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Who was Francis Walsingham?

Francis Walsingham served as Queen Elizabeth's Principal Secretary.
King's College Chapel at the University of Cambridge, where Walsingham matriculated.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 19 October 2014
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Sir Francis Walsingham (~1530-1590) is principally remembered for his service to the English state under Queen Elizabeth I. As the Queen's Principal Secretary, Walsingham looked after the interests of the state in a number of ways, ranging from routine diplomacy missions to espionage. Some historians regard Walsingham as the “father of modern intelligence,” citing his determined and sometimes unusual methods for acquiring information. He was certainly a complex man in an already complex era of English history.

Like many English of noble birth, Francis Walsingham was well educated, and actually studied at Cambridge for a time, although he did not sit exams for a degree. He studied law briefly before leaving England when Mary acceded to the throne of England. As a devout Protestant, Walsingham felt that he could not live under a Catholic Queen, although according to some accounts, he worked from abroad to bring Elizabeth I to the throne.

After the crowning of Elizabeth I, Walsingham returned to England to serve the state. He investigated threats to the realm and the sovereign, uncovering several major plots to overthrow Elizabeth and replace her with a Catholic ruler. He used an extensive network of agents across England and Europe, constantly gathering and processing information. His agents were offered training in a number of espionage techniques so that they could open mail, interpret codes and ciphers, and extract information in other ways.

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In addition to acting as the Queen's spymaster, Walsingham also offered her advice, which was sometimes extremely caustic and sharp. Many of the surviving speeches and writings of Walsingham suggest that he had a blunt, acid personality although he could be quite personable and charming when he was on foreign missions. Walsingham undoubtedly stood out in the colorful court of Queen Elizabeth I, since he wore simple, dark clothing and he did not hide behind graceful words, as many courtiers did.

Along with many other advisers, Francis Walsingham helped to strengthen England as a global power and Elizabeth as a Queen. He gave quite generously to the arts and sciences, promoting English exploration of foreign lands and acting as a patron for painters, playwrights, and others. As a valued member of Elizabeth's Privy Council, Walsingham was gifted with money and properties, most of which he invested in strengthening the English state. In 1577, Walsingham was knighted in recognition of his accomplishments on behalf of England; he died deeply in debt in 1590, thanks to his often unacknowledged generosity.

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