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The Ruthless 16th-Century Spy Network That Kept Queen Elizabeth I Safe

November 5, 2019 in History

By Andrew Knighton

A fledgling spy network in Tudor England used kidnappings, codes and moles to ensure the Protestant Queen’s longevity.

In late 16th-century England, Queen Elizabeth was a Protestant royal who faced perpetual threats to her life and reign. Real enemies and exaggerated fears led to paranoia—and the royal court responded with a secret war.

In what would become England’s first great brush with espionage, spies and even kidnappers were deployed to keep the queen safe.

Threats From Spain and Mary Queen of Scots

The threats facing late Tudor England came from both home and abroad. Decades of hostility between Spain and England were exacerbated by England’s provocative policy of letting privateers raid Spanish treasure fleets. As the Spanish King Philip II lost patience with his piratical neighbors, the English rightly feared invasion. In 1588, Spain dispatched a 130-ship naval fleet as part of a planned invasion of England. The Spanish Armada ultimately failed, but it fueled paranoia about Spanish intrusions.

Within England, meanwhile, Mary Queen of Scots, a rival for Elizabeth’s throne, was living under house arrest. Some Catholics hoped to overthrow Elizabeth and replace her with Mary. Catholic priests such as Edmund Campion were smuggled into England, where they preached to secret congregations. To some, they were upholders of true faith. To Elizabeth, they were secret agents stirring up treason.

Fear and anxiety riddled the English court. “It’s the same sort of thing that the U.S. went through with communism in the 1950s,” says Patrick Martin, historian and author of Elizabethan Espionage.

Elizabethan Spies in Action

William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley and chief advisor to Queen Elizabeth I.

The first significant covert operation was the kidnapping of John Story in 1570. An English Catholic, Story had fled to the Low Countries, where he plotted against Elizabeth while working for the Spanish. Sir William Cecil, one of Elizabeth’s chief advisors, ordered agents to kidnap Story and bring him home for questioning. Cecil’s agents tricked Story into searching their boat, trapped him onboard, and whisked him away.

Another of Elizabeth’s advisors, Sir Francis Walsingham, built up an ongoing spy network. A man of incredible intelligence and cunning, Walsingham used merchants to gather intelligence from across Europe.

“Merchants were very useful in moving secret information about,” says Stephen Alford, professor of early modern British history at the University of Leeds. “Merchants and their factors and agents are used to moving around Europe relatively easily.”

Walsingham’s men …read more


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