On Her Majesty’s’ Secret Service – Elizabeth I in the age of spies

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Gale is committed to helping students discover research insights to advance learning and research. Gale Ambassadors are students who work within their own university to increase awareness of the Gale primary source collections available to their fellow students. Our Ambassadors study a variety of different disciplines, and all are open to receiving thoughts or questions from other students at their university about Gale Primary Sources.

By Rory Herbert, Gale Ambassador at the University of Portsmouth
I am a third year History student and President of the History Society at the University of Portsmouth. I enjoy trying to grapple with the vastness and complexity of this subject, and the challenges it can present. On the rare occasions that I have free time, I can be found playing hockey or researching historical facts and events.

While I’m sure we’re all familiar with the daring tales of English privateers and explorers during the Elizabethan age, there remains a forgotten and crucial element that helped Elizabeth maintain power. Under her reign, and with the significant help of her counsel, Elizabeth helped to cultivate and manage an extensive network of intelligencers, spies and informants that spanned the length and breadth of the continent. And what better way to view these official government communiques than in Gale’s State Papers Online.

Dan Jones. “Of spies and menaces.” Times, 18 Aug. 2012, p. 10[S]. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6Fdy82. Accessed 4 Apr. 2018.

If we were to equate Elizabethan spies to the fictional MI6 of James Bond, Francis Walsingham would certainly be ‘M’. Following the death and execution of Mary Stuart, the English Commonwealth experienced a period of heightened tension between it and the Catholic powers. As a result, Walsingham kept a keen eye on the international policies and movements of Europe and received frequent updates from his own personal network.

One such update, from an intelligencer in Scotland,[2] highlights the fear of Scottish court and foreign allies and, in this informant’s own words, suggests the course of action the state should take if they wished to influence Scottish foreign policy. Within this letter the informant details the troublesome elements in courts, the differing factions and how best to take advantage of a small dispute to sway opinion.

‘An Intelligencer in Scotland to Walsingham’, 1586. Harley 290 f.179.

Additionally, we can see a letter sent the same year to Walsingham from an agent in Calais.[2] As one of the closest ports to England on the continent, and one of the main smuggling hubs used by the Catholic press to access to the country, Walsingham kept it heavily scrutinised. However, what makes this source interesting is not the simple gathering of intelligence, but the emphasis and desire to ‘intercept’ the troublesome James Seaton at Calais. It would be wrong to think that these agents were merely for reconnaissance purposes; they were frequently used for clandestine ops on the continent. Quite a few individuals found themselves tricked, coerced and simply bundled into English ships, only to be brought home and tried for treason.

‘An Intelligencer in Calais to Walsingham’, [1586]. Harley 290 f.181.

Finally, it is important to highlight that these spies of old were not the suave and daring individuals we see in popular culture. To illustrate this point, I’d like to bring your attention to the figure of William Herle. During the time Herle was the chief intelligencer of London, he helped Walsingham maintain an iron grip of the capital. With a significant growth of Catholic political prisoners within Marshalsea Prison, Herle was actually interned in the prison himself to try and infiltrate this seditious group. Once inside, however, it seemed his aim of gathering intelligence was sidetracked by a preoccupation with complaining about the quality of his clothing and the funds that were issued for him to undertake this task.[3] Despite his constant complaining, his efforts were successful and he managed to notify the authorities of the infamous Throckmorton Plot, an intricate attempt to assassinate the Queen with the help of foreign intervention.

William Herlle to the Lord Keeper, 1571. SP12/77 f.1.

Blog post cover image citation: Dan Jones. “Of spies and menaces.” Times, 18 Aug. 2012, p. 10[S]. The Times Digital Archive, http://tinyurl.galegroup.com/tinyurl/6Fdy82. Accessed 4 Apr. 2018.

1.‘An Intelligencer in Scotland to Walsingham’, 1586. Harley 290 f.179.

2. ‘An Intelligencer in Calais to Walsingham’, [1586]. Harley 290 f.181.

3.  William Herlle to the Lord Keeper, 1571. SP12/77 f.1.