Francis Walsingham

With the beginning years of the 1580s, and the fading from power of the Lord Chamberlain, the ailing Earl of Sussex, the Principal Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, stepped to the fore.  Unfortunately, history has given us a dark and somewhat distorted picture of Walsingham.  This is partly because so much of what he did had necessarily to be done in secret, and partly because, following his death, his private papers vanished leaving historians with little to work with beside his official letters.  Even so, though we are restricted to guessing the extent of his activities by the shadows they cast, these suggest that he was a great deal more than “the spymaster” that he’s usually labeled.  As his biographer, Conyers Read, puts it:

[D]uring his first eight years as Secretary [he] had not yet become the great figure in the Government which he became later.  He had not yet fully revealed his extraordinary abilities.  Consequently during that time he continued to be regarded as occupying a rather subordinate position in the government.  It was in the last ten years of his life (1580-90) that he established himself as one of the most influential of the councillors who surrounded Elizabeth’s throne.  During that decade it may almost be said that he was the chief executive  officer of the Government. (2.291)

We can only guage such a reserved figure by his own words.  Of an anonymous pamphlet published sometime in October 1585 titled A Declaration of the causes moving the Queen of England to give aid to the Defence of the People afflicted and oppressed in the low Countries, Read states:

There is no doubt that Walsingham himself composed the second part . . . and there is a strong presumption that he wrote the whole of it.  If so it gives him a high place among writers of literature of this sort.  The Declaration is indeed a masterpiece in its way, eloquent and ardent, yet essentially moderate and sane, pregnant with sound reasoning, concise yet elegant.  . . .  The fact that Walsingham was chosen to compose this official utterance . . . demonstrates that he was already recognized as past master of the art . . . . (3.121)

My guess is that Walsingham wasn’t “chosen” by anyone, that by 1585 he was the leader in this arena and so he wrote it because in his view it needed writing.  Even more likely, it was Francis Bacon who wrote it at Walsingham’s request since careful writing of this nature takes a lot of time, Walsingham was tremendously busy, and it’s exactly the sort of work Bacon was doing then, the only kind he could get.

In any case, whether as author or patron, it suggests a level of judgement , a taste for art, for the kind of literature that would soon be appearing on the Stage as well as in the Press.  Historians explain Walsingham’s adoption of Sir Philip Sidney, whom he welcomed into his family as his only son-in-law, as a political maneuver, forgetting that whatever his political status, Sidney was, first, last and always, a poet.  It wasn’t Sidney’s looks or his status as a Christian warrior that had his fans calling him divine and an angel, it was his poetry.

Read himself states that

in his recreations [Walsingham] was a “bookish person,” who . . . preferred his library and the conversations of his learned friends before . . . more vigorous pastimes. . . .  The year or two which he spent in Italy in his youth evidently made a great impression upon his tastes and temperament, and if he did not return, as Asham would have it, a “devil incarnate,” he was nevetheless in many repects that monstrous type of Englishman which . . . contemporaries combined to brand as “Italianate.”  Of course he was far too sane and sober a man to affect the more fantastic attributes of the type, but he possessed to a remarkable degree its cosmopolitan spirit and its breadth of interest. . . . (3.432-3)

Read also writes;

Walsingham’s earliest biographer declares him to have been the best linguist of his times, and David Lloyd said of him: “He could as well fit King James’s humour with sayings out of Xenophon, Thucydides, Plutarch or Tacitus, as he could King Henry’s with Rabelais’s conceits and the Hollanders with mechanic discourses.” Probably no Englishman of his times had so wide an acquaintance abroad, not merely among statesmen and political agents, but also among men of letters. (3.433).

How odd that Read then chooses to dismiss any personal connection between Walsingham and the acting company he helped create or the University Wits who dedicated works to him.  Perhaps he suffers from the same affliction that causes historians of the stage to see plays as something other than literature.

Although Burghley was responsible for bringing Walsingham to Court in the first place, once Walsingham got the bit in his teeth a strain developed .  They worked well together when dealing with Mary Queen of Scots and the English Catholics, but when it came to international affairs, they found themselves at odds, perhaps because Burghley’s only experience of the world outside England was a few weeks in Edinburgh in 1561 while Walsingham spent years as a student in Italy and later as ambassador to France.  In dealing with the threat from Spain, Burghley was Chamberlain, Walsingham Churchill.  Burghley was more afraid of the Papists at home than Walsingham; Walsingham was more worried about them in France and Spain (Read 2.231, 3.51).

That sink of filth and sin

Why then, with all he had to do, did Walsingham add the Court Stage to his roster?  We can’t know exactly how it came about, but we can guess why.  By rights it should have been either Christopher Hatton, Vice-Chamberlain of the Household who took over, or Lord Hunsdon, Sussex’s deputy.  Walsingham had worked well enough with Sussex, but it was unlikely that he could have worked so well with Hatton (Shakespeare’s Malvolio).

For one thing, the Queen, ever concerned to maintain a balance among her restive councillors and still angry at Oxford, may have been teetering towards allowing even heavier restrictions on the Stage of the sort continually urged by her more conservative councillors.  In the seven years since the birth of the London commercial stage, the forces ranged against the Theater by the Church and the more radical reform elements in Parliament had become ever more adamant, to limit it as much as possible, but ultimately to get rid of it altogether.

Howard and Hunsdon, both patrons of acting companies, were too involved with it for their opinions to carry much weight with the Queen or other members of the Council, some of whom (Hatton included) were inclined to side with those who called for its removal.  Walsingham, on the other hand, having no obvious personal connection with the Stage, could promote himself to Elizabeth as one who could oversee it without allowing it undue license.  With the loss of Sussex, the disgrace of Leicester, and the increase of concern over Catholic plots, Walsingham’s stock was on the rise.

What he did, even before Sussex died (possibly with the Lord Chamberlain’s blessing), was to begin moving to create a Crown company.   In March 1583 he instructed the Master of the Revels, Charles Tilney (that Tilney would do this on his own, or purely at the Queen’s suggestion, is absurd) to form a new company by taking two or three actors from each of the major companies.

Thus, by creating a single company out of the best actors in the nation, like the Little Tailor of the folk tale, Walsingham dealt with several giant problems by striking this single blow.  Without shutting any of them down, this gave the acting companies who were upsetting the City fathers a strong reminder of what could happen if they got too reckless.  The actors who made up the Queen’s Men, surely the wittiest of devils and so potentially the most troublesome, would be on the road for most of the year, out of sight of London and its easily irritated officials. In addition, by having them report directly to him, information about trouble brewing in the provinces could be more easily dealt with ahead of time and in camera.  And, since trouble caused by travelling companies in the provinces, if sufficiently dire, often landed in the lap of the Principal Secretary anyway, by patronizing the company himself, he would be able to nip it in the bud before it went public.

McMillin and Maclean, authors of the most important book on the Queen’s Men, understand some of this, though they miss what may have been the most important side of this move, to Walsingham at least, namely that it gave him a bully pulpit  with which to woo the more conservative Catholic provincials into putting their nation ahead of their religion.  A reformer himself, he would have been aware of how, back in the days of Henry VIII, Reformation playwright John Bale had helped to sway the nation away from Rome and towards home rule with a history play like King Johan.  Bale’s patron had been the 16th Earl of Oxford.  Perhaps Walsingham could do the same thing with more modern plays by the son of that same earl.  Perhaps some of the older actors in the new company were veterans of that same earl’s company.

Walsingham and Oxford

Walsingham would have had a different view of the unpredictable Earl of Oxford than most. Having worked so closely during the early ’70s with the then senior Principal Secretary, Sir Thomas Smith, Oxford’s tutor, Walsingham would have insights into Smith’s surrogate son that no one at Court could possibly have had but him, nor was Smith one to keep his feelings or opinions to himself when at ease with a friend.

Walsingham’s correspondence with Smith began in the early 1570s when Smith was serving as Elizabeth’s Secretary of State and Sir Francis was acting as Ambassador to France, Smith having served in that capacity earlier  (Dudley Digges 1655).  They were both in France together in 1572.  In 1573, Walsingham came aboard as Second Secretary, learning the ropes from elder statesman Smith, whose wealth of experience with the first Reformation government under Edward VI would have been willingly shared with his junior until he retired in 1576.  They exchanged many letters over the years, building a friendship that that lasted until Smith’s death in 1577 (Dewar 181).

In any case Walsingham would have been aware of Oxford’s troubles in the early ’80s, of his banishment from Court, his financial woes, his struggle to keep the Blackfriars theater afloat while dodging the Knyvets, out to kill him for seducing their cousin. A fatherless man himself, he would have sympathized with Oxford’s grief over the failing health of Sussex.  In Oxford’s most recent dramas, written for his discerning West End audience, Walsingham could envision the kind of plays that a travelling company could use to bring the provinces into line politically with London.  Before having Tylney pick the actors for his all-star company, he may well have consulted with Oxford as to which ones would be best.  That would have been easy, since Oxford was living just around the corner.


[1]Wikipedia: “His public papers were seized by the government and his private papers, which would have revealed much, not least about his finances, were lost.” This is common knowledge, repeated in every text on Walsingham.

[2] One of Walsingham’s sisters was married to Peter Wentworth, the outspoken Puritan Parliamentarian and advocate of Parliamentary freedom as against the royal prerogative (3.425). Read thinks that Walsingham may have secretly supported some of Wentworth’s opinions (3.426).  Another sister was married to Sir Walter Mildmay, a Walsingham supporter on the Privy Council.  Walsingham was the step-son of Hunsdon’s uncle, Sir John Carey of Plashy, who, according to Read, opposed him on most public policy (3.426).  Read says that Leicester  was condescending to Walsingham (3.428), but that Walsingham and Hatton were on friendly terms (3.429).

[3] The major councillors during the last half of the 1570s and beginning of the 1580s were Burghley, Leicester, Sussex and Walsingham.  With regard to the Queen’s marriage, Sussex and Burghley were for it, Leicester and Walsingham against it, while the same division existed when it came to making peace or war with Spain.  Yet, when it came to dealing with the Catholic threat within England, Burghley and Walsingham were dogged while Sussex and Leicester were less concerned.

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