Elizabethan spies

  • Executions were commonplace. Burgess gruesomely imagines the hanging at St Giles’s of John Ballard, a priest who was involved in the Babington Plot of 1586, which had attempted to assassinate Elizabeth I and replace her with Mary Queen of Scots: ‘He smiled sadly, shaking his head, then was hauled up, firmly noosed, then kicked from the ladder. Here was skill shown. The single garment ripped down, the prick and bollocks exposed then sliced away, the first blood healthily flowing, then the cross-cut along the belly so that the bowels gushed out and, here was the skill of it, the victim saw before his eyes turned up… the quarters were heft up as at Smithfield and thrown into the boiling tub, there would be fair stew soon.’

    Hutchinson explains: ‘Elizabeth knew what was going on. We have to avoid the pitfall of equating today’s issues of human rights with the sixteenth century. The queen was being threatened by assassins – half her population were Catholics who had been instructed by the pope to overthrow her. That’s what Walsingham was all about. Not only fighting the enemy from Spain and France, but also the enemy within.’

    Some of his methods would be familiar to modern spies. Agents used dead letter boxes to exchange information, secret ink manufactured from milk and lemon (athough ‘the hard-pressed agent could resort to using his own urine, if watered down’), and messages written in complex code. The enemy acted similarly: the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots received information hidden in beer barrels, or in the high heel of the fashionable shoes worn by any good Frenchwoman, incarcerated or otherwise. And when these messages were intercepted, Walsingham’s forgers could always add an extra layer of incrimination. Through such behaviour, Walsingham scuppered half a dozen plots and harvested crucial information about the Armada.

    ‘London was basically a fairly Protestant city, with a small population,’ says Hutchinson. ‘So everybody had a reasonable chance of knowing their neighbours and that’s what Walsingham relied on – somebody appearing who wasn’t known and everybody informing on them. He appointed roving agents to spot priests in the crowd who would then arrest them. One had the authority to go into any house without warrants to hunt for priests. I don’t think he hesitated to use anything that would bring pressure to bear on people. He was not shy of blackmail, distortion, propaganda, threats and violence. You were either with or against him. Walsingham would find today’s terrorism measures pretty limp-wristed. ’

    ‘Elizabeth’s Spy Master’ by Robert Hutchinson (Orion, £20).

    Follow the clues

    Where to sniff out more Elizabethan spies

    British LibraryContains the diary of Charles Sledd, a spy who infiltrated the English College in Rome and compiled a list of Catholic exiles. There’s also William Cecil’s map of Lancashire [see above], which marked out the homes of Catholics with red crosses.The British Library, St Pancras, 96 Euston Rd, NW1 (0870 444 1500).Hatfield HouseQueen Elizabeth I’s ‘Rainbow Portrait’ attributed to Isaac Oliver. Elizabeth’s dress is covered by eyes and ears symbolising that she is all seeing and all hearing.Hatfield House, Hertfordshire (01707 287 010).

    National Portrait Gallery
    The portrait of Walsingham, circa 1587, is attributed to John de Critz the Elder. National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place WC2 (020 7312 2463).Public Record Office Holds two leather folio volumes of ciphers and codes used by Walsingham in the entrapment of Mary Queen of Scots.

    Tower of London
    Reconstructed racks in the permanent ‘Torture at the Tower’ exhibition.
    Tower of London, EC3 (0870 756 6060).

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