Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


Her Majesty’s Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage by Stephen Budiansky




(Mildly Recommended)




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In his new book, Her Majesty’s Spymaster, Stephen Budiansky has written an entertaining history focused on espionage during the reign of Elizabeth I. Led by Sir Francis Walsingham, secretary of her Privy Council, the spy trade at that time involved developing networks of loyal informants, interception of private documents, and the fabrication of evidence used against political adversaries. Her Majesty’s Spymaster calls particular attention to Walsingham’s help to Elizabeth in providing evidence of the treason of Mary Queen of Scots and in learning of the plans of the Spanish Armada. Here’s an excerpt, from Chapter Six, “Intelligencers and Scoundrels,” pp. 92-96:



Beale had one other observation about a Principal Secretary’s duties that he had gleaned from his long observation of Mr. Secretary Wal­singham’s methods.

“A Secretary must have a special cabinet,” Beale wrote, “whereof he is himself to keep the key, for his signets, ciphers, and secret intel­ligences, distinguishing the boxes or tills rather by letters than by the names of the countries or places, keeping that only unto himself, for the names may inflame a desire to come by such things.”

This was ground Burghley had also silently but thoroughly trod­den before—Burghley, with his relentless hunger for knowledge and his remarkable capacity for keeping it to himself once he got it. It was ground that Walsingham now was equally drawn to by his respect for Burghley’s genius, and his own instinct, and his gnawing sense of England’s precarious position in a dangerous world.

Knowledge is never too dear: and from places obvious and places strange Walsingham saw to it that he was well supplied. There were the official “searchers” at the ports, who would always be curious about travelers arriving on the packet boats from France, and about any written letters they were carrying; there were patrols of horse along the wilds of the Scottish border, always on the lookout for strangers.

Most of his less official suppliers were men who lived in the fis­sures of Elizabethan society, but respectably, or at least somewhat re­spectably: men more unconventional than shady. Travelers, merchant adventurers, Scottish exiles living in Italy, Portuguese exiles living in London, English soldiers of fortune in the pay of the Dutch, ships’ captains, expatriate traders, a few famous men of letters and science of the day; the playwright Christopher Marlowe, perhaps; the as­trologer, alchemist, and charlatan John Dee, perhaps.

They kept their eyes open and reported news; a fleeting trace of the vast net he threw out survived in a curt memorandum drawn up after his death. “The names of sundry foreign places from whence Mr. Secretary Walsingham was wont to receive his advertisements”; a laconic title, a stark list of names: Paris, Rouen, Bordeaux, Rheims, Lyon, Calais, a half-dozen other towns in France; Hamburg, Frank­furt, Prague, Vienna, and a half-dozen others in Germany; ten places in the Low Countries; five in Spain; Venice, Milan, Genoa, Florence, Rome; Denmark; Barbary; Constantinople, Algiers, Tripoli; “some in Ireland”; “upon the Borders and in Scotland at least to.”

Their letters, some frank, some guarded, came by messengers car­ried no faster than ships could sail and horses could trot, but they came steadily, week after week, telling of court gossip and trade news and naval preparations and movements of troops. This was no “secret service”; most of these men of affairs and men of the world were not even paid for their troubles; they were less spies than reporters.



But there were other men, too, men of a kind Walsingham had al­ready begun cultivating during his time in France, men who lived deeper in the shadows, men who could be bought and sold and flat­tered into betrayal, men who, out of desperation or vanity or a long­ing to believe in their own importance—or, the cooler ones, out of simple businesslike calculation of what they possessed and what someone else would be willing to pay for—were prepared to under­take more shadowy tasks.

Some of these were simple enough transactions for a neophyte spymaster. Ambassador Walsingham once sought to bribe one of the French Ambassador’s men for news from Spain, a commonplace enough transaction: a good many hangers-on about the courts of Eu­rope were the beneficiaries of such “pensions” from foreign princes. But even in those early days, Walsingham set afoot some more elabo­rate and dangerous games. There was a charade aimed at neutralizing the intrigues in France of a worrisome Irishman, Maurice Fitzgibbon, the former Archbishop of Casel; Walsingham sought out for the job a certain Captain Thomas, a mercenary who had fought for the King of France in the civil wars, an Irish émigré himself, a man presumed to be a good Catholic, and known to be well connected in the French Court. The deposed Archbishop was plainly seeking the help of the Guises for an Irish rebellion against their Protestant English rulers; Thomas offered his services to Casel in the convincing role of sup­portive fellow countryman. He then brilliantly poisoned the well, ar­ranging an audience for Casel with the Cardinal of Lorraine, to which he ostentatiously accompanied the Archbishop. “Two days af­ter,” Walsingham reported, recounting the tale with obvious satisfac­tion to Burghley, “the Captain was sent for by the Cardinal; and being demanded, what manner of man the Archbishop was, of what estimation in his country, answered to every point as I required him. Since that time, I learn, that the Cardinal maketh not that account of the Archbishop that he looked for at his hands.” So much for the Archbishop and his dreams of glory.

These kinds of services did not come for free; this was new terri­tory, and it was a fight to get the Captain the reward Walsingham had promised him. Captain Thomas “hath been a very good instrument for the discovery of the practices against Ireland, which he hath done with the hazarding of his life, if his dealings with me. . . were known,” Walsingham implored Burghley. “Surely, my good Lord, if when we promise in these causes consideration, and no regard be had thereto, neither can those of my calling promise reward; nor they to whom we promise give credit to our words, when no fruits follow. I beseech your Lordship, therefore, deal earnestly with her Majesty in this behalf.” In the end, Captain Thomas offered to settle for an of­fice under her Majesty “in Ireland his native country, or elsewhere.”

Sometimes Walsingham probably paid such men out of his own pocket and hoped to be reimbursed later, or not even that; any great gentleman maintained a household establishment of servants and messengers and secretaries and clerks, and the line between private and public duties was ever blurred. In France he had had an Italian servant, Jacobo Manucci, who kept working for him for years after­ward, doing curious little jobs, keeping in touch with other Italians in Paris, and Milan, and the Azores, traveling to odd places—once to Constantinople, even.

And then some of the more genteel forms of practicing against the Queen’s enemies Walsingham could just keep in his own hands. For years he strung along some of the Catholic gentry who, implicated in the 1569 northern rebellion, had sought refuge on the Continent. Most settled in the Low Countries; some became pensioners of the King of Spain; all were a source of vague anxiety and worry, certainly a group of men who bore watching. Walsingham found it an easy enough matter to play them like a trout on a line, giving them just enough slack to keep them from spitting out the hook, all the while reeling them slowly in with vague promises and false hopes that their lands in England might be returned to them; returned to them as long, of course, as they foreswore any more-nefarious schemes for re­gaining their estates and position. Two of them, Thomas Copley and Charles Paget, apparently quite confused as to which end of the line held the hook, offered the Secretary bribes. A psychological opportu­nity not to be missed: Walsingham replied with indignation. “If you think me mercenary, you mistake me,” he wrote back to Copley. The man then, of course, had to explain and backtrack and apologize; he was distantly related to Walsingham’s wife, and was merely proposing to grant “his cousin” as a favor a pension of a hundred pounds per year from the income of his restored property. This was good for an­other year of backing and forthing, another year when powerful men in exile who might have spent their time plotting revolution and re­venge instead spent their time fretting over their future income.

But for the rougher and darker stuff there was no substitute for cash on the barrelhead, and men hungry enough or low enough to do what the more genteel neither would nor could. It was all well and good to rely on merchants and travelers for casual news, but when he wanted specific information about an Irish adventurer seeking Span­ish help for an invasion and rebellion, Walsingham sought out a man to pose as a merchant, provided him with a ship and a cargo of corn, and dispatched him to Portugal: not a cheap enterprise. When it came to a scheme to kidnap the papal legate as he traveled to France by sea and interrogate him about papal plots, Walsingham thought that Huguenot pirates might do; in the end, he dropped that idea, but his reading of the men required for the task was right enough.

And though any Englishman abroad might pose as a malcontent Catholic refugee, an easy enough disguise, and thereby hope to work his way into the confidences of the Spanish and French and Italian and English-émigré circles, it was also easy enough to get killed in the process, and in ignoble enough ways that appealed to few idealists or well-born. A man named Best, in Walsingham’s service, befriended the Spanish Ambassador’s secretary in Paris under such a pretense; one night a suspiciously staged fracas erupted outside the embassy, and when the man went out into the street to investigate he was killed, the perpetrators vanishing into the night.


Budiansky’s history is readable and entertaining. For many readers, the parallels between the Elizabethan era when everyone was watched for signs of religious or political dissent, and today’s widespread audio and video surveillance, can be troubling, especially when a partisan filter is applied. Her Majesty’s Spymaster will make that period of history less stuffy for many readers, and will entertain those who enjoy tales of espionage.


Steve Hopkins, February 23, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the March 2006 issue of Executive Times


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