Elizabeth’s Spy Master: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War that Saved England by Robert Hutchinson - review by Allan Massie

Allan Massie

Sympathy For A Devil

Elizabeth’s Spy Master: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War that Saved England


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It is difficult now to look on the Elizabethan Age as Victorians like Charles Kingsley did. We know too much of its seamy side, of its torture chambers and treason trials, to regard it as simply the glorious dawn of English Protestant liberty. Our experience of the ideological divisions of twentieth-century Europe has darkened our view of the sixteenth century, and the work of recent historians has taught us what the men who engineered and maintained the Protestant Revolution knew very well: that, as an Elizabethan Privy Councillor, Sir Ralph Sadler, wrote, ‘the ancient faith still lay like lees at the bottoms of men’s hearts and if the vessel was ever so little stirred, comes to the top’. Even our understanding of Shakespeare has been changed by the evidence that most of his family and connections were either still Roman Catholics, or at least Catholic sympathisers.

Robert Hutchinson has given his compelling study of ‘Elizabeth’s spy master’, her Secretary of State, a subtitle which a hundred years ago would have seemed unremarkable, but is now provocative. Walsingham is, he says, ‘one of the great unknown heroes of English history. By right, he should rank with Horatio

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