a giant. William Walsingham asked to be buried in the church, and left its high altar a symbolic shilling in his will. Any monument to him would have been destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666, while the Wren church that replaced it was reduced to rubble during the Blitz and removed to Fulton, Missouri as a tribute to Winston Churchill. But a memorial to Sir Edmund survives in Chislehurst parish church next to a tablet to his grandson Thomas, who probably did some intelligence work for Sir Francis Walsingham and was a close friend of Christopher Marlowe.

If William Walsingham enjoyed a degree of contact with the royal household, then his wife was even better connected. Joyce Walsingham was the younger sister of the Protestant courtier Sir Anthony Denny. As one of the principal gentlemen of Henry VIII's privy chamber, Denny was the closest thing that the king had to a friend during the 1540s. His position as keeper of the privy purse made him responsible for Henry's huge personal expenditure on buildings, artwork and gambling. As groom of the stool, the gentleman in charge of the king's close-stool or portable toilet, Denny regulated access to the royal apartments during the last two years of Henry's reign. He also took charge of the dry stamp, a facsimile of the king's signature which empowered him to authorise documents as if they had been signed by Henry in person.

This was a remarkable concentration of power, based on closeness to the king rather than bureaucratic office. When the royal doctors decided that the time had come for Henry VIII to prepare for death in January 1547, it was Denny who had the unenviable task of telling the king. Denny kept his faith in reform even when Henry grew suspicious of Protestant radicalism, and he was among those who ensured that the young Edward VI was advised by councillors of the right religious persuasion. Protector Somerset appointed him as Edward's guardian during his own absences from London fighting the Scots, and he was still close to the throne when he died in 1549. One uncle entrusted with the Tower of London, another at the core of the king's court: these were powerful connections for a London lawyer's son. The tradition of royal service ran in Francis Walsingham's blood.

'Kent is the key of all England', wrote the traveller and antiquary John Leland in the 1530s. Henry VIII had spent much of his childhood at Eltham Palace, four miles from Foot's Cray. The Walsingham lands lay in a belt of arable farms and small estates that sent their wheat to the ever-expanding city of London. Livestock was raised on the salt marshes of the nearby Thames estuary. Timber and cloth travelled from the forests of the Weald, where an embryonic iron industry met the demand for cannon to arm Henry VIII's navy. To the east the road ran towards the River Medway at Rochester and onward to Canterbury, the ecclesiastical capital of England.

Kent was a landscape of ancient settlement, closely governed and prosperous. But its society was also experiencing some unsettling changes under the Tudors. Wealth was becoming concentrated in the hands of relatively few gentlemen and yeomen farmers, causing friction within a social order which was supposed to be fixed and harmonious. Population was rising fast, while people were increasingly on the move in search of work. As a justice of the peace for Kent and under-sheriff of London, Francis Walsingham's father was faced with the consequences of this demographic revolution in the form of growing problems of vagabondage and crime. At its most acute, economic discontent began to shade into politics. Kentish cloth-workers refused to pay a forced loan to fund the king's wars in France, following a tradition of resistance to unjust taxation which stretched back past Jack Cade's rebellion of 1450 to memories of Wat Tyler and the Peasants' Revolt.

The Church was traditionally a force for stability in turbulent times. Sermons and prayerbooks taught that people should submit to adversity and focus on the life of the world to come. But this bedrock was also shifting in response to events in Lutheran Germany, and its trade links with Europe meant that Kent was one of the first English counties to feel the tremors. In 1530 a joiner named Thomas Hitton was caught importing heretical books at Gravesend and burned at the stake on the orders of Bishop Fisher. Two priests and a carpenter who criticised devotional images and praised the works of Martin Luther were faced with a stark choice, to recant or to die for heresy. Kent had a history of religious radicalism to match its tradition of rebellion. The secretive community of the Lollards, who had been reading an English Bible and criticising the doctrine of purgatory for a hundred years, was strong in Maidstone and the Weald. But figures like Hitton represented the advance guard of a new movement, inspired by Lutheran ideas about the priesthood of all believers and justification by faith; and unlike the Lollards, its converts were determined to evangelise.

Disturbed by the spread of heresy in their midst, Catholics received comfort from an unlikely source. Elizabeth Barton was working as a serving maid when her graphic visions of heaven and the deadly sins first brought her to the notice of the authorities. An investigation into the 'holy maid of Kent' pronounced her to be orthodox, and she subsequently took her vows as a Benedictine nun in Canterbury. But as the movement to break from Rome gathered pace, Barton's revelations acquired a sharply political edge. Having spoken in the pope's defence and called for the burning of Protestant books, she told the king that he would not survive a month on the throne if he divorced Katherine of Aragon. Henry was outraged, and put her under Sir Edmund Walsingham's guard in the Tower. She was hanged and beheaded for treason at Tyburn in 1534, alongside the Canterbury monks who had promoted her as a prophetess.

Francis Walsingham was born during this watershed of the English Reformation. The king's personal dislike of Luther meant that it was not until the early 1530s that an official campaign got under way; and reform, when it came, was driven by Henry's need to settle the succession rather than any commitment to Protestant theology. In 1533 the Act of Appeals declared that 'this realm of England is an empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one supreme head and king'. A thousand-year allegiance to the papacy was not so much severed as declared to have been an illusion. The English Church was subject to kings rather than foreign potentates, just as it had been before the pope had usurped the rightful power of the crown. Printed for proclamation to the king's subjects, the Act unleashed a barrage of positive and negative propaganda. Henry VIII was hailed as the lion of Judah and Christ's lieutenant on earth, while the pope was vilified as the Antichrist. The royal supremacy over the Church was preached in every parish, taught in every school and catechism class. Heads of household had to swear an oath to uphold it.

Walsingham belonged to a generation of English men and women who had never known how to pray for the pope. Viewed from their perspective, the Reformation seemed like a rebellion of young people against their elders. Henry VIII's erratic relationship with religious reform left many causes for them to fight. Church services were still largely in Latin, incomprehensible to most of the people attending them. The king would not permit any dilution of the traditional teaching on the mass, a reworking of Christ's sacrifice in which bread and wine were miraculously transformed into body and blood. Chantry priests were still singing for the souls of the departed in purgatory. And yet the Bible was openly preached in English from 1539, while parish churches were being cleared of their images of the saints. Targets of the iconoclasm in Kent included the 'rood of grace' at Boxley Abbey, whose moving eyes and lips were exposed as a fraud in the market-place at Maidstone, and the sumptuous shrine of St Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Catholicism was becoming tainted with superstition and trickery. It was also increasingly derided as foreign, unpatriotic, 'Roman'. Protestant scholars such as John Leland and John Bale searched the historical record for proof of England's special place within Christendom. In Queen Elizabeth's reign this nascent sense of nationhood would peak in the belief that the English were an elect people, a new Israel en route for the promised land. It was a conviction which Walsingham would share.

* * *

William Walsingham died in 1534, the year that saw Henry VIII proclaimed as supreme head of the Church of England and the holy maid of Kent carted to execution. Francis, his only son, was no more than three years old. William signed himself 'esquire' in his will, as did his own father James Walsingham. Sixteenth-century society divided itself up into ranks or orders marked out by forms of address, the order of precedence in church, even the cut and colour of their clothing. 'Esquire' places Francis Walsingham's father and grandfather among the lesser gentry. They owned land and displayed a coat of arms, became magistrates and sat on the commissions that monitored London's drinking water, but remained below the first tier of families which sent knights of the shire to Parliament and exchanged gifts with the king at new year. As for his soul, William committed it 'to Almighty God our blessed Lady Saint Mary and to all the holy company of heaven'. His work as undersheriff would have required him to keep a watchful eye for heresy within his London jurisdiction. If he had any Lutheran leanings of his own, he kept them to himself.

Having provided for the marriage of his five daughters, William left the rest of his property to Joyce, 'my well-beloved wife', during his son's minority. Sixteenth-century legal documents are not known for their displays of emotion, so it seems that Francis's parents had developed a real affection for each other, perhaps had even married for love. Joyce was named as an executor, together with Sir Edmund Walsingham and one of William's fellow under-sheriffs. His death left Joyce a widow at twenty-seven, a property-owner with contacts at court and young enough to have more children. Within a couple of years she had married again. Her new husband was the courtier Sir John Carey, brother to the William Carey whose wife Mary Boleyn (the 'other' Boleyn girl) was Henry VIII's mistress for a time in the early 1520s. This proved to be another useful political connection. William and Mary's son Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, was Walsingham's near contemporary and a cousin (or, according to gossip, half-brother) to Queen Elizabeth.

Francis very probably went to live with his mother and stepfather at Hunsdon in Hertfordshire, a royal manor where Sir John was bailiff. Princesses Mary and Elizabeth and Prince Edward all spent time there in the 1530s and 40s, and Henry VIII is also known to have visited. In 1546 Edward had his portrait painted at Hunsdon, the gables and tall Tudor chimneys of the house visible through an open window behind the prince. Francis may also have spent time on Sir Anthony Denny's estates nearby, or with his grandfather at Scadbury. Frustratingly, nothing else is known about his childhood. Any private papers in the Walsingham archive were weeded out from the records of state after his death, taking much of his personal life with them. But assuming that Joyce Walsingham shared her brother Anthony's reformed religion, it is fair to speculate that she was the source of the Protestantism that defined Francis's world-view and career.


Excerpted from The Queen's Agent by John Cooper. Copyright © 2012 John Cooper. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1 Exodus,
2 Massacre at Paris,
3 Armed with Innocence,
4 The English Mission,
5 Security Services,
6 Bonds and Ciphers,
7 Western Planting,
8 Eleventh Hour,

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The Queen's Agent: Sir Francis Walsingham and the Rise of Espionage in Elizabethan England 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 18 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
But, unfortunately, not suspense. Author obviously put much research into this book, but it is more a history of facts and not any exciting plots to overthrow the Queen.
CherylM-M More than 1 year ago
The man behind the scenes. The book contains a lot of information, facts, names and figures. Not your few hour read and be done with it, because every sentence contains a vital piece of information. It is a little on the dry side and yet manages to steer clear of the monotony that usually plagues the more academic book. Cooper depicts Elisabeth I as a woman ruled by men for men. Described as undecisive and if forced to decide her decisions were often dictated by her volatile emotions. Although Cooper describes Walsingham as being her protector, I think a different image emerges. One of a man who ruled behind the scenes without the pomposity of Wolsey or the greed of Cromwell. The depth of the break in the kingdom caused by Henry VIII when he created his own church and tried to obliterate the other is the strongest thread throughout the book. That division has shaped the people and even today the rivers of hate run deep, especially in specific geographical areas. Although there isn't much physical evidence of Walsinghams spy ventures he seems to have built an intricate network of fellow conspirators or recruits. In one of the last chapters he offers an explanation for the lost Roanoke colony, which to my great pleasure had nothing to do with vampires at all. (Sorry couldn't help myself) Overall the book ventures into many areas in the Walsingham era. The reader gets a clear image of what drove the man and his strong beliefs and a stronger sense of the Elisabethan era. I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for my review
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Having read everything in print about queen Elizabeth I was pleasantly surprised to find a book that was not a fictional portrayal of the man known as Elizabeth's spy master. Well worth reading & not lacking in the rich details required to truly tell the story. Well done!
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I rated this book "very good" because I did not realize the many conspiracies and the intrigue that occurred during the reign of Elizabeth I and the danger she was in during this time. At first I had trouble getting into the book because it was different from what I expected, but then I found it very interesting how plots against her life were discovered and it seems no different than the way conspiracies are discovered today.
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karen95 More than 1 year ago
Totally boring. The last time I didn't finish a book I started was about 300 books ago, but I quit this.
maLD More than 1 year ago
Need to finish the book
Anonymous More than 1 year ago