Sir Francis Walsingham

Key Facts & Summary

  • Sir Francis Walsingham is known as one of Elizabeth I’s spies: he was able to protect Elizabeth and the monarchy during the several conspiracies.
  • He was also an explorer and carried out several offices including that of Ambassador in France.
  • In 1569, Walsingham worked with William Cecil to thwart conspiracies against Elizabeth. He found out the Ridolfi plot, which sought to replace Elizabeth with Mary Stuart.
  • In 1570, the Queen chose Walsingham to support the Huguenots in their negotiations with Charles IX.


Sir Francis Walsingham was an English statesman and councillor to Queen Elizabeth I, second only to William Cecil, Lord Burghley, in contributing to the success of her domestic and foreign policies. Of Kentish and Hertfordshire decent, the son of a prosperous lawyer and Kent country gentlemen, he studied at King’s College, Cambridge, for two years beginning in 1548, but did not take a degree. He spent the next two years travelling abroad. Shortly after his return to London, he again left England, this time as a Protestant exile from Queen Mary’s Catholic counter-reformation.

Walshingham’s two trips abroad in the 1550s epitomise his whole career. The foundation in politics and languages laid during the first trip served him well when he undertook the conduct of Elizabeth’s foreign affairs and the management of a secret service essential to England’s survival. The second stay on the Continent affirmed his strong Protestant commitment. Like many of the Marian Exiles, he absorbed the advanced Protestant doctrines of Calvinism; unlike most of them, he attained high political office. For seventeen years as Elizabeth’s principal secretary of state (1573-1590), he used his position to aid the Puritans in the English Church who felt that the Reformation had not gone far enough. The harsh treatment of the Puritans by Archbishop John Whitgift in the 1590s, after Walsingham’s death, testified to how effectively the secretary had shielded them from Elizabeth’s distaste and her prelate’s wrath.

Walshingham’s widest fame was as an intelligence agent and counterspy. The function was a concomitant of his office, charged as he was with internal order and the routine conduct of foreign affairs. In the two decades following 1570, when Protestant England’s survival was threatened by external invasion from Spain and internal subversion by Jesuit missionaries working with a radical fringe of English Catholics, Walsingham’s espionage network on the Continent and his secret-service surveillance of Roman Catholics at home were vital. Until 1587, the main hope of the papacy and Spain lay in the possibility that Elizabeth might be assassinated by conspirators or deposed by a Catholic uprising, thus placing on the throne the deposed Catholic, Mary, Queen of Scots. Walsingham and his agents frustrated these plots, decisively establishing the complicity of Mary (since 1568 Elizabeth’s guest-prisoner) in some of them. Mary’s execution in 1587 was promoted in largest part by Lord Burghley and Walsingham, the latter not only providing the evidence but also playing a major role in the three years of machinations necessary to persuade Elizabeth to sign Mary’s death warrant. With Mary’s death, all hopes of the papacy and Spain turned on the success of the ‘Enterprise of England’; the Spanish Armada, already in preparation when Mary died, was launched the next year. Walsingham’s Continental network provided the intelligence which enabled England to counteract the diplomatic activities of Spain and to assess her intentions and the state of her preparations.

Walsingham had great admiration for French and Italian culture. A ‘Renaissance man’, he was also a staunch Puritan – while he was a patron of scholars and literate men, he had no use for drama. He brought to England the famous international lawyer Alberico Gentili and thus sparked the revival of Roman law studies at Oxford. Deeply interested in overseas expansion, Walsingham encouraged the voyages of exploration and the studies which aided them. He died in London on April 6, 1590.

Parliamentary work

On the death of Mary I in 1558, her half-sister Elizabeth I succeeded her, and Francis Walsingham returned to England. With the support of one of his ex-comrades, Francis Russel, 2nd Earl of Bedford, he was elected in 1559 to the House of Commons as the Representative of Bossiney. He was re-elected in 1563 for the constituencies of Lyme Regis – also under the influence of Earl of Bedford – and Banbury but chose to represent Lyme Regis.

In January 1562, he married Anne, daughter of George Barne II, Lord Mayor of London in 1552-1553, and widow of a wine merchant, Alexander Carleill. She died two years later, and Francis Walsingham regained tutelage over her son Christopher Carleill. In 1566, Walsingham married Ursula St. Barbe; widow of Sir Richard Worsley, acquiring the estates of Appuldurcombe and Carisbrooke Priory on the Isle of Wight. The following year their daughter Frances was born. Ursula had two sons from her previous marriage, John and George, who were killed in 1567 in an explosion of gunpowder at Appuldurcombe.

In the years that followed, Francis Walsingham actively supported the French Huguenots and developed a close and friendly working relationship with Nicholas Throckmorton, the former representative of Lyme Regis and ambassador to France.

In 1569, Walsingham worked with William Cecil to thwart conspiracies against Elizabeth. He thus found out the Ridolfi plot, which sought to replace Elizabeth with Mary Stuart. He was credited with writing a propaganda text describing a conspiratorial alliance between Mary, Sir Thomas Howard and Roberto di Ridolfi.

Role as Ambassador of France

In 1570, the Queen chose Walsingham to support the Huguenots in their negotiations with Charles IX. Later that year, he replaced Sir Henry Norris, 1st Baron of Norris, as ambassador in Paris. One of his first actions was that of continuing the negotiations for a marriage between Elizabeth and the future Henry III. However, such a plan was finally abandoned because of the Catholicism of the then Duke of Anjou.

An alternative potential husband was the youngest son of Henry II, Francis, Duke of Alençon. Yet, Walsingham considered him ugly and devoid of good humour. Elizabeth was 20 years older than the Duke of Alençon and she was concerned that this age difference might seem absurd.

Francis Walsingham thought Britain should seek a military alliance with France against Spanish interests. Thus the defensive treaty of Blois was concluded in 1572, but since it did not include provisions on marriage, it left open the question of Elizabeth’s succession. The Huguenots and other European Protestants supported the nascent revolts in the Spanish Netherlands. When the opposition of the Catholics led to the death of Gaspard de Coligny and the massacre of St. Bartholomew, Walsingham’s Parisian home temporarily become a refuge for Protestants such as Philip Sidney. Walsingham’s wife, Ursula, then pregnant, fled to England with their four-year-old daughter. In January 1573 she gave birth to their second daughter, Mary. Francis Walsingham returned to England in April, having proved to be a competent person on whom the Queen and Cecil could count on.

A few months earlier, in 1572, Francis Walsingham was elected to Parliament in the Surrey district; and – although he was not a major parliamentarian –  he kept his seat until his death. In December 1573, he was appointed to the Privy Council as Principal Secretary with Sir Thomas Smith. After the latter’s withdrawal in 1576, Francis Walsingham, took effective control.

He was knighted on December 1, 1577.

On April 22, 1578, he was appointed Chancellor of the Order of the Garter; a position he held until June 1587, when he was replaced by Sir Amias Paulet by virtue of his appointment as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in addition to that of Principal Secretary.

Secretary of State

The duties of the Secretary were not precisely defined, but since he had to deal with all the royal correspondence and had determined the agenda of Council meetings, he had a great influence on all internal and foreign political questions. During the course of his service, Francis Walsingham supported the use of English maritime power to explore and open new routes to the New World. He was directly involved in political and diplomatic relations with Spain, the United Provinces, Scotland, Ireland and France, notably by participating in several missions in neighbouring states.

In Support of Maritime Explorations and Commerce

Walsingham actively supported trade promotion projects and invested in the Muscovy and Levant companies. He also supported attempts by John Davis and Martin Frobisher to discover the Northwest Passage and exploit Labrador’s mineral resources, and encouraged Humphrey Gilbert to explore Newfoundland. Gilbert’s trip was largely funded by the Catholic recusants and Walsingham supported the project as a potential means of suppressing Catholicism in England by encouraging the emigration of Catholics to the New World.


[1.] Adams, Simon et al. (2004) “Walsingham, Sir Francis (c.1532–1590)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press.

[2.] Cooper, John (2011) The Queen’s Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth I. London: Faber & Faber.

[3.] Hutchinson, Robert (2007) Elizabeth’s Spy Master: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War that Saved England. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

[4.] Spielvogel, Jackson J. (2012). Western Civilization: Since 1500. Eighth edition. Boston, MA: Wadsworth.

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