Francis Walsingham has become a legendary figure in the history of spying, but while he was a genius, his genius was based on a combination of hard work and the ability to exploit strokes of good fortune. The story of Henry Fagot demonstrates this. Discovering the Throckmorton plot so preventing a Catholic invasion of southern England only happened because someone in the French embassy in London, self named Henry Fagot, contacted Walsingham and passed him copies of secret letters between Mary Queen of Scots and her French supporters. Walsingham’s skill was to work out that the crucial link outside the Embassy was Francis Throckmorton. Walsingham worked a lucky break.
It is not vital to know the identity of Henry Fagot only that he arranged a constant flow of vital correspondence – and that the French Ambassador, Castelnau, continued to pass on letters to Queen Mary even after the arrest of Throckmorton showed there was a mole in the embassy As Castelnau ceased to be credible, the flow of reliable information dried up and Walsingham moved to Plan B after Throckmorton was executed on July 10th 1584. Walsingham no longer had information on what the Scots Queen was plotting so resorted to damage limitation. Her activities were severely restricted.
Plan B was to remove Queen Mary from the custody of the Earl of Shrewsbury, who had completely failed to prevent her secret correspondence, and return her to Tutbury Castle to be strictly supervised, Sir Ralph Sadler took the Queen to Wingfield on 2nd September 1584 as a temporary measure, moving her to Tutbury on 14th January 1585 constantly calling to be released as he disliked having to restrict the Queen’s activities. On 4th January Sir Amyas Paulet was announced as the new custodian. Paulet had no compunction about stopping any chance of Catholics contacting the Scots Queen.
Paulet was a puritan like Walsingham, and was willing to follow orders. Taking over control at Tutbury in April 1585, he banned walking on the walls, believing Mary’s servants might throw letters to Catholics outside the castle who could send the letters to London and on to the continent. Paulet attempted to supervise Mary’s servants who moved outside the castle, Mary was forbidden to have Catholic priests – surprisingly, even Jesuits who were the shock troops of the Counter reformation had been able to meet the Queen under the previous lenient regimes – and Paulet proclaimed his aim was ‘rigour’ in handling his duties.
Yet he was unable to be sure letters were not entering the castle. As Tutbury is a town with houses close to the castle walls, constant supervision of entry and exit was impossible. However employing the grim fort of John o’Gaunt was not a long term prospect. The Queen complained bitterly of the cold and damp conditions, and her health deteriorated. Fears she would not survive a winter in the bleak mediaeval fortress forced Queen Elizabeth to sanction a move to Chartley Manor (Not Chartley Castle as is often claimed) the empty domicile of the Earls of Essex. The Manor was – and still is – totally isolated, and the Queen’s servants were only allowed out on Sundays to go to church, where they could be supervised. After the Queen’s party moved there on Christmas Eve 1585 Paulet could claim it would be impossible “to convey a piece of paper as big as my finger” into or out of the Manor. (Oxford History of England Vol 8 1959 p379) But Walsingham had changed the priorities.
Enter the Brewer but when?
However confident Paulet was, Walsingham knew it was impossible to be sure letters were not evading surveillance. The discovery of the Throckmorton plot had been due to the mysterious Henry Fagot, but he could not rely on lucky breaks, he needed to find a way to track any plots that Queen Mary was involved in, without her knowing. Where could he find Fagot Mark 2?
It is well known how he did this, but not when the arrangements were made. At the heart of the process was the local brewer, a man based in the town still famous as a brewing centre, Burton on Trent. Beer was an essential commodity as water was impure unless boiled, and for those populations which had no brewery for small (Low Alcohol) beer, it was imported. Tutbury was one such population, and when the castle was in use, a brewer brought a weekly supply of beer. It is well established that someone – probably not Walsingham who never seems to have visited Staffordshire – realized that if the brewer was paid to allow the use of his barrel, the bung could be hollowed out and used to carry letters into and out of the castle. Since the weekly supply of beer was commonplace, no one would suspect the barrel needed examination. Queen Mary would believe that this was a channel for secret correspondence, but when the idea was conceived and by whom has never been established.
In his collection of the letters of Paulet, the Catholic priest John Morris three centuries after the event suggested that a comment in a letter from Paulet to Lord Burghley, Lord Treasurer (so responsible for paying for the beer) implied that the brewer was recruited as early as May 1585. Paulet wrote:
“The brewer that serveth this house* with beer breweth his beer in Lord Paget’s house in Burton,… I think… your lordship shall do well to forbear … to grant the keeping of the house to any other, because inconveniences may grow between the two families and the house being utterly naked, the brewer may seem sufficient to have charge of it”
(J Morris, The Letter Book of Sir Amyas Poulet, London 1874 p33)
Lord Paget was a fugitive from the failure of the Throckmorton plot, his brother Charles working for Mary’s French relatives, the Guise, to spy out landing places for the Catholic invasion. When he joined his brother in exile, Lord Paget’s Burton house had been confiscated and given to a brewer. Paulet’s comment led Morris to suggest this was
“The first mention of the Burton Brewer, who was one of the chief agents in the treachery by which Mary was betrayed, and that he should be put by Walsingham into Lord Paget’s empty house, seems to show that the scheme for her betrayal was already sketched out”
(Morris op cit p31)
This is not impossible, but the conventional account is that Walsingham did not conceive the use of the brewer till December 1585, several months later. The Brewer was not the key player, since he did not travel to London and even if he had have done, the French Embassy would not have released the letters trapped in their keeping without approval from one of Mary’s officials. The brewer is a vital cog in the machine, but not the major operative able to release the letters from the French
embassy. but in December a man arrived in England who had a letter of approval from Thomas Morgan in the Queen’s Paris office so the French diplomats had to release the letters, and Mary at last was back in touch with the Catholic underground.
This man was Gilbert Gifford, a deacon of the Catholic Church and in a short space of time Walsingham allegedly turned him into a double agent. The question which has never been answered of how Walsingham secured access to the secret correspondence is not how the brewer was involved in the plot – but how Walsingham recruited and secured the services of Gilbert Gifford? He was the second Henry Fagot. But he was a known person. The enduring mystery is how the relationship happened. Once it produced the Brewer’s Sting, organized at Chartley shortly after Christmas 1585, it was possible for Giffard and the Brewer to carry out this first letter drop. The resumption of the connection with the Catholic underground was the first and decisive step in the events which led to Queen Mary’s downfall. But only the first step. Walsingham was some way from his desired outcome.
Trevor Fisher 21 4 23
*Paulet means Tutbury castle