The Queen's Agent

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Sir Francis Walsingham

How do you write a biography of a man who lived more than 400 years ago? For the historian, the task is first of all reliant on the written record of his public and private life.

The task before author John Cooper is made especially precarious in the case of Sir Francis Walsingham, the close confidant of Queen Elizabeth I. As he relates early in this book, “Walsingham’s public career can be reconstructed in forensic detail. But the letters and account books which might have recreated the texture of his domestic life are nearly all lost.” Without access to his private thoughts, Cooper does as a good as job as possible in filling out the details without over-reaching with highly speculative claims.

As he notes, interest in Walsingham’s career experienced a renaissance in late Victorian England, when he was credited “with developing a secret service capable of thwarting the furtive designs of England’s enemies.” But Cooper cautions that the “Elizabethan secret service was a less formal structure than a web of relationships. Walsingham turned his household into a seat of government.”

While patriotism certainly played a major role in his own personal efforts, “the gathering of intelligence was lubricated by patronage and profit.” It appears he profited little by his royal service, and ended up being buried quietly in old St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1590. Even his modest memorial was destroyed along with the cathedral in 1666.

There were two great events that dominated Walsingham’s career and legacy: Mary Queen of Scots and the Spanish Armada. “The intelligence operation against Mary had been Walsingham’s alone,” writes Cooper. While Walsingham “had tempted Mary into an act of rebellion,” hedges his judgment by saying “the ethics of the episode are hard to judge.” Certainly ethics of 2013 can hardly be applied to the ethics of 1587 when Queen Mary was executed, but there is no denying that Walsingham “took charge of the executioner” himself.

He had been concerned at least since the 1570s that a “Catholic league was mustering” to topple Queen Elizabeth and the Protestant government. As principal secretary to The Queen, he was essentially her minister of foreign affairs, but they often were at odds as to the best policy to follow. At a crucial moment in 1587 he got Elizabeth to authorize Sir Francis Drake to engage the Spanish fleet.

His action in attacking the Spaniards in Cadiz even moved the Pope in Rome to call King Philip of Spain “a coward.” That was too much for Philip, who launched the Armada against England the following year.

Even though it suffered defeat, largely due to bad weather, Walsingham wrote that he feared the hatred of the Spaniards “is not yet quenched, but rather we may be assured, much more increased, so as they will but wait opportunity to set upon us again.”

His worries are much like those of leaders today who worry about the next threat of a terrorist attack, but in this case Spain never again tried to invade England. Walsingham presented The Queen with a “velvet cloak lined with cloth of silver, and a white satin doublet embellished with Venice gold” to mark the new year of 1589, the dawn of the golden Elizabethan Age that has echoed through the centuries. England was safe, and Walsingham had played his greatest role with the dedication we expect today from the secret services MI5 and MI6. The high point of the London Olympics last year when James Bond escorted Queen Elizabeth II to the Games is the modern-day echo of that age when another Queen Elizabeth was best served by her secret agent.

The Queen’s Agent (375 pages) is $ 27.95 from Pegasus Books. Visit their website

Clifford Cunningham

Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist currently affiliated with the National Astronomical Research Institute. He did his PhD work in the history of astronomy at James Cook University, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. He is the author of 12 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honour by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in 1990.

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