Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Who Were the Elizabethan Spies? (Part 2)

by Jonathan Digby

Sir Francis Walsingham’s spy network in the 16th Century was one of the largest of its kind and in many ways set the blueprint for later versions, most notably during the Cold War. In this short series I am going to discuss the careers of some of the men that made up Walsingham’s networks and speculate on the motivations that drove them into the world of espionage.

The career spy: Robert Poley

Robert ‘Sweet Robyn’ Poley is probably the most notorious spy of the Elizabethan age and certainly one of the best documented agents of the era. Double-agent, plotter, agent provocateur, Poley’s career was a long one and is particularly associated with two of the most famous events in the 1580s and 1590s – the Babington Plot in 1586, which led to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the death of Christopher Marlowe in 1593. Poley played an integral role in both.

Nothing is known of the circumstances of his birth, although he was considered to be a poor gentleman, but Poley, also known as Pooley and Poole, first appears in the historical records in the late 1560s when he was amongst the humblest rank of students at Clare College, Cambridge – the self-financing sizars, who performed menial tasks in college. This tells us that despite being a man of education, Poley was likely dogged by poverty, a significant factor that might have turned him towards the intelligence services. Later on, when he could afford them, Poley certainly appears to have liked the finer things in life because by 1588 there is evidence that he was furnishing rooms in the premises of a Mr and Mrs Yeoman at the cost of some £40 – close to £1000 in today’s money. By then Poley was one of the most experienced spies in Walsingham’s network.

Throughout the 1570s there is no record of Poley, but in the early 1580s he appears to have first tried to endear himself to the Principle Secretary through marriage. In 1582 he married a sister or a cousin of Thomas Watson, with whom he had a daughter. Watson was a poet and playwright who had made a connection with Sir Francis Walsingham at the time that the latter was the ambassador in Paris in the 1570s. Watson’s patron was also Thomas Walsingham, a first cousin once removed of Sir Francis, who was also a patron of Christopher Marlowe thus giving a first connection between the two spies.

Watson is best known for his friendship with Marlowe and his involvement in the fight on Hog Lane, when, armed with a sword, he sprang to Marlowe’s defence and killed a man. Poley’s attempts to ingratiate himself through marriage appear to have failed as he was divorced soon afterwards. In 1583 he paid a visit to Thomas Walsingham at Francis’s home in Seething Lane but it was only after a period of working for the Earl of Leicester that Walsingham reluctantly took him on.

After visiting Walsingham at his home in Barn Elms in 1583, Poley wound up in Marshalsea Prison in Southwark. Although this might seem an inauspicious beginning for the spy, it is likely that Walsingham placed him there both to develop Poley’s cover and also to have him question other prisoners with seditious connections – a tactic that was used with other spies. For appearances sake, Poley spent half of his time there in close confinement and for the remaining time had ‘the liberty of the house’. Whilst in prison he is rumoured to have offered to kill someone.

Poley’s reward for undertaking such an unpleasant assignment was the role of a courier to the Catholic exile Thomas Morgan, Mary’s agent in Paris and one of Walsingham’s most formidable enemies. Poley brought correspondence to Morgan from Christopher Blount, one of Leicester’s servants, who Morgan had approached. Poley’s role was presumably to present himself as a disaffected Catholic who could be relied upon to take mail to and from England. As with Sir Francis before him, Morgan didn’t at first trust Poley, suggesting that there was something in his demeanour which was at first off-putting. However, Morgan was later impressed by the fact that Poley was working for Sir Philip Sydney, Walsingham’s son-in-law, who was living in Walsingham’s house in Seething Lane. Poley was by now in the classic double-agent situation where both sides could see his usefulness but neither was sure how far they could trust him.

In fact it is not clear whether Walsingham ever truly trusted this most accomplished of deceivers. Poley was a dangerous man and a consummate liar. The governor of the Marshalsea Prison said of him that: “he would beguile you of your wife or of your life” and others described him as: “ a very bad fellow” and “a notable knave with no trust in him.” When interrogated by Walsingham on why he had a copy of the Catholic tract: Leicester’s Commonwealth, Poley claimed later that he had outwitted Walsingham. He is alleged to have remarked that: “I will swear and forswear myself, rather than I will accuse myself to do me any harm” and to have been so obstinate that Walsingham “looked out of his window and grinned like a dog”. He also claimed to be a Catholic – claiming to hear mass in secret whenever possible – but the only evidence to support this is that he left Cambridge without a degree, which may have been for entirely different reasons.

Babington Plot

The Babington Plot was Walsingham’s endgame as far as Mary Stuart was concerned, and Poley played a central role. Following on from his courier activities for the disaffected Catholics, Poley was able to inveigle himself, using his connection with Morgan, into the company of Anthony Babington. Babington had been a page in the Earl of Shrewsbury’s household when Mary was in the latter’s custody, and it is thought that at that time he began to support her cause. Later, travelling in Europe, he had met Thomas Morgan and agreed to courier letters to Mary on Morgan’s behalf. However, by 1586, Mary had been removed to a harsher regime and her correspondence had been curtailed. Babington withdrew from involvement with Mary and was considering leaving England. Six months later, however, he was writing to Mary telling her that he and six others were planning to assassinate Elizabeth and asking for her authorisation.

History suggests that Walsingham’s plan all along was to get Mary to agree to an assassination attempt, thus trapping her on a charge of treason. The plot is notable for involving some of Walsingham’s most important servants – Gilbert Gifford as the double-agent who couriered letters to and from Mary, Thomas Phelippes to decipher them. Poley was integral to this plot and appears to have played the role of agent-provocateur. The plotters were disorganized and hesitant but Poley managed to take a significant hold over Babington – cajoling, coaxing and charming him as the moment demanded. All the time he was able to inform Walsingham of the plotters discussions and movements. Described as ‘sweet Robyn’ by Babington in a poignant letter following his arrest, Poley managed to remain unsuspected even when the plot unravelled. He, too, was arrested and incarcerated in the Tower of London, avoiding, however, the fate of being hung, drawn and quartered which befell the other conspirators.

Marlowe’s death

Poley spent two years in the Tower of London following the Babington plot, which seems an inordinately long time if it was purely to maintain his cover. It is possible that Walsingham was hoping that Poley could still go back into the field, despite the fact that the Catholics were now very suspicious of him, but equally it could have been a measure of the distrust that Walsingham still held towards him.

Poley was released in late 1588, not long after the Spanish Armada, and seems to have taken up a more administrative role in Walsingham’s organization. After Walsingham’s death in 1590, Poley remained on the payroll of first Thomas Heneage, the Vice-Chancellor, and then Sir Robert Cecil, son of the Lord Treasurer, Lord Burghley. Between December 1588 and September 1601 Poley traveled to and from Denmark, the Netherlands, France and Scotland carrying messages and important documents. On one of these trips to the Netherlands in 1593 he was arrested and interrogated but released without charge, suggesting that he had lost none of his ability to talk himself out of a tight spot.

It was a few months before that trip to the Netherlands that Poley was a witness at the inquest of the death of the poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe after an argument over the ‘reckoning’ at an ‘ordinary’ in Deptford. Although once believed to be a tavern brawl, most historians now agree that the meeting that took place that day between Poley, Marlowe, Nicholas Skeres and Ingram Frizer was more formal, though its purpose remains open to speculation. Most pertinently to this story is that Poley most likely took a senior role in the gathering and could have been there as a representative of Sir Robert Cecil. It was Poley who reported a week later to the Privy Council describing matters pertaining to “special and secret affairs of great importance".

Following Marlowe’s death Poley continued in service to Cecil. He was in the Marshalsea again in the summer of 1597, when it seems that he was placed there to spy on the playwright Ben Jonson whose play, The Isle of Dogs, written with Thomas Nashe had upset the authorities. Jonson attacked Poley and a second informer, named Parrot, as "damned villains" and later wrote a poem praising convivial company without spies, including the line "we shall have no Poley or Parrot by".

So what were Poley’s motivations in becoming one of the most successful and feared spies of his generation? Certainly the need for money must have played a part, and perhaps also a lingering spite towards those like Babington who were born into better circumstances. One strong reason may have been simply that he enjoyed it and was good at it, being able to lie and deceive as was necessary with seemingly little conscience. The overriding feeling that one is left with is that, despite the charm he could employ on occasions, he was a deeply unpleasant man with an ability to use and discard people as it suited him. He was also occasionally reckless. In one unguarded moment, he described Walsingham, who suffered from consistent poor health, as having caught the pox off a French woman.

The last payment known to have been received by Poley was on the 5th September 1601, when he was paid £10 by Sir Robert Cecil for carrying letters to and from Paris. Poley was offered a job at the Tower of London as a mark of his service. However, it seems that he was not satisfied with the offer. In July the following year he wrote to Cecil saying:
“How, half offended, you said to me I never made you good intelligence, nor did you service worth reckoning, is the cause I have not since presented myself with offer of my duty, although I much desire my endeavours might please you, my necessities needing your favour."
The master spy had run his course and from that point faded into history. Nothing is known of the time or place of his death.

The foreign banker: Horatio Palavicino

Horatio Palavicino came from a very different background to Robert Poley. Palavicino was born into the merchant aristocracy of Genoa and came from a celebrated Italian family, the elder branch of which possessed a district on the Po called the Stato Palavicino, while the younger branch settled at Genoa. Several members of the Genoa branch were appointed Regents by the Dukes of Milan, and more than one became a cardinal. One was in the service of the English kings, Henry VIII and Edward VI.

Horatio was born at Genoa circa 1540 but at an early age was sent to the Netherlands where he resided for some time, possibly at the behest of his father, Tobias, to learn the family business. From the Netherlands, Horatio proceeded to England, where he was recommended to Queen Mary and appointed collector of papal taxes. On Mary's death it was said that Palavicino abjured his Romanism, and, appropriating the sums he had collected for the Pope, laid the foundations of an enormous fortune. In fact, whilst he may have kept the money, Palavicino did not actually abjure his faith until his brother Fabrizio was arrested by agents of Pope Gregory XIII in the 1570s.

Following Mary’s death Palavicino devoted himself to commercial enterprise, and the wealth he acquired made him an important financial agent. Throughout the 1560s and 1570s he concentrated on building up his trading empire.

In 1573 we have evidence of his connection with Walsingham when he writes expressing concern at the debts of another of Walsingham’s agents, a Portuguese merchant, Dr Hector Nunez. He lent large sums to Elizabeth, always at a usurious interest, and so greatly was Elizabeth indebted to him that the fate of the kingdom was said to have depended upon him. In 1578 Palavicino sold the family stocks of alum at Antwerp to the Dutch rebels in return for an import monopoly which excluded all future farmers of the Papal alum monopoly.

In 1579 he replaced Thomas Gresham as the English government’s chief financial agent (although whether or not it was in an official capacity is unclear) and became increasingly involved in foreign policy, for example, in the early 1580s being responsible for the costly and complicated financial arrangements supporting the Duke of Anjou’s campaigns in the Netherlands at a time when the Duke still held hopes of marrying Elizabeth.

But what of Palavicino’s intelligence activities? Palavicino was first and foremost a merchant and cannot be called an ‘intelligencer’ in the strict sense of a Gilbert Gifford or a Robert Poley. Nevertheless his extensive trading network allowed him access to many areas where intelligence could be collected and, most pertinent to his skills, needed to be paid for. Intelligence would have been imperative for supporting his business activities, and therefore it would have been a natural progression for this to extend to state secrets. Through his contacts across Europe a great deal of information passed through his hands, not all of which was safe. Palavicino was regarded as an object to deceive the English government and was often fed misinformation. To the most part Palavicino negotiated his way through the maze successfully, though not always.

In 1585 there is evidence that Palavicino was distributing funds and letters in Northern France on behalf of the Earl of Leicester, including paying and receiving reports from Thomas Rogers (alias Nicholas Berden) a Parisian-based spy working for Walsingham. Instead of reporting to the English Ambassador, Sir Edward Stafford, as etiquette demanded, Berden was reporting to Walsingham via Palavicino and Leicester, the significance being that Walsingham did not trust Stafford, who he suspected of leaking information to both the Duc de Guise and his Spanish backers. Palavicino, also charged with keeping an eye on the English Ambassador, became friends with Stafford and was soon made uneasy by the latter’s gambling addiction which he reported in careful terms to Lord Burghley. Although never proven conclusively, the suspicion was that Stafford was selling secrets to the enemy in order to fund his gambling habits.

Palavicino’s friendship with Stafford put him in an awkward position, with Leicester and Walsingham pondering his loyalty, but it didn’t seem to dent his importance to the English cause. In mid-1586 the Italian was in Germany as Elizabeth’s agent in Frankfurt negotiating the recruitment of a German protestant army to invade France whilst receiving visits from a number of agents, including Giordano Bruno, who had spied on the French embassy in England, and Walter Williams, a less than successful spy who had failed in a previous attempt to get close to Stafford when the ambassador got him drunk.

Palavicino was knighted in 1587, and in 1588 he financed a ship to help repel the Armada, although he wasn’t allowed to captain it due to his commoner status. He made one of his rare slips before the Armada when he passed on Italian intelligence stating that men, money, ships and ammunition for the Armada were far from plentiful and that she was likely to sail at a later date. After the Armada was defeated, Palavicino got involved in negotiating on behalf of Spanish soldiers shipwrecked in Ireland in the wake of the Armada.

Palavicino seems to have been a man motivated primarily by money and power and, as someone who was variously described as a scalawag, reprobate, philanderer, letch, debauchee, rapscallion, sycophant, and a practitioner of the fetish of deflowering virgins(!), he seemed to lack the ethical standards of his predecessor Sir Thomas Gresham, who founded the Royal Exchange and Gresham College. For Palavicino, intelligence was perhaps another commodity to be traded. It is true that he harboured some grudges against the Catholic faith but it was his decision to keep the papal rents he had collected that presumably set them at odds in the first place.

In the 1590s, an attempt to gain a monopoly on maize coming from the New World saw him fall out of favour with Queen Elizabeth. He was banished from court and retired to an estate in Babraham, close to Cambridge, from where he continued to increase his fortune, partly through some dubious mortgage deals. He was never to have such great influence over political finance again, dying in 1600.

Part 1, HERE:
The Catholic Exile, Gilbert Gifford
The Playwright Adventurer, Christopher Marlowe


Part 3, yet to come:
The Noble Intelligencer: Sir Anthony Bacon
The Diligent Spy: Thomas Rogers


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Jonathan Digby is a British writer, who lives in Camden, North London. When not writing, he can be found performing under his stage name John Exell, or creating music with his indie band, Boxgrove Pseudomorph. A Murderous Affair is his first novel.

The year is 1588. The Spanish Armada has recently been defeated, and Queen Elizabeth rides in triumph through a celebrating London. But even in peace, the city has a deadly underbelly.

When the body of a Portuguese nobleman turns up on the banks of the Thames with a seal around his neck all fingers point towards Lord Rokesby as the murderer - particularly as the foreigner was last seen at a dinner party at his house the night before. Yet there is more to this murder than meets the eye. John Lovat, Lord Rokesby's illegitimate brother, is called in to dig deeper into the events surrounding the death. And the more he uncovers, the more complex the crime becomes.

Soon Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s chief counsellor and spy-master, takes an interest in the case. And Lovat finds himself caught up in 'A Murderous Affair' - one that involves murder, betrayal and infidelity and which will take him from grand houses to the mean streets of Elizabethan London as he tracks down the truth.

A Murderous Affair is a fast-moving historical murder mystery that combines meticulous research with gripping story-telling.

"A compelling piece of work that kept me turning the pages." - Robert Foster, best-selling author of The Lunar Code.


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