Rounded Rectangle: FACT BEHIND FICTION
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A section from

‘A Jedi shall not know hatred, nor fear… nor love.’ from Star Wars Episode II






Political Background


Queen Elizabeth I was a staunch protestant and Sir Francis Walsingham was her most fierce protector. Elizabeth’s ascension to the throne of England in 1558 was difficult and controversial, and she inherited a weaken nation. Her main problem was the religious divide between the Catholics and Protestants within England, and the same divide spread over continental Europe. This situation put her at odds with France and Spain - the most powerful nation at the time. Her open support for protestants in Europe didn't help and she became the target of several assassination attempts. Nevertheless all plots were foiled and she lived a full life only to die heirless at the age of seventy. But at the time of her death England was on its way to becoming a military, cultural and economic superpower, having completely overcome the fearsome Spanish Armada.




Sir Francis Walsingham was a devout protestant, and the ascension the catholic - Mary I to the throne of England forced him to flee his country. Only when Elizabeth I became the queen did he return and serve her in the capacity of a minister and spymaster.


The Babington Plot


Walsingham’s most celebrated accomplishment was uncovering the ‘Babington Plot’ which was a plan to assassinate Elizabeth I and restore the monarchy to a catholic. Babington was one of the chief conspirators. Mary I who was imprisoned by the queen, was involved to the extent of giving her blessing to the plot - she being the monarch to replace Elizabeth and all. Mary’s limited complicity was just the thread that Walsingham was looking to take advantage of and secure her execution.


How did Babington and company plan to restore the monarchy to a catholic? Assassinate Elizabeth, incite riots, call for ready help from continental Europe and free Mary from prison to become the next Queen.


How did Walsingham uncover the plot? Walsingham had firmly and publically established himself as England’s spymaster, and his zealous protection of Elizabeth was well known also. Though he had a good network of spies all over Europe the Babington plot fell into his lap when one of his volunteer spies (who had a catholic background) was used as a courier for messages to and from Mary and the conspirators. Each time a letter was written, the correspondence first ended up in Walsingham’s hands. Walsingham opened the letter’s seal, cracked the code at the hands of his cryptanalysts and resealed the letter with expert forgers.


Nevertheless Walsingham didn’t move against the conspirators. He needed to establish Mary’s complicity in the matter so he let the correspondence reach her and waited for her reply. When Mary’s response was in his hands and her involvement was certain he still didn't make his move. Walsingham wanted the identity of all the conspirators so that everyone involved could be punished. He put a forger to the task and added a postscript to Mary’s letter that would expose all the names of those involved in the conspirators’ next response.


Once all identities were established Walsingham made his move and arrested the conspirators, who despite successfully escaping once were nevertheless apprehended, dismembered, disemboweled and then executed. Mary I was beheaded, and to avoid making her a martyr Walsingham had all her last possessions and items related to the beheading burned so that nothing could be used as a relic. And to douse any further sympathy that might arise for Mary, Walsingham organized an elaborate funeral for a recently fallen and popular hero, who died fighting Catholics on continental Europe.


Walsingham’s toolbox


Walsingham inherited an established network of spies, but he realized that to be effective he needed more informants and was quick to recruit and employ agents all over Europe. To this network he added other resources like cryptanalysts, forgers and counterfeiters. No doubt these resources didn’t come cheap but such was his single-mindedness that when the Queen refused him funds he used his own, so much so that he died deep in debt.


But all these resources pale in comparison to his scheming mind and political foresight. As demonstrated in uncovering and apprehending all conspirators in the Babington plot, Walsingham had the nerve to wait patiently playing a dangerous game to entrap everyone involved in high treason. He also had the political acumen not to make a martyr of his targets, who had a significant following in the country.


Espionage and Spies at

Sun Tzu: The Art of War & Espionage






-The World’s Greatest Spies and Spymasters - Boar & Blundell

-The Cracking Code Book - Simon Singh




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