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Francis Walsingham

Sir Francis Walsingam, son of James Walsingham and Joyce Denny, and nephew of Sir Edmund Walsingham who was Henry VIII's Lieutenant of the Tower, was probably born about 1530. He was entered at King's College, Cambridge, though he seems never to have taken a degree and he was a member of Gray's Inn in the last year of King Edward VI.

During Queen Mary's reign, he took refuge abroad, as did many other zealous Protestants and, during his exile, he became an accomplished linguist and student of human nature. From the accession of Elizabeth I, when he returned to England, he became a zealous member of the House of Commons and was able, through his foreign correspondents, to keep Cecil informed of many important events on the Continent. He was employed upon several diplomatic missions by Elizabeth. In particular, he negotiated the Treaty of Blois with France, in 1572, and was in Paris as ambassador at the date of the massacre of St. Bartholomew. But none of his missions were crowned with special success because his outspoken Protestant zeal led him to undervalue the results obtained by the Queen's policy of vacillation. He never ceased to remonstrate with her on this subject and one is surprised when one reads the remonstrances which she tolerated from his pen.

In 1573, he became Secretary of State in succession to Cecil, now Lord Burghley, and it is no exaggeration to say that, on his skill in unravelling plots and on that alone, the life of the Queen, and with that life the future of an independent Protestant England, really depended. In particular, it was his pertinacity in tracking out the Babington Conspiracy of 1585 that brought Mary, Queen of Scots, to the block. His methods were neither more nor less subtle or cruel than those of his contemporaries abroad. He had spies in every Court and in half the mercantile communities of Europe; and on occasions he did not spare the rack in order to extract evidence.

Walsingham died in 1590, a poor man who had spent his private fortune in the service of the State and received almost no reward for doing so; but, in spite of his poverty, he was a benefactor to both Universities and an eager patron both of literature and exploration. His only daughter became successively the wife of Sir Philip Sidney and of the Earl of Essex.

Edited from Emery Walker's "Historical Portraits" (1909).      Copyright ©1999, LLC