Sunday, February 8, 2015

Who Were the Elizabethan Spies?

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. During a period of significant threat to the state, Walsingham was desperate for information and collected as much intelligence as he could, in one year alone receiving over 500 letters from some 50 foreign-based sources. Just before he died in 1590 he was receiving material from twelve places in France, ten in Germany, as well as from the Low Countries, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. But who were the men and women who made up Walsingham’s network, and what motivated them?

The simple answer to this question is that there was a huge variety amongst those who inhabited the twilight zone of informers, double-agents and intelligencers (a phrase coined in the 16th Century). Many of them were Catholics whose religion automatically put them in a position where their loyalty to the nascent English Protestant state was tested.

Others were merchants and adventurers whose natural dealings brought them into contact with the enemy. Some were the impoverished sons of the gentry who went unprovided for through the inheritance laws of the day. Still others were career spies who saw service to the state as a means of advancement. All sections of the social scale were represented.

The Catholic Exile: Gilbert Gifford

Gilbert Gifford is notable as one of the key components of the Babington Plot – the Catholic conspiracy that resulted in the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. Gifford’s role was that of courier, delivering letters to Mary from her supporters and agents in France. Unbeknownst to both sides, however, Gifford was working for Walsingham, and Mary’s correspondence was being opened and read whilst in transit. Gifford eventually received £100 from Walsingham for his role in the plot, a considerable sum at the time, and no less surprising for that fact that his allegiances, whether to Elizabeth or the Catholic forces that wished to usurp her, were never quite clear.

Gifford was born into a Catholic family and his father, John Giffard, a Staffordshire landowner and Member of Parliament, was a recusant – a Catholic who refused to attend Anglican services. The family also had close ties to the Throckmortons, and Gilbert was a distant cousin of Sir Francis Throckmorton who was tried and executed for his part in the plot that took his name in 1584. Considering his family background, therefore, it is not at all surprising that, in 1577, Gilbert, then aged 17, left England to enter Cardinal Allen’s English College at Douai, where missionary priests were trained, many of whom returned to England to take mass and preach the old faith on pain of death if they were caught.

How was it then that this young man ended up becoming a notorious double-agent?

The answer perhaps lies in Gifford’s experiences of the English Colleges in France and Rome. The English Colleges were hotbeds of Catholic extremism where plots against the Queen, as well as tales of her government’s excesses, were routinely exercised. Two years after arriving at Douai, Gifford transferred to the English College at Rome, from which he was expelled. Cardinal Allen gave him a second chance in 1582 and he returned to France (the English College was now in Rheims), but his stay was short and he returned to England. Whatever had caused Gifford’s disenchantment with the English Colleges is unknown, but he was reputed to have had a temper which on occasion got the better of him. He was also known to have been approached by an English agent, Solomon Aldred, when in Rome, which perhaps sowed the seeds of his betrayal of the Catholic cause.

Interestingly, though, once he had broken with the Catholic Colleges, the vulnerability of a man in Gifford’s position becomes apparent. The Colleges were frowned upon in England, and former students would have been suspected by the Catholics. Gifford, like others before him, had arrived in a no man’s land, which exposed him to the duplicity on both sides.

It may have been possible for him to pledge his allegiance to the Crown and ask for the Queen’s pardon, but there was by now little for him to return to in England as his family estate had been sequestered by the Crown due to his father’s recusancy. Walsingham was no doubt adept at spotting potential agents and may have been keeping an eye on Gifford ever since his agent in Rome, Solomon Aldred, had contacted him. Using a combination of carrot and stick, Walsingham would very likely have been able to coerce men like Gifford into his network. Of course much must come down to the nature of Gifford himself – was the Catholic plotting at the Colleges too strong for him (his father after all stayed loyal to English Crown despite his suffering). He may have been frightened into working for Walsingham, or perhaps the idea of being a double-agent simply appealed to him?

It is possible that Walsingham recruited Gifford on his return to England in 1582. Gifford returned to France and Rome, and eventually Allen, despite some doubts, readmitted him to the college in Rheims in 1583. Was Gifford at this time trying to create a cover on the prompting of Walsingham? If so, it appears to have been successful as Gifford was ordained as a deacon in 1585. Almost immediately Gifford left Rheims and went to Paris where he met Thomas Morgan, an agent of Mary, and Charles Paget, both vehemently anti-Elizabeth. Gifford became a courier for Morgan and in December crossed over to the port of Rye in England, where he was arrested and brought to London for questioning. It may have been at this point that Walsingham recruited Gifford – or he may have had him arrested to preserve and even enhance his cover.

Gifford visited Mary, Queen of Scots at Chartley Hall in Staffordshire, close to his own family home, and quickly gained her trust. Her correspondence, which was concealed in beer barrels, were secretly handed to Walsingham and decoded, eventually leading to the arrest of Babington and the execution of Mary herself. However, at this point, Gifford surprised Walsingham by leaving England for France. In a letter dated 2 August 1586, Walsingham wrote: "Sorry I am that Gilbert Gifford is absent. I marvel greatly how this humour of estranging himself cometh upon him." Even more surprisingly Gifford was ordained as a priest in Rheims in March 1587. Had he now returned to the Catholic fold or was he continuing his undercover work?

Gifford came to a sad end after being arrested in a brothel in Paris in 1587. A record of his interrogation shows that he tried to implicate Morgan and Paget in double dealings. In August 1589 he was brought before the court and sentenced to twenty year's imprisonment for acting against the interests of the Catholic Church. After being transferred to the Bastille he died in November 1590, probably as a result of the famine caused by Henri VI’s siege of Paris. After going through Gifford’s papers, the English ambassador in Paris, Sir Edward Stafford concluded that: "He had showed himself to be the most notable double, treble villain that ever lived.”

The playwright adventurer: Christopher Marlowe

For many years, Christopher Marlowe’s possible involvement in the secret services was played down by historians. However, more recently, his biographers have drawn attention to the fact that, at the very least, Marlowe flirted with the dangerous world of spying. So what is the evidence for his involvement?

The first piece of the puzzle revolves around the end of the playwright’s tenure as a student at Cambridge University. In 1587 the university hesitated to award him his Master of Arts degree because of a rumour that he intended to go (or had already been) to the English college at Rheims, presumably to prepare for ordination as a Roman Catholic priest. Subsequently the Privy Council intervened and ordered the University to award Marlowe his degree. A letter to the University declared that Marlowe had behaved himself in an "orderly and discreet" manner and done Elizabeth "good service" in "matters touching the benefit of his country". College records of the period also show that Marlowe was absent for considerable amounts of time from the University and, when he was there, was spending a great deal more on food and drink than his modest scholarly income would allow. Had Marlowe been recruited as a spy at Cambridge and sent to France to ingratiate himself amongst the Catholic exiles at Rheims? Certainly this is what some historians believe, and the letter from the Privy Council at the very least demonstrates that Marlowe was in service to the government in one form or another. Alan Haynes also points out that there are details in the play Massacre in Paris which demonstrate insights of the Duc de Guise and the League viewpoint which may well have come from time spent in France.

The second piece of the puzzle relates to whether or not Marlowe was the ‘Morley’ who tutored Arbella Stuart in 1589. Marlowe’s name was sometimes spelt Marley or Morley, amongst other variations, and the argument is that there was no other MA with a similar name at the time who could have fitted the bill. If this was the case, and it is by no means certain, it might indicate that Marlowe took on the role to spy on Arbella as she was the niece of Mary, Queen of Scots and a cousin of James VI of Scotland, Elizabeth’s successor James I. For a short time Arbella was considered a more suitable candidate than her cousin to succeed Elizabeth, which would have been a good reason for placing a spy close to her.

Interestingly, this episode would have taken place around the time when there is actually good documentary evidence for Marlowe’s whereabouts because he was involved in a brawl in Norton Folgate in 1589 which resulted in the death of William Bradley, run through by Marlowe’s friend Thomas Watson. Marlowe and Watson ended up in Newgate, and Marlowe was held for a fortnight before being released on bail. Some argue that this means he couldn’t have also been Arbella’s tutor, but there are still long periods unaccounted for in the three years from the beginning of 1589 that ‘Morley’ was in attendance.

The third episode relating to Marlowe’s potential involvement as a spy comes in 1592 when he was arrested in the Flemish port of Vlissingen (Flushing) for his alleged involvement in the counterfeiting of coins. As with so much of Marlowe’s history, the counterfeiting episode was a murky affair which also involved two other men who were frequently connected to the secret services – Richard Baines and Gifford Gilbert (not to be confused with Gilbert Gifford). Baines and Marlowe accused each
other of intending to go over to the enemy with the result that both were shipped back to England under armed guard. In this instance Marlowe had two lofty gentlemen ready to make testimony on his behalf: Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland and Ferdinando, Lord Strange.

The circumstances around Marlowe’s death create the final mystery involving Marlowe’s role as a spy, most notably relating to the men that he was in company with when he died. Nicholas Skeres and Ingram Frizer were both in service to Thomas Walsingham, the son of Sir Francis’ cousin and a man who was also involved in espionage and the fourth man, Robert Poley, was one of Walsingham senior’s most accomplished spies – although by now he was plying his trade for different masters. At the very least Marlowe was in the company of men who were involved in the secret services. The official version is that Marlowe was killed due to an argument over the bill, the ‘reckoning’, but there are many inconsistencies with this version which fail to explain Marlowe’s reasons for being there and the company he was keeping.

The question here, though, is why did a man like Marlowe involve himself with the secret services at all? It is unlikely that he was coerced in the manner of a man like Gilbert Gifford. Nor was he a career spy in the sense that Robert Poley was. Perhaps a combination of financial reward and adventure were the factors that drew Marlowe in – the opportunity to increase both his circumstances, on the one hand, and his understanding of the world, on the other, which formed the basis of his plays.

Watch for Part 2:

The career spy: Robert Poley

The foreign banker: Horatio Palavicino


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.

1 comment:

  1. A fascinating post, Jonathan! The one portrait believed to be of Marlowe (it hangs in the dining hall of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge) also shows him wearing clothes that could not have been purchased on his "modest scholarly income.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.