Turncoats and Opportunists

Alexandra Walsham

  • The Queen’s Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth I by John Cooper
    Faber, 400 pp, £9.99, July 2012, ISBN 978 0 571 21827 1

From the moment he died in April 1590, Francis Walsingham, principal secretary to Elizabeth I, has been the subject of competing myths. Catholics greeted the demise of a relentless opponent with relief and applause, and circulated lurid providential stories about the appalling stench that came from his corpse, which allegedly poisoned one of his pall-bearers. By contrast, Protestant writers – William Camden was one – praised his unswerving allegiance to the queen, his tireless dedication to the reformed religion, and his genius as ‘a most subtil searcher of hidden secrets’.

Confessional sentiment has continued to colour accounts of Walsingham in the centuries since. He remains an ambiguous figure, celebrated as a brilliant statesman and pioneering head of espionage who saved the last Tudor monarch from assassination and protected the English state from invasion by foreign powers, and denigrated as a Machiavellian politician who masterminded a campaign of intimidation against Catholic missionary priests and engineered the downfall of Mary Queen of Scots by methods of the most dubious morality. Building on the classic image of Walsingham as spymaster established by James Anthony Froude’s History of England from the Fall of Wolsey to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada (1856-70), his early 20th-century biographers, Sidney Lee and Conyers Read, presented him as an astute and distinguished patriot who laid the foundations for the modern security services. But then Read’s three-volume study of 1925 reflected his own political preoccupations and professional activities, particularly his role in establishing the Office of Strategic Services, precursor of the CIA, in the decades before the Second World War. More recently, especially on TV and film, Walsingham has been portrayed as an enigmatic figure, driven by hatred and bigotry, who orchestrated shady undercover operations carried out by a motley crew of spooks. His depiction in the 1998 film Elizabeth as a gay godless politique has little foundation in fact, though the film did capture the obsessive concern with protecting the queen from assassination that so evidently animated him. Described by one 16th-century Spanish ambassador as blunt, uncourtly and dressed always in black, Walsingham has long defied categorisation.

John Cooper’s book is a fresh attempt to assess the accuracy of these opposing images. It charts Walsingham’s life from his birth in 1531 or 1532, on the cusp of the Henrician Reformation and the break with Rome, through his education at King’s College, Cambridge, the Inns of Court and abroad, to his posting as English ambassador in Paris at the time of the Wars of Religion. The out-of-pocket expenses of this diplomatic office, he complained, were ‘like to bring me to beggary’: the compensation was valuable experience and close relationships with senior figures in the Elizabethan regime, such as William Cecil and Robert Dudley. His activities abroad were instrumental in his appointment as principal secretary to the queen in 1573, which marked the beginning of nearly two decades of virtually uninterrupted activity at the heart of government. Cooper’s portrait necessarily rests on a study of state papers, since, apart from two semi-official diaries or ledgerbooks, Walsingham’s personal correspondence and memoranda don’t survive. This book therefore privileges his public role at the expense of his private experience. Little can be gleaned about his marriages to the wealthy Londoner Anne Carleill, who died childless just two years after they married in 1564, and then in 1566 to the widow Ursula Worseley, with whom he had two children. His sole surviving daughter, Frances, married the poet and Protestant courtier Sir Philip Sidney. Cooper acknowledges the problems these gaps in the record pose to a biographer, but doesn’t shy away from sifting Walsingham’s motives and gauging the nature and depth of his religious beliefs.

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