Walsingham’s reputation as a spy catcher is based on building a spider’s web of agents and using counter espionage to control potential threats to Elizabethan government. But in 1580 and for some years to come, he was groping in the dark. As Conyers Read comments, “In the year 1580…. It is pretty clear that his secret service was not yet developed. He had to do what he could with the means at his command. He directed Bowes, the English agent in Scotland, to set spies at work and to spare no cost in order to get to the bottom of the matter. He sent similar instructions to Cobham at Paris” (Read Vol II p371) Walsingham feared that a secret plot was in the making and on 3rd May 1580 he wrote to Bowes saying he feared that “some great and hidden treason not yet discovered” was brewing. His energies were directed to finding this ‘hidden treason’ but he was groping in the dark.
Walsingham Gropes in the Dark
In 1580, an agent called Best in France gained access to the Spanish agent in Paris and told the English ambassador to France, Sir Henry Cobham he could supply information on the plans Phillip II had for attacking England. But he was killed in a street brawl in Paris in suspicious circumstances. Walsingham was increasingly worried and considered kidnapping Cardinal Riario, the papal legate, on his way to France, using Huguenot privateers from La Rochelle. As this would have been nightmarishly difficult to carry out and a diplomatic disaster had it been attempted, the plan to interrogate the Cardinal was quietly dropped. (Read Vol II p365).
A central problem in gaining knowledge was that despite Walsingham’s fears there was no focused diplomacy until the early spring of 1582 when Lennox, the Duke of Guise, Phillip of Spain and Pope Gregory XIII with the Jesuit priest Creighton (or Crichton or Creitton) as go between sought a strategy. The plan involved a double invasion of England from Scotland and across the Channel, and Lennox gained the assent of Queen Mary to the thrust of the plan (Read Vol II p375).
Walsingham of course had no idea what was being planned. His network was still not providing information. That Lennox was plotting with French interests encouraged Scots enemies of Lennox to act and on 20th September 1582 discovered that Lennox was plotting with the Duke of Guise, the Archbishop of Glasgow – Queen Mary’s ambassador in Paris – amd the French Ambassador in London, Castlenau. they told Walsingham. Walsingham realized for the first time that Castelnau – an old friend who had been a protector during the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre – was providing Queen Mary with a post box for clandestine messages. Thus the flow of information could be located, and if he could get agents to infiltrate the Embassy, he could in theory read the letters.
Inside the French Embassy
To have any chance of finding out what was passing between Castelnau and Queen Mary, Walsingham needed a double agent who was plausible to Catholics but also entirely loyal to Walsingham. He found a young Scotsman, in the autumn of 1582, named William Fowler whose father had lent money to Mary Queen of Scots. Arriving in England he was imprisoned and it is assumed bought his freedom by promising to work for Walsingham. He persuaded Castelnau he could provide advice on Scottish affairs, but in return learnt nothing. Castelnau kept his mouth shut and Walsingham was frustrated.
In March 1583 Castelnau was reported to be sending letters to a French agent in Scotland, Mainville, by a gentlewoman who was about to leave from Gravesend. The ship was searched, the letters found, opened, read, re-sealed and sent on. Bowes reported that the French agent was convinced the letters had not been read. He was wrong. Walsingham, who knew how to delegate, employed an agent skilled in handling the wax seals so they appeared unbroken. But the letters did not discuss the Plot.
As Walsingham had failed with several attempts to discover the Hidden Treason, the fear for the life of Queen Elizabeth 1 was mounting. The attempt of John Somerville to murder the Queen in his lone wolf escapade in the summer of 1583 was probably only a single man’s outing but the connections with other more serious plotters in Warwickshire including the Throckmortons, soon to be a major problem for Elizabeth’s ministers, demanded that they had information on serious threats with interntional support. This was Walsingham’s top priority,
Walsingham by the time of the Somerville episode blessed with a phenomenal stroke of luck. A correspondent in the French Embassy totally unbidden wrote to him giving him a fund of information. Signing himself Henry Fagot, the name concealed his identity which has never been discovered. More importantly, though the role of the French Embassy for Queen Mary would be crucial, of the three recent most significant biographies the role of the Fagot episode is hardly examined. Antonia Fraser says nothing about Walsingham’s good fortune, John Guy thinks Laurent Feron, an Embassy Secretary, was Walsingham’s mole but without evidence*, and Kate Williams has only one index entry for Castelnau, relating only to the Throckmorton plot – and none of the three mention Fagot though the two latter books were published after While it is not vital to know who the mole was, it is important to know that the information was accurate and that Walsingham had access to what the French ambassador was doing. This is the value of John Bossy’s prize winning book arguing that Giordano Bruno was the mole, and even though I am not convinced, his research is a first rate resource.
The key passage, with Bussy discussing the first mailing to Walsingham in spring 1583. reads.
“On about 20th April, the first of a number of interesting messages from the house arrived on the desk of Sir Francis Walsingham. It came from one Henry Fagot, and consisted of six separate items, each dated and signed , written on 18th and 19th April, reporting things that had happened in the house. On
The 14th the post had arrived from France with a letter for Castelnau from the Duke of Guise encouraging him to pursue vigorously his secret operations in favour of the Queen of Scots… On the 19th an old man called Pierre brought Castelnau a letter asking him to pass on to King James a message…. I think the writer was the Duke of Lennox, who had recently been the head of a brief anti English regime in Scotland but had been obliged to withdraw to France, On 18th April a Scot called William Fowler turned up as he regularly did, with news about the doings of the chief ministers of the Scottish church: he was pretending to be a Protestant, but was actually in the pay of the French. On the 19th Monsieur Throckmorton came to dinner, having recently conveyed a sizeable sum of money from Castlenau to Mary: at midnight, Lord Henry Howard had turned up, no doubt via the garden, and told Castlenau that a Scot living in the embassy was about to be put in prison as a Catholic”
John Bossy, Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair, p13. Original text in bad French pp188-192
Thr information here would be of great interest and utility for Walsingham, and it is clear the mysterious Fagot understood the Secretary of State was exactly the right man to get this news, and must have picked this up from talk in the Embassy/ The Dukes of Guise and Lennox, William Fowler, and Lord Henry Howard were well known to Walsingham though Fowler was in his pay, not the French and on page 190 Bossy sketches his role (he might have been paid by the English and the French of course). But there was no hard information on the Plot to invade England, and Walsingham must have been intensely frustrated that he had no idea who Fagot was so could not direct him to investigate the central issue.
His secretive informant wrote a second letter a week later saying that on April 22nd a William Herle had visited talking to Castelnau about English policy to France – Bossy thinks he had visited four years before, but how Fagot would know this is mysterious (p15). Herle is an agent of Burghley but is obscure- Stephen Alford’s biography of Burghley has only 4 referemces to Herle and nothing after 1572. Bossy has four letters to Burghley from Herle in 1583-4, adding to the limited knowledge historians have of spying in Elizabethan England, where three ministers – Walsingham, Burghley and Leicester – ran their own networks. But for Bossy, Fagot is the key issue.
This second letter to Walsingham talked of an impending agreement between the Duke of Anjou (French) and Phillip II of Spain, and on 24th April William Fowler brought two rings from the Duke of Lennox to be sent to Mary. How would he have got them from Lennox, who had passed through England escaping from Scotland to France? A letter from Castlenau’s wife after a conversation with the Duke of Guise talked of a Catholic coup in Scotland run by Guise and Lennox. Since Lenuox was to die on 26th May and Guise had few Scottish contacts this did not help Walsingham track serious developments. The big news was that Castlenau was in contact with Mary Queen of Scots, but there was still no detailed information for the Privy Council.
Fagot was quiet for some weeks, but then came his bombshell letter. He opened a door which would transform Walsingham’s work. The key paragraph said
“I also tell you that if your excellence wishes I have made the ambassador’s secretary so much my friend that if he is given some little bit of money that there is nothing he will not let me know, and all that touches the Scottish Queen and the secret writing in which her letters are written. You should know that after your excellency has inspected any packet of letters addressed to her, he can insert others without anyone knowing at all.
The chief agents of the Scottish Queen are Mr Throckmorton and Lord Henry Howard, they never come here except at night.”
Bossy makes the entirely justified comment that “this was an amazing coup. It raised Fagot’s status at aa stroke from that of an apprentice spy to that of an agent of the highest importance”; This is true. Bossy believes it is not Jean Arnault, seigneur de Cherelles as rumoured, as he was not in London 1581 to 1586, but Nicholas Leclerc, seigneur de Courcelles, who was in post in that period. (p20). Courcelles was in charge of dealing with Queen Mary and Catholic insurgents, Castlenau did not want to be involved in the details, leaving them to his secretaries. Guy thinks the mole is Laurent Feron but Bossy is adamant it is Courcelles.
Bossy claims “Turning Courcelles was a priceless tactical achievement of Elizabethan policy: it led to the arrest of Nicholas Throckmorton, and to the collapse of a promising scheme for a Catholic enterprise in support of Mary…..” p21. This are large claims and it is not substantiated at the end of this chapter, though entirely plausible. There is a reference which cannot be found in the text. At this point the story moves into the second great conspiracy of Elizabeth’s reign, the Throckmorton Plot. If what Bossy says is true, CouRcelles is a major figure in the downfall of Mary Queen of Scots. As is Henry Fagot. None of this was due to what Walsingham had done. He simply had the most astonishing luck in having an ally in the French embassy. He called himself Henry Fagot.
But who was Henry Fagot?
*Guy has Bossy’s 2001 book in his bibliography, but not the prize winning original book of 1991 Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair.
Trevor Fisher 4th February 2023