In a time of existential and moral threat, the English state developed a network of informants and spies at home and abroad. While Catholics tried to steer a path through the demands for loyalty from both Queen and Pope.
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In 1583, a well born Warwickshire squire’s son set out from home to travel to London. John Somerville was not a discrete young man; he declared loudly in the local that when he caught up with Elizabeth he
‘meant to shoot her through with his dag and hoped to see her head to be set upon a pole for that she was a serpent and a traitor’.
This confused me, since I have it on good authority from a friend, Camilla, who emmigrated to Oz that a Dag is a sheep’s tail which is covered with sheep’s poop and all that sort of stuff, and the thought of an Elizabethan nobleman setting about the Virgin Queen in front of her horrified court with an old crappy sheep’s tail was disorienting. But apparently in days Elizabethan, it meant a pistol, which does make more sense. Somerville was hauled in for questioning; and it was quickly identified that he was probably mentally ill; but none the less, he had connections in Warwickshire, and a Catholic priest, Edward Arden was then discovered. Both were convicted; Somerville died in prison apparently by his own hand.
Somerville had not been the first to plot the murder of Elizabeth; the case of William Parry added fuel to the fires of panic; a Jesuit, William Holt was arrested for gathering a catholic alliance, but fled to Scotland; and Walsingham urged the English envoy there that he
Should be put to the boots and forced by torture to deliver what he knoweth
Fortunately for Holt and humanity, James VI refused to permit such brutality and connived to allow Holt to escape. While all this was going on, Walsingham was authorising the torture of one Francis Throckmorton, in a plot that would be revealed to be an international conspiracy to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne between the Catholic League, Spain, Pope and an expected general revolt of English Catholics.
Hopefully after last week you’ll all be across the febrile air of panic and religious fury – just starting off this week with a couple of plots to make sure your temperature doesn’t drop from the fever pitch to which tales of Elizabethan plotting has raised you. What we are going to concentrate on for the rest of the episode is the activity and services that Elizabethan England deployed in the belief that it faced an existential threat – whether by foreign invasion, internal rebellion or the murder of their childless queen; then we’ll spend a bit of time looking at how Catholics responded to that threat, the hideous dilemma under which they lived their lives.
I don’t know if you have seen the film Elizabeth, in 1998 with Cate Blanchett as Elizabeth, but it’s a lot of fun if you are looking for something to do. It covers the early years of Elizabeth’s reign, and Geoffrey Rush plays Walsingham – I could be wrong but I think the history is all wrong, because he goes up to Scotland to see Mary of Guise and she died in 1560 well before Walsingham became a thing. But hey, films are about entertainment not documentaries, and the thing about Walsingham is that he has presence and a reputation. When I was a lad it was all how Walsingham was the clever spy master who saved England from foreign enemies; and that’s what the film is like – Walsingham the amoral and ruthless spymaster, shown as probably killing Mary of Guise in the film. Well, I hope we’ve seen a slightly more complex Walsingham here in the sense that he has been very much involved in foreign policy and Irish policy, and we’ve stressed his closeness to Burghly and his role on the PC; but whatevs. I imagine it’s still the spymaster you are remembering about Walsingham. Because he did that too.
And in that regard Walsingham has a dicey reputation; I guess anyone who deals with spycraft and espionage probably inevitably does so, it seems like a world of moral compromises – not that I would know, the closest I have ever got to it is a john le Care novel. But Catholic commentators hated and feared him; and they painted a picture of a man who stepped over the line from seeking out the truth, to entrapment, over the line from inquisitor to agent provocateur. Conversely, his supporters robustly claimed he stayed on the right side of the line, and simply had a talent for discovery, and furthermore some more recent historians made a connection between Walsingham’s work and the establishment of the modern security services, MI5 & MI6.
Such claims are way over the top; a closer comparison is between Thomas Cromwell and Walsingham. Not sure if you can cast your minds back, but Cromwell sat in the centre of a vast network of communicants, of all types – reports came to his ears of treasonous declarations made in pubs, all the way through to his correspondence with Lady Hungerford about her husband’s iniquities. Walsingham was the same – there was no structured organisation like an MI5, just a network of informants and, as they called them, intelligencers all over Europe. There was no central office – or if there was, it sat in Walsingham’s home on Seething Lane in the city of London. There, Walsingham catalogued and stored the vast reams of correspondence that came from his contacts; and he employed a group of Administrators, many of whom served for a long time and forged strong relationships with each other; Laurence Tomson worked as Walsingham’s secretary for 15 years for example. Walter Williams saw service at the French embassy, ran letters from England to the Continent, and worked on surveillance operations at home. All of the men working with Walsingham at Seething lane were said to have one thing in common – they were all protestants of the hotter kind, conscious of being part of a war, bolstered in their relentless pursuit by shared memories of St Bartholomew’s Day.
Agents across the continent used ciphers, codes and secret ink; once again the Italians, masters of diplomacy, were also masters of using ciphers. Crucial to Walsingham’s team, then, was one Thomas Phelippes. Thomas was the son of a London cloth merchant, and had a gift for languages, ancient and modern, and mathematics; put together, this gave him a talent for cryptoanalysis – he was Walsingham’s code cracker, and dedicated enough to his trade to easily refuse Mary Queen of Scots attempts to bribe him. He worked alongside one Timothy Bright, who also devised a system of shorthand.
Some of those channels of information were official and in plain view – Ambassadors and embassy staff in the major centres for example. Renaissance Europe was mad keen on espionage and diplomacy, but while investing in resident ambassadors and envoys in foreign parts, at home they also made darn sure foreign ambassadors were always watched, and kept away from sensitive information at court; Elizabeth was a master of such games; she drove the Spanish ambassadors mad with her delaying tactics and evasions.
Other contacts came through merchants and factors of commercial enterprises working abroad; Christopher Hoddesdon, for example worked for the Merchant Adventurers and sent a stream of news home, including the proposed launch of Thomas Stuckley’s expedition to Ireland; Walsingham received intelligences from 46 different countries.
Less well defined and public though were the semi-professional intelligencers, from all sorts of walks of life; the inns of court were favourite recruiting grounds, but of all organisations of state in Elizabethan England there were none so socially inclusive as Walsingham’s. Maliverney Catlyn is a good example; he’d served as a soldier in the low Countries before sending Walsingham a letter offering his services. He infiltrated the Catholic community in France; then Walsingham embedded him in the Marshalsea prison where he picked up news and plans from the Catholic priests there – prisons were often hot beds of religious activity, where all those incarcerated priests did as much as they could to share information but also to convert inmates. Catlyn was a very enthusiastic protestant, and this was what motivated him to work for Walsingham; but it must be said also that he worked for money, as did most of Walsingham’s intelligencers.
Another example was Nicholas Berden, who infiltrated English Catholic networks and fed the news back to Walsingham. He wrote of his motivations
When so ever any occasion shall be offered wherein I may adventure some rare and desperate exploit such as may be for the honour of my country and my own credit, you shall always find me most resolute and ready to perform the same…this only I crave that though I profess myself a spy (which is a profession odious though necessary) that I prosecute the same not for gain, but for the safety of my native country
Berden’s work was without doubt dangerous – and he sounds like a complete adrenaline junky; but then I don’t suppose field agents give much value to a quiet night in with a good book. The patriotic rhetoric is very Elizabethan as nationalism in England rose to fever pitch, and glory was clearly also the name of the game. But we might note that Berden and those like him worked for two other less noble motivations; power and money. Berden accepted bribes from Catholics, and money from Walsingham; and in his reporting to Walsingham, he often held the power of life and death over his targets. It was a world as murky as the pool outside the mines of Moria, and which contained monsters just as dangerous.
Walsingham had a real talent for turning agents in foreign and catholic communities; George Gilbert for example was a member of William Allen’s English college, arrested and turned by Walsingham and becoming a vital link in the Babbington plot that would finally land Mary QoS in water too hot to handle. Anthony Tyrell was another who passed as an imprisoned Catholic priest and sent information back from prison to Walsingham, living a double life until he’d done his time and took up preaching at St Pauls Cross.
All of this needed money; money to pay agents, money to pay for information. His contemporary Robert Beale wrote of Walsingham that
With money he corrupted priests, Jesuits and traitors to betray the practices against this realm
It is difficult to see exactly how much money was spent by the state in the secret service pursuit of its enemies, but money was paid under the royal seal rather than voted by parliament, which I guess is par for the course, need to know basis, nudge nudge wink wink say no more say no more sort of thing. But there seems to have been an annual grant to Walsingham of £750 rising to £2000 by the mid 1580s and then dropping back to £1,200 – so it’s not a vast amount of money. The indications are that Walsingham supplemented the grant from his own income; in marked contrast to Burghley, Walsingham was as poor as a church mouse when he died, and one of the reasons may have been that he was paying his agents from his own pocket.
Meanwhile of course other nations of the world were doing exactly the same as Walsingham – paying agents and informants, trying to turn English agents. One intriguing character in this was one Sir Edward Stafford, a man so high up the tree that George Smiley would have had a heart attack if he’d been around to see his goings on. Edward Stafford held the crucial post of Ambassador in Paris from 1583. He was not a Walsingham fan, bypassing him and trespassing on his operations in Paris; so much so that Walsingham had his letters seized by his searchers when they came in on the way to Burghley, to Stafford’s helpless fury.
Stafford though got into debt, and the Duke of Guise, head of the Catholic league, gave him 6,000 crowns to see the contents of his diplomatic bag; he then netted a further 2,000 crowns from Mendoza, the Spanish Ambassador. Now, Walsingham came to know all this by 1586; and anyway, Stafford was hardly discrete, loudly proclaiming his support for Mary QoS. And yet he did not move on him…why not? Maybe he had insufficient evidence, and Stafford had Burghley’s confidence and was therefore difficult to bring down. Or maybe Walsingham, was playing him. In 1587, Stafford was recruited by Mendoza; in April of that year, Stafford passed news to Mendoza he’d had from Walsingham that the Queen was delaying Drake’s expedition to Cadiz. In fact, the queen was doing no such thing, this was false information – Walsingham knew full well that Drake had already set off, the crafty old bugger. When he realised that he’d been had, Stafford hastily sent another note to Mendoza – but Walsingham had spread misinformation and distrust most effectively. However, Stafford remained in place, and without doubt handed out a lot of damage to English interests.
Of course as well as trying to cover foreign intrigue and plots, the Elizabethan state set itself to hunt down, imprison, expel or execute Catholic priests coming from abroad. Whereas the Marian priests had roved over much of England, the new seminary priests and Jesuits concentrated very much on Gentry households in the south of England, a tactic about which there has been much healthy debate. On the one hand, it has been criticised as essentially leaving the faithful Catholics in most of England to its fate, including parts of the North and west where surviving catholic sentiment had been particularly strong, as the Rising of the North had demonstrated. In addition, the missions were essentially a failure, in the sense that by the end of the reign Catholicism in England no longer survived as a mass religion, practiced by little more than 1% of the population. However the counter is to reflect that the possibilities for Catholicism to remain a mass church given the level of focus and repression focussed on it were thin indeed, without foreign invasion and/or internal rebellion; the laissez faire attitude adopted by the state in Ireland would never have been acceptable in England. And to focus on Gentry households made sense; they had much more potential to hide and support priests, and they might serve as the centre to support servants and villagers within the household’s influence; it’s not clear what alternative strategy would have worked better. One consequence, however, would be that Catholicism would became a religion associated with social elites, until mass immigration from Ireland in the 19th century changed all that.
Priests came ashore in secret, with fake histories and alibis to cover them; moving around in Elizabethan England was no easy matter, in a time when people were meant to stay in their parishes unless they had special reason. Priests might go to London, where they might find support; the Jesuit Henry Garnet was leader of the Jesuit mission in England from 1586, Robert Southwell ran the Jesuit operation in London. From there priests would find help[ before they went into the countryside to serve their communities to the houses of known Catholic families.
Now harbouring a priest was a dangerous business, and it would get steadily more dangerous as the reign wore on; pursuivants and Priest hunters could turn up without any notice and search properties for hours or even days; there would be no fluffy stuff about demanding ot see search warrants, or declarations that the house of an English was their castle. Such claims might delay your Elizabethan pursuivants by giving them a fit of the giggles for a few moments. Catholic houses began to acquire secret hiding places where missionaries could shelter; and also where they could hide their kit; the church had stipulated that priests carrying out services without the proper dress and equipment would be committing a mortal sin, and these materials were bulky. Early hiding places were quite crude, and priest hunters soon learned to investigate dead spaces, and look for cavities behind walls and fireplaces.
But through the 1580s priest holes became much more sophisticated; which is where I can introduce a new Little John to English history – this little john being a carpenter from Oxford called Nicholas Owens. Incidentally, I have been given to understand that getting my terminology wrong between joiners, carpenters and cabinet makers can result in upset and hurt and I am eager to avoid offense, so if after hearing this you feel that Nicholas Owens should not be described as a Carpenter, I apologise, and you can write in. Anyway, Nicholas Owens was something of a genius in architectural concealment, creating priest holes that were almost impossible to find, many also with ways to feed priests who might be trapped while searches went on for days; and indeed Owens himself was once caught in 1606 after being starved out through a 4 day search. So good was Owens’ work that there are a few of his hideouts still surviving; one example was discovered by accident in 1894 having lain undiscovered for 300 years.
In 1594, Owens was arrested and thrown in the tower; as the Jesuit John Gerard pointed out, Owens could have undermined more Catholics than anyone else if he talked. But despite being tortured in the Tower, Owens with extraordinary courage gave nothing away – and even managed to help Gerard escape the Tower in 1597. Owens was released but was caught again in 1606, and once more tortured, this time so ruthlessly that his guts were ruptured, and he died an agonising death – once again without revealing anything. The official report claimed he’d killed himself with a blunt knife, evidence that the official cover up has been alive and well for many centuries.
Raids would of course have been terrifying; and could come at any time without warning. As an example; in 1586 a priest called Anthony Tyrell had been arrested and turned, and revealed a number of priests and country houses; later that same year a notorious priest hunter Richard Young, led a raid on the Vaux household, arriving early morning in an attempt to catch the family at mass. An account of the raid, the fruitless raid as it happens, survives, probably from Jesuit Robert Southwell
The pursuivants were raging all around and seeking me in the very house where I was lodged. I heard them threatening and breaking woodwork and sounding the walls to find hiding places; yet, by God’s goodness, after four hours’ search they found me not, though separated from them only by a thin partition rather than a wall. Of truth, the house was in such sort watched for many nights together that I perforce slept in my clothes in a very strait, uncomfortable place.
Some of the pursuivants earned a particularly evil reputation; one of these, and probably the most notorious was Richard Topcliffe; whose evident enthusiasm for pursing torture and execution revolted both sides – so much so that his nephew renounced the family name. In his pursuit of the Jesuit Robert Southwell, Topliffe applied for a warrant for torture stipulating that the
prisoner should be manacled at the wrists with ‘his feett standinge upon the grounde, & his hands But as highe as he can reach against the wall’
Southwell would be tried and executed, claiming that he had been tortured no fewer than 10 times. At his trial he denied having any intention of treason, seeking only to administer the sacraments to those that desired them. He was of course found guilty as a Jesuit, and was hung – though the executioners made sure he died before the grisly disembowling and body part distribution took place.
Executions in Tudor times often had something of the carnival occasion about them, horribly enough, and the authorities wanted the execution to be exemplary and the message to be clear – that the priests they were executing were both Catholics and traitors. The impact on the crowd could be very complex though; Priests with incredible bravery sought to make the example one of their choosing, not of their executors – they sought to die with pious calm and dignity; when Ralph Sherwin was hanged drawn and quartered at Tyburn he prayed for the Queen, before kissing the hands of his executioner. Walsingham understood the impact of such courage and doubted the effectiveness of executions, noting that
They moved men to compassion and draweth some to affect their religion, upon conceit that such an extraordinary contempt of death cannot but proceed from above
The English Catholic community then, faced terror and persecution if they wished to pursue their religion, and constant humiliation which they felt deeply, especially the Gentry, prevented from following their natural role in society by penal laws. As Thomas Tresham wrote bitterly
‘We are disgraced, defaced, confined from our native countries, imprisoned, impoverished, forsaken of friends, triumphed upon by foes; scorned of all men.’
How then, did the Catholic community react? Let us take the lives of a few individuals and see how they reacted. At one end of the scale we might look at the Browne family, starting with Anthony Browne, Viscount Montague. Browne took an approach that flew in the face of the Jesuit approach, who viewed the history of English Catholicism as part of the wider European struggle – and therefore set their faces against accommodation with the Elizabethan regime. Anthony and Magdalen Browne disagreed with this, and sought to live within English society. Having said that, they made few concessions as far as their household piety was concerned – they ran a relentlessly catholic household, and in fact after Anthony’s death Magdalen took things up a notch, building a chapel with choir and pulpit, celebrating mass to a congregation of often 120 people. One of the standard models in Catholic historiography for gentry is the idea of retreat, retreat from society and state church into a life of separatism and catholic household piety. The Brownes rather defy that model, because although they kept a very traditional and pious household, they also believed that was not incompatible with making some accommodation with the Elizabethan church. So, Anthony was what we’ve already referred to as a Church Papist, he attended church as Elizabeth demanded. That did not require him, or his wife, or indeed his household to creep around pretending to be good protestants; his Catholicism was acknowledged by the state and society. But his accommodation with the church of England allowed him access to the kind of role in local government that the Gentry expected to have – and indeed in national affairs; he acted as a commissioner in the trial of Mary Queen of Scots; in 1591, he was honoured with a visit by Queen Elizabeth herself.
His Grandson Anthony Maria was more inclined to withdrawal and recusancy in the later 1590s, but although he was viewed with increasing suspicion by the state and did a brief term in jail, he continued to be involved in politics, on the fringes of the party of the Earl of Essex. By the end of the reign he emerged as a leading supporter of the Appellants. The Appellants, while we are on it, objected to the level of Jesuit influence over the English catholic effort; the Jesuits it had to be said raised very high emotions – the Protestants often hated and feared them with a disturbing virulence, and even many Catholics mistrusted them. So something of a division opened up between those catholics who wanted some accommodation with the English state, calling themselves the Appellants, and those who were determined to see no such accommodation whatever the cost, and like the Jesuits, saw England as part of a Europe wide struggle.
It appears to be generally agreed by most historians that most Catholics very much felt a strong sense of loyalty towards their queen, and were desperate to prove it. And yet many also found it impossible to make the choice between loyalty to their Queen, and loyalty to their church and Pope. So let’s take a second example, of Thomas Tresham. After the parliament of 1585 and the law against Jesuits and priests, Thomas Tresham, and probably lord Vaux, sent a rather heart rending petition to the Queen, begging for toleration and pointing out the hideous choice forced on them as regards priests :
If we receive them (by whom we know no evil at all) it shall be deemed treason in us. If we shut our doors and deny our temporal relief to our Catholic pastors in respect of their function, then are we already judged most damnable traitors to Almighty God … either we (being Catholics) must live as bodies without souls, or else lose the temporal use both of body and soul.
Rather less heart-rendingly, Tresham also claimed he was only asking for the same toleration as granted to
Protestants enjoying their public assemblies under diverse Catholic kings and princes quietly.
Which is a fascinating piece of either towering ignorance or towering disingenuousness, I know not which.
Thomas Tresham was an example of a Catholic who found accommodation to the Elizabethan state less easy to achieve, and indeed the whole process of persecution by the Elizabethan state and the uncompromising response of the Catholic church ended up radicalising him. Until 1580, he appears to have had tried to accommodate, having his children christened at the local church, but in 1580 Robert Persons received him into the catholic church, and his son Thomas was not christened at the local church. None the less, Tresham was a spokesperson for loyalism, arguing that temporal loyalty to the monarch was not incompatible to spiritual loyalty to the Pope; he railed against the interruption of his public responsibilities, prevented from his leadership of local society in Oundle and Rushton in Northamptonshire by the penal laws preventing Catholics holding public office. On the other hand he was constantly in jail, outwardly refusing to conform or make any concessions; and although prevented from public office, penal laws did not prevent him from pursuing other Gentry occupations with some enthusiasm like building at Rushton, including his famous Triangular Lodge, covered with Catholic symbolism of the Trinity. When he died he was £11,500 in debt. You might think this was due to recusancy fines, since he paid £7720 for his recusancy, but really that’s only part of the story; he continued to spend on building, and to contract ambitious marriages for his daughters costing him £12,200. Meanwhile, he clearly harboured priests and Jesuits, and heartily supported the work of the English College to undermine his monarch’s church. The position of English Catholics was often deeply compromised by the situation in which the English state and the Catholic church hierarchy placed them.
His career also points to a moderating view, though, of the privy council and state policy; while the attitude towards priests and Jesuits was bloodthirsty and relentless, the search for some sort of accommodation with Catholic subjects never stopped, and tended to be pragmatic; if it had not, Tresham would have ended up on the gallows. In Suffolk for example, the Justices of the peace agreed a series of annual payments by recusant Gentry; this approach of compounding as it was called, was effectively a catholic tax, which demonstrated temporal loyalty without having to subscribe to what Catholics saw of course as heretical practices. It is probably bold of me to suggest a parallel with religious taxes on non muslims in the Ottoman Empire – I am sure someone will put me right.
On the other end of the scale, were those Catholics who saw rebellion or invasion as the only way out of this conundrum. Many of them fled to the continent, where they openly supported Spanish and Papal efforts to invade or to replace Elizabeth with the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots. Certainly senior Catholic clerics, including Cardinal William Allen, urged the people of England and Ireland to ‘join with the Catholic army’ in the ‘holy war’ against the ‘infamous, deprived, accursed, excommunicate heretic’. Philip and Mary Howard were examples who had stayed in England; Mary Howard was strongly and outspokenly supportive of the Catholic cause after converting to Catholicism, so much so that Elizabeth had her committed to the care of Sir Thomas Shirley for a year. Meanwhile her Husband Philip followed her lead after reading of the debates with Edward Campion, and attempted to flee but was caught, arrested, tried and convicted; he spent this rest of his life imprisoned in the Tower where he prayed in his prison cell for the ‘happy success’ of the Spanish.
However, very many Catholics dealt with all of these pressures and problems by withdrawing in some way, to what might be called hearth religion. The man of the house would maybe keep the pressure off by taking the church papist approach, so that the state did not look too closely at the activities of the family. But the woman of the house, like Magdalen Browne, would take the lead in ensuring the household was run on the lines as close to proper practice as possible; organising the reading of devotional manuals in a family setting, marking the traditional feasts and ceremonies. When the hallowing of tapers for Candlemass was banned, Catholics in North Wales transferred the ceremony into their own homes and put candles in their windows on the 2nd February. So, it’s worth noting just how central the Women of the household were in sustaining Catholicism; if the man of the household behaved as the church papist, ever more responsibility came to women to ensure Catholic traditions and piety were maintained, away from the suspicious glare of Sauron’s eye from the Barad Dur of Westminster.
So, the super summary of all of this then, and the final impression is of rather a mess I suppose; a series of people and organisations who appeared to wish they were not in this position, and yet could not escape the logic towards which their beliefs drove them. A Privy Council desperately trying to achieve the established tradition of religious uniformity and protect the state against a plethora of real and imagined enemies; a Catholic church at once desperate to succor individuals in their religious needs – and further a Europe wide religious conflict. And between the two of them ordinary Catholics forced to make agonising choices, and try to negotiate their way through the minefield, a task as difficult as milking the pigeon, which is incidentally an 18th century expression for trying to achieve the impossible. The obvious answer, of course, was toleration, but there were very few parts of Europe ready yet for that solution.
Now, one of the drivers of conflict remained the real and present threat to the life of the queen, and the catalyst for those threats was the presence of a viable Catholic alternative to her – namely Mary Queen of Scots. And it’s to Mary we shall turn next time. However, before that, there will be a guest episode by Philip Rowe of the History of European Theatre Podcast. You might have noticed that in talking about Walsingham and his security services I neglected to mention the obvious topic of one Kit Marlowe. Well, that’s because Philip is going to give us a complete episode on the lad’s career which shall be next time. And then I’ll be back up after that. So, thank you kindly for listening, for your reviews and all that, please come to the facebook site for some chat – and go to the history of England.co.uk see you all soon!
 Cooper, J The Queen’s Agent p184
 Childs, Jessie. God’s Traitors (p. 138). Random House. Kindle Edition.
 Shells, W ‘The Catholic Community’ in Doran, S The Elizabethan World, pp262-3
 Childs, Jessie. God’s Traitors (p. 106). Random House. Kindle Edition.
 Loades, D Elizabeth I p 235