Elizabeth's spy master

Sir Francis Walsingham

Sir Francis Walsingham was Elizabeth’s Secretary of State from 1573. He is more commonly known as the ‘spymaster’. He gathered intelligence on the plots in Elizabeth’s reign by:

Intercepting coded letters and messages

  • The plotters developed increasingly sophisticated ways of communicating. For example some of Mary Queen of Scots letters were smuggled out in Mary’s shoes. Walsingham made sure he could intercept letters by placing informers in key suspects households.

  • Walsingham employed a man skilled at re-sealing letters so plotters did not know they had been read by Walsingham. He also employed a leading codebreaker to break any messages sent in ‘code’.

Employing a network of spies and agents

  • Agents with codenames were based overseas in key cities, including Italy, France and Spain.

  • Some of Walsingham’s agents were double agents. They pretended to take part in plots against Elizabeth and sending information to Walsingham.

  • After the Pope excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570, her government believed Elizabeth’s life was in danger from Catholic fanatics. From 1574 the Pope sent missionary priests to England, but Walsingham was effective at getting spies to seize priests almost instantly.

Elizabeth's spy master, figure 1

Acts of Parliament

  • Acts throughout the 1570s and 1580s were passed in Parliament, increasing penalties against Catholics, including the execution of priests.

  • Walsingham devised The 1584 Bond of Association act that stated that in the event of Elizabeth’s life being threatened, Mary, Queen of Scots was to be executed.

Searches and registers

  • Custom officials stopped, questioned and searched travellers from overseas.

  • Town councils were authorised to search all foreigners.

The use of informers

  • The Lord Lieutenants of each county and the bishops official reported any threats to Walsingham and everyone was encouraged to report suspicious actions.

  • The owners of taverns and inns had to report if any foreigners stayed with them.

Interrogation and torture

  • Captured priests, such as Edmund Campion, and plotters like Francis Throckmorton were tortured on the rack to extract information about their intentions and other threats to Elizabeth. They were then executed to act as a deterrent to others.