Fotheringhay castle October 15th 1586.
It’s the second day of Mary queen of Scott s treason trial; she stands accused of plotting the assassination of Queen Elizabeth the first. For decades, Mary has been at the center of dozens of plots against Elizabeth the protestant queen and all that time Elizabeth’s advisors have been calling for Mary’s execution because Mary’s royal lineage and her catholic faith make her an ideal replacement for Elizabeth in the eyes of domestic and foreign enemies.
But Elizabeth still resists, she worries an execution will make her look mad incite domestic unrest or lead to a foreign invasion. Thus, the most difficult part of Mary’s trial isn’t convincing the jury the public or even foreign onlookers to find Mary guilty it will be convincing Elizabeth to sign Mary’s death warrant, luckily for Elizabeth s advisors however Mary’s trial was based on evidence from one of the queen’s closest associates, a man whose professional life has built to this exact moment after years of running double agents deciphering encoded messages, and extracting confessions, Francis Walsingham is about to bring his most impressive covert operation to a close.
there tends to be a close association in people s minds between England, and espionage, this usually relates to modern history and pop culture whether we’re talking about Bletchley park James bond or spies coming in from the cold, yet England’s association with espionage and intelligence work goes back much farther than most people realize. Indeed, we see mention of perfidious Albion as early as the 13th century, but it was England’s first spymaster sir Francis Walsingham who solidified the association of Britain with spies, born in 1532 to a land owning protestant family his early life was steeped in fear of religious persecution. An environment almost ideally crafted to teach him the basics of intelligence work from evading authorities, to keeping his mouth firmly shut. Walsingham grew up in the midst of the English reformation, when the English crown and church broke away from Rome what followed was a period of incredible political, and cultural turmoil as the church of England ,and Henry viii upended centuries of tradition within the span of a dozen years.
after Henry’s reign, England was a fledgling protestant state but not only was England surrounded by stronger catholic kingdoms it was also rife with internal divisions between the recently ascended protestants, and the remaining Catholics who were eager to restore the status quo by whatever means necessary, and Walsingham’s suspicious nature and commitment to secrecy were formed during this time because growing up as a well educated protestant connected to the English court, he understood better than most the foreign and domestic threats to England’s reformation
With henrys death and the ascension of the catholic Mary Tudor to the throne in Walsingham spent the next five years in exile in Italy to avoid Mary’s anti protestant purges back home. Then, when Mary died and her half sister the protestant Elizabeth took the throne Walsingham returned to England and worked with her advisors to interrogate members of a catholic conspiracy, his service won him an appointment as ambassador to catholic France in 1572, where he also sheltered English and French protestants in his Paris home during the anti protestant purge known as the Bartholomew’s day massacre. Walsingham s experience taught him that the reformation s enemies had more money more soldiers and more allies so if protestant England were ever going to survive he knew it would have to be smarter, and more ruthless. So, he focused his efforts on information gathering starting during his exile in Italy and continuing through his appointment as the queen s principal secretary in 1573, Walsingham recruited a network of informants and spies to feed him information on plots against England and Elizabeth, this led Walsingham to become synonymous with paranoia and Machiavellian cunning, but these characteristics emerged only after he d spent decades as a protestant under catholic monarchs living in terror of imminent destruction.
In 1583, one of Walsingham s spies revealed a plot centered on Francis throckmorton who was working with a group of English Catholics to free Mary Stewart, also known as Mary queen of Scots, and coordinate an invasion of England by Spanish and French troops. this conspiracy confirmed that the queen of Scots remained a serious threat even though she d been imprisoned for over a decade, Walsingham needed to remove Mary from the board but had to be careful the spymaster knew he needed to catch Mary committing a treasonous act otherwise Elizabeth would never acquiesce to her execution and England’s enemies would assume Mary’s death was all about religion, rather than politics.
in other words Walsingham needed a smoking gun and he would find one on the inside of a beer barrel Charlie hall Staffordshire January 6 1586, Mary queen of Scots sits alone in her room slowly going mad, she’s spent the last 18 years imprisoned in one castle after another, she s losing her hair, suffering terribly from arthritis, and she s been unable to communicate with the outside world for over a year. She’s hit an all time low. Suddenly, there s a knock on the door her servant enters the room and reveals a huge package of letters years worth of correspondence, but how could this be her servant reveals that the letters have been smuggled to her by a catholic supporter named Gilbert Gifford who placed the letters inside of a waterproof leather packet tucked inside the hollow bung of a beer barrel delivered to Charlie hall.
These letters are clearly real as she recognizes the handwriting, to marry the letters appear to be a cherished lifeline to the outside world, but in actuality giving her the letters is part of an intricate mousetrap designed by Francis Walsingham to accomplish one goal. kill the queen of Scots, unbeknownst to Mary and her friends Gifford is actually a double agent working for Walsingham who has taken these real letters, and set up a channel of communication as bait, the spymaster wanted Mary to confidently communicate to the outside world and hoped the former Scottish queen would become involved with a new plot against Elizabeth, and implicate herself in the scheme throughout the spring 1586, of Walsingham reads every single line of Mary’s beer barrel correspondence, but in order to maintain the ruse he employs a team of counterfeiters to carefully open, transcribe, and then reseal each letter so that it appears unmolested before sending it to its final destination. Moreover, because many of Mary’s letters were coded, Walsingham hired a cipher secretary named Thomas Phillips, who employed his talents as a linguist to break the substitution cipher used by Mary, and her supporters.
with his web in place Walsingham the spider waited to catch a fly, and in midsummer 1586, one arrived in the beer barrel, Anthony Babington an English gentleman and secret catholic wrote a coded message to Mary on July 6 outlining a plan to free the queen of Scots, kill queen Elizabeth and raise an army to assist in invasion of French, and Spanish forces. Though, Babington used a combination of code words and a substitution cipher to obscure his message, Thomas Phillips took care of that, and upon reading the decoded message Walsingham now had all he needed to round up Babington and his accomplices, but he wanted Mary. Instead, he stuffed the message back in the barrel, and sent it on its way to the imprisoned former queen, and then on July 17th the queen of Scots sent an encoded reply from her prison cell to Babington, which acknowledged the plot and gave her support.
smoking gun achievement unlocked, by October Babington, and his conspirators had been hanged drawn, and quartered while Mary stood, trial there Mary accused Walsingham, and his associates of concocting the whole plot using forged letters to entrap her, to which then Walsingham both a member of the jury and a prosecutor rose in response, and stated “I have done nothing unbeseeming an honest man i confess that being very careful for the safety of the queen and the realm i have curiously searched out all the practices against the same” Mary was convicted on October 25th and was finally and painfully beheaded with three ax blows on February 8 1587 .
After, thwarting the Babington plot Walsingham and his spy network solidified them as being instrumental in providing intelligence for the defense of England during the Spanish armada, and though Walsingham s health quickly deteriorated dying in the spring of 1590 his methods would endure. His spy network, double cross tactics, and crypto analysis systems served as the model for generations of intelligence organizations. From the cabinet noirs of the early modern period all the way down to MI5, and the CIA, and despite the secrecy with which Walsingham often worked even his contemporaries had some notion of his importance. in fact, shortly after his death a Spanish spy in London wrote king Philip of Spain saying the news of the secretary s death caused great sorrow to the city, and when he received the letter Philip wrote in the margin there yes but it is good news here.