Walsingham – More Than an Elizabethan

Sir Francis Walsingham, Secretary of State to Elizabeth 1, casts a long but indistinct shadow over history. Currently seen mainly as a founder of counter-espionage and often referred to as a ‘spycatcher’, not only is the wider contribution Walsingham made to Elizabethan politics obscured in general literature on the reign, but is a precursor to struggles of the twentieth century. In its review of Stephen Budiansky’s Her Majesty’s Spycatcher (Penguin – Plume 2006), the Wall Street Journal commented “Walsingham was Wild Bill Donovan, William Casey and James Angleton, not to mention the fictional George Smiley of MI6”. The Elizabethan Secretary of State and the Twentieth Century overlapped more than the Journal thought. It is known that the Americans in World War Two modeled their intelligence services on the British Intelligence service – less well known that they had a direct line to the Elizabethan master of counter intelligence.

When a pathbreaking study of the Elizabethan statesman appeared a century ago – the classic biography by Conyers Read (OUP 1925) – this offered Read an intellectual base for going to work for the Office of Co-ordinated information, the base used by Donovan in setting up the Organisation of Strategic Services and then the Central Intelligence Agency. Donovan was massively impressed by the British intelligence Services, spending time in Britain during the early years of the war.. and meeting Winston Churchill. Possibly he learnt from the master practitioner of espionage three and a half centuries earlier. In Conyers Read he had an excellent lens to focus on the work of the Elizabethan..

While it is impossible to imagine Read giving history lessons during a World War, what Walsingham had done was an inspiration for later generations of counter espionage agents. His attempts in 1586 to convince Mary Queen of Scots and her co-conspirators that they were able to plan in total secrecy when in fact they were being monitored by Walsingham and his agents worked. The Queen believed she was protected by the codes they used,even though the communication channel seemed secure – the Brewer’s Sting, using the hollowed out bung of the beer barrels used to bring in beer.

The conspirators did not realise – as Simon Singh wrote of their conspiracy in The Code Book (Fourth Estate, 2000) “a weak encryption can be worse than no encryption at all”, and worse from their viewpoint their secret material was studied by Walsingham. The codes used in the Brewer’s Sting were broken by a single code breaker, Walsingham’s secretary Thomas Phelippes, and all the plotters were executed. The lesson of code security was learned by the Germans in the interwar years, inventing the Enigma machine, but the British invested in code breaking at Bletchley Park to break the Enigma codes. Both German and British operators were the direct descendant of Walsingham’s operation, embodying Walsingham’s principle that information is never too dear.

An Episode in History

Walsingham was impressed by the success of William of Orange, who employed a code breaker (Philip van Marnix) who broke the code of Phillip II of Spain in 1577 discovering a planned invasion of England, and passed details to the English (Singh p39). But code breakers have to have the codes – so double agents who can obtain the messages to pass to be decoded play a vital role. From December 1585 Walsingham employed the mysterious Gilbert Gifford whose loyalties are still remarkably elusive. Gifford was the courier who took secret messages to and from Chartley and the French Embassy. He was perfect for the job as he was a Catholic priest –a deacon – trained in seminaries on the Continent and given a reference by Queen Mary’s Paris agent, Thomas Morgan, meaning the Scots Queen never doubted him for a moment. Morgan was mortified when he learned Gifford was a double agent.

 To this day we do not know when he became a double agent – but as Alison Plowden wrote in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry “Gifford may or may not have already been employed by Walsingham’s secret service, but from this point there can be no doubt abouit his double dealing”. Indeed. Once he arrived back in England In December 1585 he went over to Walsingham with astonishing speed, collecting coded messages from the French Embassy – who were suspicious that he was lodging with Phelippes but had no choice but to release the letters – and delivered the first batch to the brewer on January 16th 1586 to Mary’s delight. At the heart of the disaster which was about to engulf the Scots Queen was a clear link to Walsingham via Phelippes, who was what the twentieth century would call Gifford’s controller. As Stephen Alford has written

“Gilbert Gifford was the best possible weapon Walsingham and Phelippes could use against Mary. The parallels between Gifford and the agents of double cross used against the German Abwher by the British Security service in the Second World War are hard to ignore…”

Stephen Alford, Burghley, William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth 1, Yale 2008-11, page 260

The British secret service invented the term Double Cross but Alford is insightful in seeing its roots in the. professionalised and systematized, aspect of espionage produced in the early modern era in the attempts of Walsingham to control agents who he barely paid. While the double agent with flexible loyalties is often seen as a twentieth century invention, when we look at the Elizabethan era and specifically the role of men like Gifford and Robert Poley – it becomes clear that these and other agents would fit into the books of John Le Carre without effort.

Francis Walsingham, a dour puritanical figue, is not one of the standout characters produced in one of the great reigns of English history. Elizabeth has been voted one of the ten great characters of

the Island Story. Walsingham is a somewhat colourless and unromantic figure but he did not simply shape Elizabethan history and the Island Story, but was a man whose echoes can be found in the dark world of espionage in the USA. It is time he was taken out of the pages of the specialist press of spies and spy hunters. It is easier to see him as Machiavellian than to acknowledge that a man disliked by two Queens in one reign was carving a distinctive historical path which has enduring interest and value.

Trevor Fisher             

Published in the Mid Trent and Mercia Historian February 2023