The Queen’s Agent

francis-walsinghamI’ve just finished reading The Queen’s Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth I by John Cooper and thought I’d post a quick review before settling down to an afternoon of work in the office. Sir Francis Walsingham (left) has acquired an almost mythical status as chief “spymaster” for the Crown during a time when Queen Elizabeth I was beset on all sides by plots and intrigues; The Queen’s Agent tries to find the man behind the legend. Not surprisingly, as Walsingham was as secretive as his trade might suggest, it doesn’t always succeed, but it does at least explode a few myths and give some insights into the character of a very complex man who was capable of great compassion as well as terrible ruthlessness.

Apart from anything else this book allowed me to indulge a longstanding interest in codes and ciphers; specifically, there are many interesting parallels between the story of the Spanish Armada and the breaking of the Enigma code at Bletchley Park during World War II, of which more shortly.

My first encounter with Sir Francis Walsingham came during history lessons at School, especially concerning his role in the infamous Babington Plot of 1586, which resulted in the execution for treason of Mary Stuart (Mary Queen of Scots). Mary had been officially under arrest for 18 years, and had been moved around the country for much of that time with her retinue lest she become a focus for a Catholic plot to put her on the throne of England. In fact for much of her time in captivity, Mary had been communicating in secret with various individuals for precisely that purpose but, unknown to her, most of her letters were being read by Walsingham and his expert team of code-breakers, including  Thomas Phelippes. By 1586 Walsingham already had more than enough evidence to have Mary Stuart tried for treason, but he hit on a plan that if it worked would lead to the entrapment of a large number of her supporters as well as ensuring that he knew the full extent of the conspiracy surrounding Mary Stuart. And so the Babington plot was hatched.

In late 1585, Mary Stuart was moved to Chartley Hall in Staffordshire. A young man called Gilbert Gifford with impeccable Catholic credentials, and apparently sympathetic to the Stuart cause, starting working for the household.  Gifford was in fact a double agent, placed there by Walsingham. Mary was shown a new way to communicate with the outside world, by concealing letters in the beer barrels that were brought regularly in and out of the Hall. She was eventually persuaded to try this channel, but was reluctant to take too many risks; her caution led her to commit a terrible error.

The encryption system used by Mary Stuart was widespread in Europe at that time. It was a form of substitution cipher known as a nomenclator. This consisted of a large alphabet with symbols (some made up, some from other languages) standing sometimes for individual letters, and sometimes for the names of individuals or places. Interesting devices were also deployed to try to confound the frequency analysis that was already being used in code-breaking at this time: symbols were included in the alphabet to instruct the recipient to “repeat the next letter”, for example.

In fact the Babington cipher (or at least a copy of it) still exists:


Incidentally, in the nomenclators in use by Spain during the time of the Spanish Armada the symbol for Sir Francis Drake was “22”. I’m tempted to suggest that this is the origin of the Bingo call “two little ducks, quack quack”!

As is the case with most ciphers of this type, both sender and receiver would have to have a copy of the agreed alphabet and it is in the possibility of intercepting the key that such methods are most vulnerable . Nomenclators are not impossible to break without the key but not easy either; some 16th century codes of this type remain unbroken to this day. Mary did not know that the communication channel that had opened up was compromised at the very outset, so it probably seemed a sensible move for her to use it first to send a new cipher alphabet to Babington. Of course that decision was an enormous stroke of luck for Elizabeth’s agents because it meant that Phelippes and Walsingham could immediately read every single word of her subsequent messages all of which were intercepted and transcribed, before being replaced in the beer barrels and delivered to their recipient. Her fate, and that of a dozen or so co-conspirators, was quickly sealed. A transcript of the crucial item of correspondence, in which Mary discussed openly the strategy for the planned coup, was forwarded to Walsingham after decryption with a macabre addition: a picture of a gallows drawn in Phelippes’ own hand.

Another dimension that emerges from this story relates to just how difficult it must have been to know who was really on what side. Double agents abounded, and Walsingham must have known that some of his own men were actually working for the enemy at least some of the time; he apparently kept them going despite knowing that they had been turned in order to feed them with false information for the purposes of deception. That’s a very dangerous game to play, but they were dangerous times.

A couple of years after the Babington Plot came the Spanish Armada. The English army was so tiny in comparison with the huge force that planned to invade in 1588 that there was no way it could defend the entire coastline of England. Walsingham relied on intelligence in order to come to the conclusion that the invasion (if it came) would be in Essex. The Spanish would have wanted to get to London as quickly as possible, so this was far more likely to be the landing place than Sussex or the Isle of Wight, both of which were touted as possibilities. An English army of 16,500 was therefore assembled at Tilbury. It’s by no means clear how they would have fared against the Spanish, who outnumbered them by more than two-to-one and who were vastly more experienced and better equipped, but at least they would have had a chance. Walsingham must have been vastly relieved when he received news that the Armada had passed Portsmouth without attempting a landing, because had they done so they would not have met with any meaningful opposition.

Of course we all know what actually happened: harried but not seriously disrupted by a much smaller English naval force, the Armada proceeded up the English channel to Gravelines where it was planned to link up with Spanish ground forces encamped in the Netherlands. There they were attacked by Drake’s Fire Ships and fled into the North Sea in panic. The bulk of the Armada foundered on the coasts of Scotland and Ireland trying to find its way back to Spain in terrible weather.

We’re all taught at school that this was a defining period in English history, when our island nation was saved from Spanish tyranny and emerged into an age of unparalleled peace and prosperity. That’s the narrative we like to hear over and over again, perhaps because it provides us with a sense of moral certainty. A truer picture perhaps emerges when you look at it through the eyes of a man like Walsingham. This is history in all its cloak-and-dagger brutality, fascinating but at the same time profoundly unsettling because it reveals that all that ever really happens is that one side is slightly cleverer and more ruthless than the other.

So what was Walsingham really like as  a man? Obviously we’ll never know. But I’m glad I’ll never have him as an enemy…

2 Responses to “The Queen’s Agent”

  1. That was a very insightful post on a figure in history whose caricature I had always naively taken to be the truth. I may take a look at that biography some time soon.

    Regarding cryptography, the Khan Academy has recently developed a fascinating, superbly produced, fairly deep course on the subject, that I commend to your attention:

  2. Did you also know that she was briefly held prisoner at the Old Hall Hotel in Buxton Derbyshire? I live across from it

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