News from the Archive

Sir Francis Walsingham’s Letter-Book.

This month we discovered a 17th century copy of the letter-book of Sir Francis Walsingham taking us through the years 1569-73 and 1581. It includes copies of not only letters from Walsingham but also letters to him from key Elizabethan figures such as William Cecil (otherwise known as Lord Burghley) and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. There is even correspondence from Queen Elizabeth I herself, referring to him as ‘our fruitful and well-beloved Francis Walsingham’.

During the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary, the Protestant Walsingham (1532-90) went into voluntary exile, travelling around Europe.  As he met influential foreign individuals and experienced different cultures, he picked up their languages and grasped an understanding of their politics. All of these were assets that were noticed by Lord Burghley and subsequently, after Walsingham become Member of Parliament for Lyme Regis in 1562, he started working for Cecil in 1568. From here on, Walsingham started to play more and more of an important role in Queen Elizabeth’s court.

In 1570, two years after he had started working for Cecil, Walsingham’s language and political skills contributed to his appointment as Ambassador to France. This position lasted for three years during which Walsingham’s objective was to arrange a marriage between the Queen and the Duke of Anjou (the brother of the French king, Charles IX). However, this marriage was not meant to be and Walsingham, motivated by the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s (1572) during which many French Huguenots were killed, returned to England.  In 1573 Walsingham was appointed as Principal Secretary of State (a position which he held until his death in 1590) and in turn became a member of the Privy Council.  His appointment as Elizabeth’s ‘Spy Master’ placed him in charge of a network of agents throughout both England and Europe. This network provided him with information regarding potential invasions and assassination plots. Consequently, Walsingham was able to uncover both the Throckmorton Plot (1583) and the Babington Plot (1586) both of which involved Catholics planning to assassinate Elizabeth and put her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne. Ultimately, Walsingham’s discovery of the Babington Plot resulted in the execution of Mary a year later.

Many of the letters found in the letter-book correspond to Walsingham’s time in France and indeed both Anjou and the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s are mentioned. Meanwhile, the letters from 1569 refer at times to the Northern Rebellion of the same year (also referred to as either ‘The Earls’ Rebellion’ or ‘ The Rising of the North’). Across the time-span, there are also, and rather unsurprisingly, many referrals to Mary, Queen of Scots. Overall then, this letter-book may prove to be a fascinating insight into the world of politics and religion during the Elizabethan era.


Katie Byron