Sir Francis Walsingham – Elizabeth’s Spymaster

Posted By claire on April 6, 2010

Sir_Francis_Walsingham_by_John_De_Critz_the_ElderOn this day in history, 6th April 1590, Sir Francis Walsingham died at about the age of 58. He was an incredibly important man during Elizabeth I’s reign being a statesman, private secretary, adviser, diplomat and spymaster, and he probably saved the Queen’s life many times by uncovering various plots against her. Let’s celebrate Walsingham’s life with a Sir Francis Walsingham bio.

Sir Francis Walsingham Bio

Born: c1532 (some say 1530), Scadbury Park, Chislehurst, Kent

Family Background: Son of William Walsingham and Joyce Denny. His father died when he was an infant and his mother married Sir John Carey, a relation of Mary Boleyn, Anne Boleyn’s sister. Walsingham’s father was common sergeant of London, his mother was related to Sir Anthony Denny, a member of Henry VIII’s privy council, and his uncle, Sir Edmund, was Lieutenant of the Tower of London.

Education: Walsingham studied at King’s College, Cambridge, and then, in 1550, he went abroad to continue his education. In 1552 he returned to England and enrolled at Gray’s Inn (The Honourable Society of Gray’s Inn, an Inn of Court). When Mary I came to the throne, Walsingham, who was a staunch Protestant, fled abroad and continued his law studies at the University of Padua and then lived in Switzerland between 1556 and 1558.

Early Career: Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne in 1558 meant that Walsingham could return to England. In 1559 his friendship with Sir William Cecil helped him to become a member of Parliament for Banbury and then for Lyme Regis in 1563.

Marriage: First marriage was to to Ann Carleill, a widow with a son called Christopher. She died leaving Christopher in Walsingham’s care. Second marriage was to Ursula St Barbe, also a widow (her late husband was Sir Richard Worsley).

Children: Walsingham had a stepson, Christopher Carleill from his first marriage and two further stepsons from his marriage to Ursula – John  and George. Unfortunately John and George were both killed in 1567 in an accident with gunpowder. Walsingham and Ursula had a daughter together, Frances Walsingham. Frances was a lady-in-waiting to Elizabeth I and married Philip Sidney in 1583. After his death she married Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex and then after his execution Frances married Richard de Burgh.

Career Serving the Queen: In 1569, Walsingham was asked by William Cecil to investigate the Ridolfi Plot. In 1570 Elizabeth I asked Walsingham to help the Huguenots in France negotiate with Charles IX because he had built up a good relationship with them. In the same year, he became the ambassador to France and it was to his house that Protestant refugees fled to during the time of the St Bartholomew’s Massacre and other troubles.

In 1573, Walsingham returned to England and was rewarded for his hard work by being made the Queen’s principal secretary, a position he shared with Sir Thomas Smith until 1576 when Smith retired. In 1577 he was rewarded again with a knighthood and was trusted with special embassies in 1578 and 1581 to the Dutch and French courts.

In the late 1570s, Walsingham was known for his opposition to the plans to encourage Elizabeth I to marry the Duke of Anjou and also for his encouragement of military intervention in the Low Countries. In the mid to late 1580s he and William Cecil worked on preparing England for war with Spain.

Walsingham the Spymaster: Although Walsingham was an important diplomat and the Queen’s principal secretary for a time, he is best known as Elizabeth I’s spymaster and his successful work uncovering plots against the Queen. He worked on uncovering the Ridolfi Plot and also put a stop to the Throckmorton (Throgmorton) and Babington Plots – you can read more about these in “Plots Against Elizabeth I”. It was the Babington Plot which convinced Elizabeth I of the need to execute Mary Queen of Scots and Walsingham was one of her advisers who encouraged her to take this course of action.

Nickname: Elizabeth I, who loved giving her friends and advisers nicknames, called Walsingham her “Moor”.

Character: He was a devout Protestant and was known for being down to earth and for his straight talking.

Died: 6th April 1590, Chislehurst, Kent. Walsingham died in debt due to taking on the debts of Sir Philip Sidney, his son-in-law, when he died and the expenses he incurred living beyond his means shortly before his death. A sad end to a man who had spent his life in loyal service to the Queen.



19 Responses to “Sir Francis Walsingham – Elizabeth’s Spymaster”

  1. Fiz says:

    I love the way Walsingham protected the Huguenots and I believe it was strictly due to his details of that evil night’s work that Elizabeth and the court, all in black, received the French ambassador in absolute silence. It must have been the hardest and longest walk of his life – no-one spoke and everybody looked.

  2. Impish_Impulse says:

    I hadn’t heard about this incident, but I like it!

  3. Sharon says:

    Walsingham is one of my favorite Elizabethan characters. He was always there, in the background…watching. He was forever saving her from one plot or another. Without him, any one of those plots could very well have succeeded.

  4. Fiz says:

    Have you read the book “Walsingham” by, I think Robert Hutchinson? It is very good and so are most of his books, which describe the murderous atmosphere at the end Court at the end of Henry VIIII’s life – you practically choke on the sulphur!

  5. HannahL says:

    I know basically nothing about Walsingham, but he sounds so interesting. I’d love to read more about him and the plots he uncovered.

  6. Fiz says:

    The book, called ” Walsingham” is by Alan Haynes, not Hutchinson. Mine is a hardback but it is available as a paperback now. I loved it, but it has two star reviews – Huh?

  7. Fiz says:

    Just read the reviews, two of which are by people who can’t spell and accuse the author of using “too many big words”, whilst the other said it’s not appropriate unless you’d doing a history degree! However Hutchinson has written a book about Walsingham too and Haynes and Hutchinson both have published one about the Elizabethan spy service – I’ve gone for Haynes for that.

  8. frances bird says:

    Walsingham What a wonder
    Without a doubt a man of courage
    He was real
    When you read things like this chaps biography you think your in the middle of a book written by one of the best fiction writers ever, but no hes was real ok what a chap

  9. mike peters says:

    Anybody got any info on William Shakespeare’s father being a spy (domestic informant) for Queen Elizabeth? I recall a documentary on PBS about this but can’t remember the name of it.

  10. Claire says:

    Hi Mike,
    No, I haven’t heard about that, must look into it! Sounds intriguing!

  11. Neil Kemp says:

    I did read somewhere that his debts were not as bad as first thought due to errors and that his widow and heirs lived in reasonable comfort after his death, is this true?
    I would like to think so because it would seem a very sad end to a great man otherwise.
    Many regard what he did in the service of Elizabeth as ruthless and cold hearted, but I think it wasn’t out of place for the time and that 20th century values have mistakenly given Walsingham a bad press in this regard.

  12. Neil Kemp says:

    Mike, I found your comment on William Shakespeare’s father interesting.
    His life is described in some detail in Anthony Holden’s book “William Shakespeare: The man behind the myth”, giving details of his works, rise to civic prominence, and to him being a secret catholic in dangerous times. This may have resulted in his being recruited by Walsingham as a domestic informant, but It is not mentioned here or anywhere else I know of.
    I shall dig deeper!

  13. John says:

    Walsingham is a very interesting character. I’ve been reading up on his early years but am having difficulty in discovering where he would have lived as a child: When his mother, Joyce Denny, married John Carey would Carey have moved into the family estate at Chislehurst or would it be more likely that Denny and her children (including Walsingham) would have moved in with Carey?

  14. Lovell M. Abello says:

    Sir Francis Walsingham’s fidelity to his queen was undisputable; but the sadness of being excessively engage in earthly politics is to suffer ailments resulting from stress factors. I have no exact knowledge about Walsingham’s cause of death – I have watched “Elizabeth, The Golden Age”, seemingly he died due to some internal problems (colon cancer/stomach cancer – I’m not sure).

    I deeply admire his character – his faithfulness to everything that he firmly believed. I strongly feel that his decision to serve Queen Elizabeth with utmost loyalty stemmed the greatest from the fact that Elizabeth was one of the supreme defender of the Protestant faith that was deeply supported/believed by Sir Francis. People who died due to inspiring reasons left the greatest marks in history – religion/belief in one’s God (several times including His believed messengers) are always of high regard.

    History never failed to disclose the amount of debt Walsingham left – I presume that his queen – the state, didn’t took steps to solve/settle those financial issues despite of his loyal service. The challenge is, who would reward Walsingham now for that level of loyalty to the sovereign…only God has answers? Who would have enough courage to become loyal these days?

  15. Angela says:

    I heard on the radio that Sir Francis was so devoted and loyal that he often returned as much of his salary as he could to the Treasury, and Queen Elizabeth would “tell him off” and say hd must keep his earnings. Apparently, this was another major cause of his debts – rather than ‘high living’. He would have had many gifts, wine, jewels, gold etc. from true friends as well as those seeking favour. I doubt attempted bribery ever worked on him, but I can imagine such a character accepting expensive gifts and treats from some of those who tried, and then that he would have had a little chuckle to himself knowing they wouldn’t get what they wanted from him. This may have given the impression he spent much more than he actually did spend on luxuries. He was clearly a man who, when he gave allegiance, gave it from the heart, never wavering and without thought of self……but no one would have wanted him to be even slightly suspicious of them – guilty or not. Much less was he an enviable enemy.

  16. terry says:

    I believe Angela is right about Walsingham. Its my understanding that he died penniless in Foots Cray Kent. Also do not think he was given a salary by the crown as he was not on the Privy Council. So any money he received would come from the “court” purses. One of my top five figures from Medieval and Tudor history. So many theories about him and his plots. Probably one of the greatest Englishman ever to serve the Monarchy yet so little is known or heard about him. Looking forward to learn more on this site.

  17. MK says:

    A lot of money in the 16th century was spent the same way it is now, credit. People who had a lot of money to spend did not carry around huge bags of coins to pay for everything. If you had a noble or trustworthy name, that was usually good enough to make purchases. Walsingham was so devoted to his work that he funded much of it himself, so much that Elizabeth owed him tens of thousands of pounds by his death. He also cosigned for his son-in-law Philip Sydney’s credit, and Sydney’s funeral costs severely strained Walsingham. I doubt he was ever truly penniless. He was a member of the Privy Council and Knight of the Garter, and Elizabeth was quite generous in her lucrative favors to him.

  18. Angela Allen-Blount says:

    please could you give me any information you have on the Blount’s of sodington, as that is my branch of the family tree,

  19. Angela Allen-Blount says:

    please could you give me any information you have on the Blount’s of sodington, as that is my branch of the family tree,

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