Francis Walsingham, the son of a prosperous London merchant, was born in Chislehurst, Kent, in about 1530. He 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. He escaped to Europe and studied law at Padua.
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.
Walsingham played an important role in protecting Elizabeth from Catholic plots. Using a network of agents and informers, he exposed plots led by Robert Di Ridolfi (1570) and Francis Throckmorton (1584). In December 1585, Gilbert Clifford was arrested in Sussex. While being interviewed, Clifford confessed that he had been involved in a Catholic plot to overthrow Elizabeth I. Walsingham offered to release Clifford if he was willing to work as a double-agent.
Gilbert Clifford agreed to this plan and went to his contact in the French embassy telling him that he knew how to smuggle letters to and from Mary Stuart. He explained that every week a barrel of beer was sent from Burton to where Mary was imprisoned. Clifford arranged to have letters placed in a waterproof package inside the stopper of the barrel.
Another double-agent, Thomas Philips, who was inside the prison, told Mary how she would be receiving letters in her beer barrel. However, before they were placed inside the beer barrel, they were read by Walsingham. More importantly, Walsingham was also able to read the letters that Mary sent to her Catholic friends in France and Spain. In these letters Mary explained how she wanted France and Spain to help her become queen by invading England.
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 25 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. Walsingham was now ready to act. Babington was arrested and his home was searched for documents that would provide evidence against him. When interviewed, Babington made a confession in which he admitted that Mary had written a letter supporting the plot.
Anthony Babington and six others were executed for high treason on 18 September, 1586. An attempt to kill the monarch was the most serious crime in England and the punishment was to be hung, drawn and quartered. The men were tied face downwards on a hurdle drawn by horses. They were then dragged through the streets of London. At Tyburn they were hung for a short period. After being revived the men had their intestines cut out.
In 1587 he obtained details of the planned Spanish Armada.
Francis Walsingham died in 1590.