Book ReviewsElizabeth’s Spymaster: Francis Walsingham and the secret war that saved England

Robert Hutchinson. New York:  Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, August 2007. 399 pages ISBN 978-0-312-36822-7  $27.95

Robert Hutchinson has a wonderful way of recounting the history of Tudor England. His histories flow very well and they keep the reader enthralled with the events of this tumultuous time in English history. The era was tumultuous in the sense that no one knew exactly what the Tudor monarchs were going to do, whose head was going to be cut off or worse, who was going to be hung, drawn and quartered. Tudor England was a nasty place for those who opposed the Tudors.

This particular book by Robert Hutchinson is about Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster or rather, one of her secretaries of state, who was responsible for foreign affairs and safeguarding the state and the queen from being overthrown by outside forces or inside “traitors.”  This spymaster was Sir Francis Walsingham and his job was a thankless one. Often, the queen would rage and threaten him instead of praising him or giving him an award. Walsingham was a staunch Protestant of the Puritan variety. Despite the difficulty of his position he wanted to protect his queen as well as Protestant England from the Catholics.

Walsingham helped to many Catholics along the road to an early death. As is the case with the martyrs, his actions often lead to the beatification and canonization of his enemies. Walsingham was also in charge of capturing and convicting priests, both English and foreign, who ministered to the Catholics in England and to converted Protestants. These priests and their many helpers had to do this as secretly as possible. Their jobs were complicated and compromised by an abundance of spies and traitors. Hutchinson gives some rather gruesome details about the fates of those priests and their assistants.

One of Walsingham’s major targets was Mary, Queen of Scots. She was the heir apparent and would assume the English throne should Elizabeth die. She was also a Roman Catholic. Walsingham worked long hours to catch Mary and prove that she was planning to assassinate or overthrow Elizabeth in order to become queen and return Catholicism to England.

Walsingham finally was able to solidify the case by intercepting some of Queen Mary’s letters. He also forged a few others. Despite his work in creating a case against Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth did not want to execute her cousin. However, Elizabeth eventually gave in ordered Mary’s execution. She later regretted having done so and blamed Walsingham for tricking her into having Mary executed.

One of the major foreign attempts to remove Elizabeth and return Catholicism to England was the Spanish Armada. Hutchinson writes about how Walsingham used his network of international spies and informants to find out where the Armada was and when it was going to sail. He was able to delay the Armada’s attack by working with the English Navy to raid the Spanish fleet. In the end, though the Armada did set sail, it was defeated by a combination of English forces and those of nature.

Francis Walsingham was not a healthy man. He suffered from many illnesses while he served Queen Elizabeth. His long days and nights were spent pouring over numerous documents and reports. Many times, he paid for information out of his own pocket due to Elizabeth’s frugality and lack of funds. He died in debt in 1590. He was buried quietly in old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

This book is a wonderful read. It truly makes history exciting!  Hutchinson provides several color portraits and illustrations in the centerfold, which add to the reader’s understanding of the era. He also quotes many primary sources and has many endnotes as well as a bibliography and an index. One thing that is very useful is the provided section on the main characters in Walsingham’s spy ring accompanied by with short bios.

“Elizabeth’s Spymaster” is highly recommended to those interested in Tudor English history, Catholic Church history in England, or in spies.

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