Sir Francis Walsingham was principal secretary to Elizabeth I, as well as her spymaster and head of her security detail. Along with William Cecil, the Queen's senior advisor and Walsingham's chief patron, the two men guarded the Protestant crown and Elizabeth's own person with severe diligence. Heads rolled. Not a metaphor.
|L-R Cecil, Elizabeth, Walsingham|
We might remember the fury of religious hatreds in the 16th century. Philip of Spain may very well have felt slighted after Mary Tudor's death, and there wasn't any love lost with the French, either, but Spain and France were Catholic powers, and England was apostate, Elizabeth a heretic.
Her older sister Mary, daughter of Henry VIII's first wife, Catherine of Aragon, wore the crown for five intemperate and bloody years, and did her best to turn back the English Reformation, burning dissenters at the stake. Not few and far between, either, the known number being two hundred and eighty-four. Some better-off Protestants went into exile abroad. Francis Walsingham, then twenty-one, left his law studies at Gray's Inn and beat feet for Basel, in Calvinist Switzerland.
Mind you, we're only into the first ten or a dozen years of Elizabeth's reign. Walsingham's got twenty years to go. The through-line, though, is the thwarting of Catholic power and ambitions. This is a guy who seeks to frustrate at every turn the puissant majesties of Papist dominance. Certainly it's a political balancing act, a chess game, but Walsingham seems motivated not simply by loyalty to his sovereign, but gleefully rubbing their Romish noses in any humiliation he could contrive. He wanted boots on the ground in the Netherlands, for instance, open rebellion against Spain by the Protestant Dutch. Cecil persuaded the Queen to more moderate tactics. Then there were the constant negotiations over prospective candidates for Elizabeth's hand. She used the possibility of marriage as an instrument of foreign policy for most of her life, not in some coquettish pursuit, but as a serious means of structuring or weakening alliances. Here too, Catholic and Protestant proved selling points, for and against.
Walsingham's great espionage triumph is the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Given the time and distances, it's extraordinary how well-informed he kept himself, and how immediate the reports were. He recruited merchant skippers and diplomats, footpads and whores. The intelligence was terrific. He also orchestrated Drake's raid on Cadiz, which pushed Spain's invasion planning back a full year. In the event, the naval battles in the Channel, and later at Calais, decided the issue, Francis Drake again the hero of the hour - the famous story of his finishing the game of bowls - but it was Walsingham's system of beacons, built along the south coast, that gave Elizabeth's captains their timely warning.
Less honorable, perhaps, were the inductions devious by which Mary Stuart was betrayed and condemned, but she was easily led, a foolish queen, far less canny than her cousin. Elizabeth would never have put her trust in such a congeries of rascals and lowlifes and feckless naifs.
For our purposes, there's the longstanding suspicion that Marlowe was a spy for Cecil, in the Low Countries. And perhaps earlier, when he was at Cambridge, for Walsingham. The three men he was drinking with, that afternoon in Deptford, were all connected to the Walsinghams. Two of them, Poley and Skeres, had been active agents provocateurs for Sir Francis in the Babington plot that undid Mary, Queen of Scots. Marlowe's killer, Ingram Frizer, was in the household employ of Thomas Walsingham, a first cousin. Marlowe had been commanded to appear before the Privy Council to answer charges of libel and sedition - privy to the Crown, in effect the Queen's cabinet, the Council was the seat of authority for both Cecil and Walsingham. Marlowe was killed ten days after the summons, but Sir Francis Walsingham himself was already three years dead at the time of Marlowe's murder.
Did he reach out from the grave? One way of looking at it is to ask what Marlowe might have known and what stories he might have told. By far the most interesting speculation involves the so-called School of Night, a supposed group of atheists patronized by Sir Walter Raleigh, although the evidence is exceeding slim: the theory here being that Kit Marlowe was silenced so he wouldn't incriminate Raleigh, atheism as the time being family to treason, the Queen both monarch and head of the Church of England.