Sir Francis Walsingham was born around 1532 to William and Joyce Walsingham in Chislehurst, Kent. The Walsingham’s were a well connected couple and William served as one of the members of the commission that was created to investigate Cardinal Wolsey.
Walsingham had a great education at King’s College, Cambridge but he did not complete a degree and after a year in Europe he enrolled at Gray’s Inn in 1552 to qualify as a lawyer but things didn’t go to plan. In 1553 Edward VI died and Mary I ascended the throne many Protestants fled England for fear of being arrested as a heretic. Walsingham continued his studies at Basel and Padua.
Elizabeth I came to power in 1558 and with that the Protestant exiles returned to England. Walsingham was quickly elected into Elizabeth’s first parliament representing Bossiney, Cornwall. Walsingham married Anne, the daughter of the Lord Mayor of London; however she died after just two years of marriage. Walsingham remarried in 1566 to Ursula St. Barbe and they had a daughter, Frances.
A huge influence in parliament by 1569 Walsingham soon found himself working with William Cecil stopping plots against the Queen. One of his biggest triumphs included the collapse of the Ridolfi Plot, which aimed to place Mary, Queen of Scots on the English throne.
Walsingham in 1570 was created ambassador to France and helped negotiations for a marriage between Elizabeth and Henry, Duke of Anjou. The negotiations soon collapsed on the grounds that Henry was a Catholic. Walsingham believed that the French should be England’s closest allies and so the Treaty of Blois was agreed between the two nations in 1572.
Walsingham successfully returned to England in 1573 proving himself in his duties in France as competent and trustworthy. As a result he was appointed to the Privy Council and made joint principal secretary with Sir Thomas Smith. Smith retired in 1576 leaving Walsingham in office alone and in charge of the privy seal.
Walsingham’s role as principal secretary included handling all royal correspondence and setting agendas for council meetings. Walsingham also opened new trade routes and commissioned the exploration of the New World. Walsingham was also sent on many missions across Europe to discuss peace treaties, marriage potential and gather military intelligence.
Walsingham was knighted on 1st December 1577 and held many positions as a result including Recorder of Colchester and High Steward of Salisbury, Ipswich and Winchester. In 1578 Walsingham was appointed Chancellor of the Order of the Garter, a post that he held until 1587 when he became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster as well as retaining his position of principal secretary (also known as secretary of state).
With Catholism still causing the Protestant Queen problems Walsingham began authorising the use of torture on Catholic priests and those suspected of conspiring with Catholics in order to gain confessions or information. In order to drive any potential of a Catholic rebellion out of the country Walsingham began employing informers and intercepting messages. In May 1582 Walsingham intercepted messages from the Spanish ambassador to Scotland which indicated another attempt to place Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne of England. Involved in this plot was Nicholas Throckmorton, an old friend of Walsingham’s. Throckmorton was arrested and tortured in order to gain a confession. Throckmorton was executed in 1584.
As a result of the Throckmorton plot a new law was passed that announce that anyone conspiring against the Queen would be arrested and executed. The Bond of Association was drawn up by Walsingham and William Cecil. Mary, Queen of Scots was placed under house arrest with a friend of Walsingham’s. He instructed his friend to intercept all of Mary’s letters and report back to him. Whilst also arranging Mary to believe that her letters were being sent out safely whilst in fact they were being intercepted. In 1586 Anthony Babington wrote to Mary about a plot that was in the works to rescue her and assassinate the Queen. Mary and her conspirators were arrested and put on trial. Mary was eventually executed in 1587.
Walsingham’s work was far from over also in 1586 he received many notifications from his informants abroad warning him of Spain’s preparations to invade England. Walsingham oversaw many preparations to ensure that England would be ready for the oncoming invasion in particularly he oversaw the renovations of Dover Harbour.
Walsingham died on 6th April 1590 at his home and was buried the following day at 10pm in Old St Paul’s Cathedral. His grave was destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666.