Francis Walsingham, the only son of William Walsingham, a prosperous London merchant, was born in about 1532. Although he did not have any brothers he did have five sisters. His uncle was Sir Edmund Walsingham, lieutenant of the Tower of London from 1521 to 1550). (1)
Walsingham studied at Cambridge University where he became a strong supporter of Protestantism. He is suspected of being involved in the plot to make Lady Jane Grey queen of England. Walsingham has been described as a "fervent Protestant by creed" with a deep "fanatical strain". (2)
Walsingham escaped to Europe and studied law at Padua. On 29th December 1555, he was appointed spokesman for the English students there, a position he retained until 8th April 1556. It is believed that he was involved in several plots against Queen Mary until her death in 1558. (3)
Walsingham returned to London when Elizabeth, a Protestant, became queen of England. William Cecil arranged for Walsingham to obtain a seat in the House of Commons. In 1563 he was elected to represent the people of Lyme Regis. He rarely spoke in Parliament but it soon be clear that he disagreed with Elizabeth about religious tolerance: "Walsingham's utterances and those of Elizabeth, on various occasions, explain their irreconcilable differences of opinion on religious matters. Patriotic as he was, Walsingham felt that, in the last resort, creed was more important than nationality; Elizabeth wanted the English Catholics let alone, provided they conformed to what she thought the necessary minimum of state observance." (4)
In 1570 Walsingham was appointed Ambassador to France. Over the next two years his house became a refuge for Huguenots being persecuted by Catholics. On his return to England in 1573 Walsingham he became Principal Secretary. Specializing in foreign affairs he advocated an aggressive policy in favour of Protestants in Europe. He became convinced that King Phillip II of Spain, who had been Queen Mary's husband, wanted to make England a Catholic country.
Walsingham was given government money to setup Britain's first counter-intelligence network. Walsingham was given responsible for the security of the monarch. To protect Elizabeth he created a network of spies in Europe. He received regular reports from twelve locations in France, nine in Germany, four in Italy, four in Spain, and three others in Europe. He also had informants in Constantinople, Algiers and Tripoli. Walsingham was supplied by regular information by his spies in Europe. It was claimed that his spying system was so efficient that secret messages sent from Rome was known in London before it reached Spain. (5) Walsingham told Queen Elizabeth that he had discovered that the Robert Di Ridolfi plot of 1570 had been sponsored by her brother-in-law, Philip of Spain. He claimed that his main objective was to assassinate Elizabeth and to replace her with Mary Stuart.
In April 1583 Francis Walsingham received a report from Henry Fagot, his agent inside the French embassy, that Francis Throckmorton had dined with the ambassador. A month later Fagot wrote again with the information that "the chief agents for the Queen of Scots are Throckmorton and Lord Henry Howard". (6)
In November 1583, Walsingham ordered the arrest of Throckmorton in his London home. He just had time to destroy a letter he was in the act of writing to Mary Stuart, but among his seized papers was a list of the names of "certain Catholic noblemen and gentlemen" and also details of harbours "suitable for landing foreign forces". At first Throckmorton denied they were his, saying they must have been planted by the government searchers. He later admitted that they had been given to him by a man named Nutby who had recently left the country. (7)
Walsingham had Throckmorton put on the rack. During the first two sessions he courageously refused to talk. He managed to smuggle a message out to Bernardino Mendoza, the Spanish ambassador, written in cipher on the back of a playing card, saying he would die a thousand deaths before he betrayed his friends. However, on the third occasion he admitted that Mary Queen of Scots was aware of the plot against Elizabeth. He also confessed that Mendoza was involved in the plot. When he finished his confession he rose from a seat beside the rack and exclaimed: "Now I have betrayed her who was dearest to me in this world." Now, he said, he wanted nothing but death. (8) Throckmorton's confession meant that Walsingham now knew that it was the Spanish rather than the French ambassador who had been abusing his diplomatic privileges.
At his trial Francis Throckmorton attempted to retract his confession claiming that "the rack had forced him to say something to ease the torment". Throckmorton was executed at Tyburn on 10th July 1584 and was reported to have died "very stubbornly", refusing to ask for the Queen Elizabeth's forgiveness. (9)
To keep his network running smoothly, Walsingham established a spy-school in his own London house. His school taught cipher and forgery and gave potential agents training in field-work. His most successful graduate was Thomas Phelippes. He was described at the time as a man "of low stature, slender every way, dark yellow haired on the head, and clear yellow beared, eaten in the face with smallpox, of short sight, thirty years of age by appearance." Phelippes was a linguist who could speak French, Italian, Spanish, Latin and German. He was also one of Europe's finest cryptanalysts.
In October 1585, Gilbert Gifford went to Paris, where he got in touch with Thomas Morgan, an agent of Mary Stuart. In December he crossed over to England, landing at the port of Rye. Walsingham, had a spy in the camp of Morgan, and on his arrival he was arrested. It is claimed that Gifford told Wasingham: "I have heard of the work you do and I want to serve you. I have no scruples and no fear of danger. Whatever you order me to do I will accomplish." (10) Gifford's biographer, Alison Plowden, has argued: "Gifford may or may not have already been employed by Walsingham's secret service, but from this point there can be no doubt about his double dealing." (11)
Gifford was released and immediately approached the French Embassy in London. He told them that he had several letters for Mary. (At that time she was being held at Chartley Castle. Gifford was told that if they forwarded the letters by the formal route, Mary would never see them. Gifford then suggested that he would try to find a way of smuggling the letters into Chartley Castle. With the help of Walsingham he arranged with the man who provided Chartley Castle with beer, to smuggle the letters to Mary. The letters were wrapped in leather and hidden inside a hollow bung used to seal a barrel of beer. The brewer delivered the barrel to Chartley Castle and one of her servants would open the bung and take the contents to Mary. The same process was used to send messages to Mary's supporters. (12)
In March 1586, Anthony Babington and six friends gathered in The Plough, an inn outside Temple Bar, where they discussed the possibility of freeing Mary, assassinating Elizabeth, and inciting a rebellion supported by an invasion from abroad. With his spy network, it was not long before Walsingham discovered the existence of the Babington Plot. To make sure he obtained a conviction he arranged for Gifford to visit Babington on 6th July. Gifford told Babington that he had heard about the plot from Thomas Morgan in France and was willing to arrange for him to send messages to Mary via his brewer friend. (13)
However, Babington did not fully trust Gifford and enciphered his letter. Babington used a very complex cipher that consisted of 23 symbols that were to be substituted for the letters of the alphabet (excluding j. v and w), along with 35 symbols representing words or phrases. In addition, there were four nulls and a symbol which signified that the next symbol represents a double letter. It would seem that the French Embassy had already arranged for Mary to receive a copy of the necessary codebook. (14)
Gilbert Gifford took the sealed letter to Francis Walsingham. He employed counterfeiters, who would then break the seal on the letter, make a copy, and then reseal the original letter with an identical stamp before handing it back to Gifford. The apparently untouched letter could then be delivered to Mary or her correspondents, who remained oblivious to what was going on. (15)
The copy was then taken to Thomas Phelippes. The copy was then taken to Thomas Phelippes. "In the ciphers used by Mary and her correspondents the letters of each word were encrypted using a system of substitutes or symbols which required for their decoding the construction of a parallel alphabet of letters. To establish such cipher keys Phelippes employed frequency analysis in which individual letters were identified in the order of those most commonly used in English and the less frequent substitutes deduced in the manner of a modern crossword puzzle." (16) Eventually he was able to break the code used by Babington. The message clearly proposed the assassination of Elizabeth.
Walsingham now had the information needed to arrest Babington. However, his main target was Mary Stuart and he therefore allowed the conspiracy to continue. On 17th July she replied to Babington. The message was passed to Phelippes. As he had already broken the code he had little difficulty in translating the message that gave her approval to the assassination of Elizabeth. Mary Queen of Scots wrote: "When all is ready, the six gentlemen must be set to work, and you will provide that on their design being accomplished, I may be myself rescued from this place." (17)
Walsingham now had enough evidence to arrest Mary and Babington. However, to destroy the conspiracy completely, he needed the names of all those involved. He ordered Phelippes to forge a postscript to Mary's letter, which would entice Babington to name the other men involved in the plot. "I would be glad to know the names and qualities of the six gentleman which are to accomplish the designment; for it may be that I shall be able, upon knowledge of the parties, to give you some further advice necessary to be followed therein, as also from time to time particularly how you proceed."
Simon Singh, the author of The Code Book: The Secret History of Codes & Code-Breaking (2000) has pointed out: "The cipher of Mary Queen of Scots clearly demonstrates that a weak encryption can be worse than no encryption at all. Both Mary and Babington wrote explicitly about their intentions because they believed that their communications were secure, whereas if they had been communicating openly they would have referred to their plan in a more discreet manner. Furthermore, their faith in their cipher made them particularly vulnerable to accepting Phelippes's forgery. Sender and receiver often have such confidence in the strength of their cipher that they consider it impossible for the enemy to mimic the cipher and insert forged text. The correct use of a strong cipher is a clear boon to sender and receiver, but the misuse of a weak cipher can generate a very false sense of security." (18)
Walsingham allowed the letters to continue to be sent because he wanted to discover who else was involved in this plot to overthrow Elizabeth. Eventually, on 25th June 1586, Mary wrote a letter to Anthony Babington. In his reply, Babington told Mary that he and a group of six friends were planning to murder Elizabeth. Babington discovered that Walsingham was aware of the plot and went into hiding. He hid with some companions in St John's Wood, but was eventually caught at the house of the Jerome Bellamy family in Harrow. (19) On hearing the news of his arrest the government of the city put on a show of public loyalty, witnessing "her public joy by ringing of bells, making of bonfires, and singing of psalms". (20)
Babington home was searched for documents that would provide evidence against him. When interviewed, Babington, who was not tortured, made a confession in which he admitted that Mary had written a letter supporting the plot. At his trial, Babington and his twelve confederates were found guilty and sentenced to hanging and quartering. "The horrors of semi-strangulation and of being split open alive for the heart and intestines to be wrenched out were regarded, like those of being burned to death, as awful but in the accepted order of things." (21)
Gallows were set up near St Giles-in-the-Field and the first seven conspirators, led by Babington, were executed on 20th September 1586. Babington's last words were “Spare me Lord Jesus”. Another conspirator, Chidiock Tichborne, made a long speech where he blamed Babington "for drawing him in". (22) The men "were hanged only for a short time, cut down while they were still alive, and then castrated and disembowelled".
The other seven were brought to the scaffold the next day and suffered the same death, "but, more favourably, by the Queens commandment, who detested the former cruelty" They hung until they were dead and only then suffered the barbarity of castration and disembowelling. The last to suffer was Jerome Bellamy, who was found guilty of hiding Babington and the others at his family's house in Harrow. His brother cheated the hangman by killing himself in prison. (23)
Mary's trial took place at Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire on 14th October 1586. A commission of thirty-four, consisting of councillors, peers and judges, was convened. She was charged with being an accessory to the attempted murder of Elizabeth. At first she refused to attend the trial unless it were understood that she did so, not as a criminal and not as one subject to English jurisdiction. Elizabeth was furious and wrote to Mary stating: "You have in various ways and manners attempted to take my life and to bring my kingdom to destruction by bloodshed.... These treasons will be proved to you and all made manifest. It is my will that you answer the nobles and peers of the kingdom as if I were myself present... Act plainly without reserve and you will the sooner be able to obtain favour of me." (24)
During the trial Mary Stuart accused Walsingham of engineering her destruction by falsifying evidence. He rose to his feet and denied this: "I call God to witness that as a private person I have done nothing unbeseeming an honest man, nor, as I bear the place of a public man, have I done anything unworthy of my place. I confess that being very careful for the safety of the queen and the realm, I have curiously searched out all the practices against the same." (25)
Julian Goodare has argued that the plot was a frame-up: "A channel of communication with Mary was arranged, with packets of coded letters hidden in beer barrels; unknown to the plotters, Walsingham saw all Mary's correspondence. The plot was thus a frame-up, a point of which Mary's defenders sometimes complain. It is not, however, obvious that the English government was obliged to nip the plot in the bud to prevent Mary from incriminating herself. The frame-up was directed almost as much against Elizabeth as against Mary." (26)
The trial was moved to Westminster Palace on 25th October, where the 42-man commission, including Walsingham, found Mary guilty of plotting Elizabeth's assassination. As Walsingham had expected, Elizabeth proved reluctant to execute her rival and prevented a public verdict being decided after the trial. Christopher Morris, the author of The Tudors (1955) has argued that Elizabeth feared that Mary's execution might precipitate the rebellion or invasion which everybody feared. "To kill Mary was also foreign to Elizabeth's accustomed clemency and to her native fear of drastic action." (27)
Parliament petitioned for Mary's execution. Elizabeth hesitated and as always she hoped to shift the responsibility for action on to others and "hinted that Mary's murder would not be displeasing to her". (28) However, her government ministers refused to take action until he had written instructions from Elizabeth. On 19th December 1586, Mary wrote a long letter to Elizabeth arguing that she had been unjustly condemned by those who had no jurisdiction over her, and that she had "a constant resolution to suffer death for upholding the obedience and authority of the apostolical Roman church." (29)
Parliament devised two bills: one to execute Mary Stuart for high treason, the other to say she was incapable of succession to the English throne. The first of these she rejected and the second she promised to consider. William Cecil told Walsingham that the House of Commons and the House of Lords were both determined on the only sensible course "but in the highest person, such slowness... such stay in resolution." Elizabeth stated to Walsingham and Cecil "Can I put to death the bird that, to escape the pursuit of the hawk, has fled to my feet for protection? Honour and conscience forbid!"
Elizabeth Jenkins, the author of Elizabeth the Great (1958) has pointed out that she had ordered no execution by beheading since that of Thomas Howard, the 4th Duke of Norfolk, in 1572: "Since she came to the throne, Elizabeth had ordered no execution by beheading. After fourteen years of disuse, the scaffold on Tower Hill was falling to pieces, and it was necessary to put up another. The Duke's letters to his children, his letters to the Queen, his perfect dignity and courage at his death, made his end moving in the extreme, and he could at least be said that no sovereign had ever put a subject to death after more leniency or with greater unwillingness." (30)
On 1st February 1587, Elizabeth finally signed the long-prepared warrant authorizing Mary's execution. She gave it to William Davison, Walsingham's recently appointed colleague as principal secretary, with vague and contradictory instructions. She also told Davison to get Walsingham to write to Amyas Paulet asking him to assassinate Mary. Paulet replied that he would not "make so foul shipwreck of his conscience as to shed blood without law or warrant". However, it has been argued that Paulet refused, either on principle or fearing that an assassin would become a scapegoat. "The episode reveals much about Elizabeth: most relevantly, it shows that she was no longer aiming to keep Mary alive, merely to preserve her own reputation. Elizabeth was genuinely distraught by the execution; her claim that it had been against her wishes was not strictly true, but may be understandable when it is recalled how long and how hard she had resisted the pressure for it." (31)
Davidson took the execution warrant and on 3rd February, he convened a meeting of the leading councillors. William Cecil urged its immediate implementation without further reference to the queen. However, on 5th February she called in Davidson. According to Davidson, smiling, she told him she had dreamed the night before that Mary Stuart was executed, and this had put her "into such a passion with him". Davidson asked her if she still wanted to warrant to be executed. "Yes, by God," she answered, she did mean it, but she thought it should have been managed so that the whole responsibility did not fall upon herself. (32)
Mary was informed on the evening of 7th February that she was to be executed the following day. She reacted by claiming that she was being condemned for her religion. She mounted the scaffold in the great hall of Fotheringhay, attended by two of her women servants, Jane Kennedy and Elizabeth Curle. The two executioners knelt before her and asked forgiveness. She replied, "I forgive you with all my heart, for now, I hope, you shall make an end of all my troubles." (33)
Mary's last words were "Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit". The first blow missed her neck and struck the back of her head. The second blow severed the neck, except for a small bit of sinew, which the executioner cut through using the axe. He held her head aloft by the hair and declared, "God save the Queen." As he did so the head fell to the ground, revealing that Mary had been wearing a wig had actually had a very short, grey hair. (34)
According to the account written by Robert Wynkfield: "Then one of the executioners, pulling off her garters, espied her little dog which was crept under her cloths, which could not be gotten forth by force, yet afterward would not depart from the dead corpse, but came and lay between her head and her shoulders, which being imbrued with her blood was carried away and washed, as all things else were that had any blood was either burned or washed clean, and the executioners sent away with money for their fees, not having any one thing that belonged unto her. And so, every man being commanded out of the hall, except the sheriff and his men, she was carried by them up into a great chamber lying ready for the surgeons to embalm her." (35)
In 1587 Walsingham had to deal with the Scottish and French reactions to Mary's execution. He had spies in both camps so he was able to monitor their plans to deal with Queen Elizabeth. On 12th November he wrote to Robert Dudley, predicting an attempt by the Spanish to invade. After discussions with Elizabeth she agreed to an increase in spending on secret intelligence (£3,300 in just over 12 months). (36)
The Duke of Medina Sidonia was placed in charge of preparing the invasion of England. The invasion took a lot of preparation and it was not until July 1588 that the 131 ships left Spain. The large Spanish galleons were filled with 17,000 well-armed soldiers and 180 Catholic priests. The plan was to sail to Dunkirk in France where the Armada would pick up another 16,000 Spanish soldiers that were under the command of Alessandro Farnese, the Duke of Parma.
On hearing the news that the ships had left Spain, Charles Howard of Effingham, Lord High Admiral, held a council-of-war. Lord Howard decided to divide the English fleet into squadrons. Francis Drake, John Hawkins and Martin Frobisher were chosen as the three other senior commanders of the fleet. Howard went in his flagship, the Ark Royal (800 tons and a crew of 250). Frobisher was given command of the largest ship in the fleet, the Triumpth (1,110 tons and a crew of 500 men) whereas Drake was the captain of the Revenge (500 tons and a crew of 250) and Hawkins was aboard the Victory (800 tons and a crew of 250).
Lord Howard decided that the Spanish Armada should be attacked at both ends of the crescent. The Ark Royal attacked the right wing and the Revenge and the Triumph attacked Juan Martinez, de Recalde, commander of the Biscayan squadron on the left. Recalde on board the San Juan de Portugal decided to come out and fight the English ships. He was followed by Gran Grin and the two ships soon got into trouble and had to be rescued by the Duke of Medina Sidonia on board the San Martin. At the end of the first day's fighting, only one ship was sunk, the San Salvador.
That afternoon Medina Sidonia announced that if any Spanish ship broke formation the captain would be hanged immediately. He also told his captains that they must maintain a tight formation in order to prevent further attacks from the English ships. This decision meant that they could now only move towards Dunkirk at the speed of the slowest ship. Constantly harassed by the English ships the slow moving Spanish Armada eventually reached Calais without further loss. The English fleet now dropped anchor half a mile away.
That night Medina Sidonia sent out a warning to his captains that he expected a fire-ship attack. This tactic had been successfully used by Francis Drake in Cadiz in 1587 and the fresh breeze blowing steadily from the English fleet towards Calais, meant the conditions were ideal for such an attack. He warned his captains not to panic and not to head out to the open sea. Medina Sidonia confidently told them that his patrol boats would be able to protect them from any fire-ship attack that took place.
Medina Sidonia had rightly calculated what would happen. Charles Howard and Francis Drake were already organizing the fire-ship attack. It was decided to use eight fairly large ships for the operation. All the masts and rigging were tarred and all the guns were left on board and were primed to go off of their own accord when the fire reached them. John Young, one of Drake's men, was put in charge of the fire-ships.
Soon after midnight the eight ships were set fire to and sent on their way. The Spaniards were shocked by the size of the vessels. Nor had they expected the English to use as many as eight ships. The Spanish patrol ships were unable to act fast enough to deal with the problem. The Spanish captains also began to panic when the guns began exploding. They believed that the English were using hell-burners (ships crammed with gunpowder). This tactic had been used against the Spanish in 1585 during the siege of Antwerp when over a thousand men had been killed by exploding ships.
The fire-ships did not in fact cause any material damage to the Spanish ships at all. They drifted until they reached the beach where they continued to burn until the fire reached the water line. Medina Sidonia, on board the San Martin, had remained near his original anchorage. However, only a few captains had followed his orders and the vast majority had broken formation and sailed into the open sea.
At first light Medina Sidonia and his six remaining ships left Calais and attempted to catch up with the 130 ships strung out eastwards towards the Dunkirk sandbanks. Some Spanish ships had already been reached by the English fleet and were under heavy attack. With their formation broken, the Spanish ships were easy targets for the English ships loaded with guns that could fire very large cannon balls. The Spanish captains tried to get their ships in close so that their soldiers could board the English vessels. However, the English ships were quicker than the Spanish galleons and were able to keep their distance.
After the Spanish Armada rounded Scotland it headed south for home. However, a strong gale drove many of the ships onto the Irish rocks. Thousands of Spaniards drowned and even those who reached land were often killed by English soldiers and settlers. Of the 25,000 men that had set out in the Armada, less than 10,000 arrived home safely.
Francis Walsingham died on 6th April, 1590.
We... will undertake the delivery of your royal persons from the hands of your enemies... For the dispatch of the usurper (Elizabeth)... six noble gentlemen, who, for the zeal they have to the Catholic cause... will undertake that tragical execution.
When all is ready, the six gentlemen must be set to work, and.... when it is accomplished, I may be in some way got away from here... then we will await foreign assistance.
The cipher of Mary Queen of Scots clearly demonstrates that a weak encryption can be worse than no encryption at all. Both Mary and Babington wrote explicitly about their intentions because they believed that their communications were secure, whereas if they had been communicating openly they would have referred to their plan in a more discreet manner. Furthermore, their faith in their cipher made them particularly vulnerable to accepting Phelippes's forgery. Sender and receiver often have such confidence in the strength of their cipher that they consider it impossible for the enemy to mimic the cipher and insert forged text. The correct use of a strong cipher is a clear boon to sender and receiver, but the misuse of a weak cipher can generate a very false sense of security.
While Mary was in England, plot after plot was made against Elizabeth by Mary's friends, and by men who looked to her as their rightful queen. Whether Mary knew of these plots is uncertain... Letters were found... but there were many who said then, and many who still believe, that these letters were forgeries - that is to say, that they were written by Mary's enemies for the purpose of making people believe she was guilty.