Elizabethan spies

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Long before the Burgess and Bond, London had an ingenious and viscious secret service. Time Out talks to historian Robert Hutchinson about the brutal world of the sixteenth-century espionage and the gruesome methods used by Elizabeth's spymasters to hunt down Catholic priests.

  • Elizabeth's Spy Master.jpg
    'Elizabeth's Spy Master' by Robert Hutchinson

    If you’re ever in the unlikely position of popping in for tea at GCHQ – the government listening post in Cheltenham that monitors our telephone conversations and emails – you might notice a portrait in the main foyer of an austere, long-faced Elizabethan who looks like a whippet in a ruff. This sunny chap is Sir Francis Walsingham, spymaster, torturer and national hero, described by historian Robert Hutchinson – author of ‘Elizabeth’s Spy Master’ – as ‘the head of MI5, head of MI6, head of Special Branch, Foreign and Home Secretary all rolled into one’. And you thought Blunkett was bad.

    Walsingham founded the British spy service. From 1569 he led a network of spies who combated those Catholics who conspired to depose the Protestant Elizabeth and put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne.

    These spies worked with codes and invisible ink, breaking seals and forging signatures. ‘Walsingham’s agents were remarkably effective, particularly in the teeming, stinking streets and alleys of London,’ writes Hutchinson. The spies – often paid from Walsingham’s own pocket – operated from his home in Seething Lane close to the Tower, where prisoners were interrogated and tortured before execution. It was a brutal time, and Walsingham was a ruthless zealot.

    One spy has attracted more interest than any other. Little is known of playwright Christopher Marlowe’s enrolment into Walsingham’s network, but there’s been much speculation. What seems certain is that Marlowe made some kind of Faustian pact with Walsingham and spent time abroad, perhaps in Reims, where English Catholics were trained to become priests. Marlowe only received his MA in 1587 from Oxford after the Privy Council insisted ‘he had done her majesty good service and deserved to be rewarded’. Anthony Burgess devoted a novella, ‘A Dead Man in Deptford’, to Marlowe’s brief life, beautifully capturing the spirit of London and the language of the sixteenth century as Marlowe staggered from tavern to playhouse and back: ‘The cobbles were slimy and rats peered from the kennel as the sun westered and would break the heart of the man who yearned above our filthy lot with its vision of heaven in trumpet colours. Masterless dogs scavenged and cats with staring coats darted or limped.’ These were streets in which Walsingham’s men prospered.

    Mystery surrounds Marlowe’s death in Eleanor Bull’s Deptford tavern in 1593, stabbed through the eye by Ingram Frizer, a servant of Tom Walsingham, Francis’s cousin, and witnessed by two of Walsingham’s spies, Robert Pooley and Nicholas Skeres. He was probably silenced for what he knew, or for the threat he presented to the competing cabals hoping to get the queen’s ear. (Of course, some maintain he wasn’t silenced at all, and sloped off to Europe to write all those plays that a mere grammar school boy like Shakespeare would never have been capable of producing.) That he met a sticky end was no surprise.

    ‘Walsingham believed that “without torture we won’t prevail” and employed a lot of rackmasters,’ says Hutchinson. ‘One of them was an astonishingly sadistic maniac, Topcliffe, who took his work home with him. He built a torture instrument at his own house near St Margaret’s Churchyard, Westminster, where he constructed a chamber with manacles to torment priests.’ Topcliffe boasted that he had ‘a machine of his own invention, compared with which, the ordinary rack was mere child’s play’. The rack was the favoured sixteenth-century instrument of torture, but other choice implements included the head-crushing Scavenger’s Daughter, The Pit, a 20-foot well full of vermin and water, or Little Ease, a cell so small that it was impossible to stand up or lie down in.

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