Book Review: Elizabeth’s Spymaster

Robert Hutchinson has a wonderful way in telling the history of Tudor England.  His histories flow so well and keep the reader enthralled in the events of this tumultuous time in English history.  Tumultuous in the sense that one did not exactly know what the Tudor monarchs were going to do and whose head was bound to be cut off or worse who was going to be hung, drawn and quartered.  It was a nasty time for whose who opposed the Tudors.

This particular book, Elizabeth’s Spymaster:  Francis Walsingham and the secret war that saved England ( New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 399 pages.  Hardback.  ISBN 978-0-312-36822-7.  $27.95) is about Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster or rather one of her secretaries of state who was responsible for foreign affairs and for safeguarding the state and the queen from being overthrown from outside forces or from inside “traitors”.  It was Sir Francis Walsingham who had this thankless job.  Many times his queen would rage and threaten him instead of praising or awarding him.  He was a staunch Protestant of the Puritan variety.  He wanted to protect his queen, but also Protestant England, from being overthrown by Catholics.

Walsingham helped to create many Catholic martyrs many of whom were later beatified and canonized.  He was in charge of capturing and convicting English and foreign priests who came to England to minister to the Catholics in England and to convert Protestants.  These priests and their many helpers had to do operate as secretly as possible, but they we always in peril of being discovered due to spies and traitors.  Hutchinson tells us in some gruesome detail what happened to those who were priests or those who helped them.

One of Walsingham’s major targets was Mary, Queen of Scots who was a Catholic and was the heir apparent to Elizabeth to the English throne.  Walsingham worked long hours to catch her in her machinations to assassinate or to overthrow Elizabeth and become Queen of England and return Catholicism to England.  Walsingham finally was able to do this by intercepting some of Queen Mary’s letters, but where he deemed evidence to thin, he was not above forging others.  His major problem, though, was that Queen Elizabeth did not want to execute her sister although eventually she gave in and did have her executed.  Later though, Elizabeth regretted this and blamed Walsingham for tricking her into having Mary executed.


One of the major foreign attempts to remove Elizabeth and return England to Catholicism was the Spanish Armada.  Hutchinson writes about how Walsingham used his network of international spies and informants to find out where the Armada was and when it was going to sail.  He was able to prevent the Armada from attacking sooner than it did by working with the English Navy to raid the Spanish fleet.  In the end though the Armada set sail, but was defeated by the English and by nature.

Francis Walsingham was not a healthy man.  He suffered from many illnesses when he served Queen Elizabeth and spent long days and nights pouring over many documents and reports.  He paid for information out of his own pocket many times due to Elizabeth’s frugality and lack of funds.  He died in debt in 1590.  He was buried quietly in old St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.

This book by Robert Hutchinson is a wonderful book to read.  It is exciting history!  He provides several color portraits and illustrations in the centerfold.  He quotes from many primary sources and has many endnotes, as well as a useful bibliography and an index.  He also provides a section on the main characters in Walsingham’s spy ring with short bios.  The dust jacket has an image of Queen Elizabeth and behind her is Walsingham.

Hutchinson is the author of The Last Days of Henry VIII (2005), Thomas Cromwell (2009), and The House of Treason (2009).  This present book is highly recommended to those interested in Tudor English history, Catholic Church history in England… or in spies.

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