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Elizabeth's Spymaster: Francis Walsingham…

Elizabeth's Spymaster: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War That Saved… (2006)

by Robert Hutchinson

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There’s a rule for books dealing with the Elizabethan age; they almost always have to have a picture of Elizabeth I on the cover, even if they’re about somebody else. No exception here; Elizabeth gets pride of place, with Sir Francis Walsingham lurking in the background. As on the cover, so in life – Walsingham is a fascinating figure but not much is known about him, probably a sign that he knew what he was about in running an intelligence service. We don’t know how he got his start, how he recruited most of his agents, and how he ran his network. Therefore author Robert Hutchinson has to pad out this book with an account of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots – which Walsingham was mostly responsible for, by forging incriminating letters; and the Defeat of the Spanish Armada. There isn’t too much evidence about what Walsingham did to thwart the Armada, other than getting some information from merchants and planted agents in Spanish ports – but he must have contributed much that is unrecorded, since Sir Francis Drake wrote him to say “…you have fought more with your pen than many in our English navy fought with their enemies…”.

A lot of Walsingham’s work was reprehensible by modern standards; a good part of his efforts were directed against Catholic laymen and priests, who despite their nominal illegality were probably not that much of a threat to Elizabeth or the State. Hutchinson compares Walsingham to Beria and Himmler, but notes that things were different in the 16th century, and that Walsingham never went in for personal aggrandizement, dying in relative poverty after spending most of his private resources on his work.

The secondary characters are often fascinating; I wish there was more about them. Walsingham employed Rackmaster Richard Topcliffe, who was so nasty that his family disowned him and his sons changed their names. When Walsingham was reminded that government torture was technically illegal, Topcliffe solved the problem by noting that torture by private citizens was not and set up a dungeon in his own house (I understand such things are still available in London, but for different reasons). Topcliffe paid for his evil by dying peacefully at a ripe old age, wealthy and honored. Walsingham’s counterpart in Spanish service, Bernardino de Mendoza, managed to thwart or compromise many or Walsingham’s plans and must have had an equal or better network in England than Walsingham had in Spain, but not much is known about it. Playwright Christopher Marlowe was one of Walsingham’s agents and his interesting death might have had something to do with his activities. Walsingham’s daughter, Frances, must have been something, since she successively married Sir Phillip Sidney, one of the most popular nobles of the day and rumored to be the model for Hamlet; then Robert Deveraux, Earl of Essex, who was the queen’s favorite in her old age (until she had him beheaded). Frances’s third husband was less notable but lived longer.

In the 1998 film Elizabeth, Walsingham (played by Geoffrey Rush) is shown as a gay man who poniards his lover through the neck when he suspects an assassination attempt. Although such things were slightly tolerated in Elizabethan times, there’s no evidence that Walsingham was actually gay, and such a thing would have been very foolish as it would have exposed him to blackmail.

Not a bad addition to Elizabethan lore even though a little sparse as a biography. ( )
  setnahkt | Dec 7, 2017 |
Elizabeth's Spymaster has several major problems. First, Hutchinson throws us everything he has on Francis Walsingham --including, just to give an example, and I'm not exaggerating, how many pounds did his widow leave to her maids in her will. There is no tightness; much of the book's information is superfluous. Second, there is no narrative thread before we get to the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots. Third, Hutchinson seems to miss the big story here: the potential, knowing what we know now about the poor results obtained by torture, that many of the plots he uncovered were fabrications, and that Walsingham was probably as much a paranoid witch hunter as a protector of Elisabeth. And finally, the text has serious stylistic issues. Nearly every noun is matched with an adjective, page after page, and it's hard not to grow tired of this. ( )
1 vote jorgearanda | Jan 11, 2010 |
Walsingham was the lesser known sidekick to Cecil and perfected the spy network that they both used in their roles as Elizabeth's senior advisers. This book has more information than I think I really needed to know, and sometimes lacks a narrative thread to keep it all together and in context - but still a good read. Read November 2009. ( )
  mbmackay | Nov 21, 2009 |
This is a complex story of Walsingham's efforts to protect Queen Elizabeth's realm and life from her enimies. ( )
  jones120 | Jan 17, 2009 |
A very well researched and meticulously documented account of Walsingham's activities defending his country and Queen against Catholic plots both real and in some cases imaginary or inflated. There is relatively less about Walsingham personally and about his family, especially as his early life is relatively little documented. Well worth reading, though probably not to get too involved in the intracacies of the annotations if you are reading this for purposes other than study. ( )
  john257hopper | Apr 12, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0312368224, Hardcover)

England in the time of Elizabeth was on the brink of disaster. On the continent, Catholic Spain sought to forcefully reimpose the Catholic Church on its Protestant neighbors. At home, a network of powerful Catholic families posed a real and serious threat to the Protestant queen. In this world, information was power: those closest to the Queen were there because they had the best network to gather it.
Elizabeth's Spymaster is the story of the greatest spy of the time: Sir Francis Walsingham. Walsingham was the first 'spymaster' in the modern sense. His methods anticipated those of MI5 and MI6 and even those of the KGB. He maintained a network of spies across Europe, including double agents at the highest level in Rome and Spain---the sworn enemies of Queen Elizabeth and her protestant regime. His entrapment of Mary, Queen of Scots is a classic intelligence operation that resulted in her execution.
As Robert Hutchinson reveals, his cypher experts' ability to intercept other peoples' secret messages and his brilliant forged letters made him a fearsome champion of the young Elizabeth. Yet even this Machiavellian schemer eventually fell foul of Elizabeth as her confidence grew (and judgment faded). The rise and fall of Sir Francis Walsingham is a Tudor epic, vividly narrated by a historian with unique access to the surviving documentary evidence.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:21:49 -0400)

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"Elizabeth's Spy Master is a vivid narrative, based on new research, and set in a world of bloody intrigue, conspiracies and religious war. The England of Queen Elizabeth faced an implacable external enemy in the shape of Catholic Spain. Her realm was also menaced by an enemy within: a network of Catholic families that extended from remote regions to the capital and the court itself. The magnitude of the threat was illustrated over the Channel where Spanish armies sought to re-impose Catholicism on the Dutch by wholesale slaughter, rape and massacre. Only two things stood in their way: the English Channel and Sir Francis Walsingham." "Walsingham was in charge of the secret war in defence of Queen Elizabeth. His war was conducted in the shadows: blackmail, bribery, forgery and assassination were all in a day's work. He was not only the world's first recognisably modern 'spy master', but also the first 'secret policeman'. His world has uncomfortable resonances with ours: London was the target for religious fanatics who cheerfully accepted suicide missions to kill in the name of their faith. The Pope had branded Elizabeth a heretic and absolved her subjects of loyalty: an incitement to murder as powerful in its day as a fatwa. At the heart of this web of treason and conspiracy was the tragic figure of Mary, Queen of Scots." "Walsingham's ruthlessness is chilling, but commands respect, especially when the nature of his enemies is taken into account. He succeeded in getting informers into the Catholic houses and had spies at senior level within the Spanish Armada and even the Vatican itself. When Philip II of Spain heard of Walsingham's death in a report from his embassy in London, he wrote 'good news' in the margin. This book reveals why."--BOOK JACKET.… (more)

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