In novels and movies, Sir Francis Walsingham (1530?-1590), principal secretary and privy councilor under Queen Elizabeth I, is sometimes portrayed as sinister and diabolical, a man who would kill for his queen. In disguises he visits Paris and Scotland to gather intelligence, plant false information, and assassinate enemy spies. According to historian Stephan Budiansky in his book Her Majesty's Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage, this is just fiction. He agrees that Walsingham was a loyal and devoted servant but claims the queen's man was a serious Puritan with a conscience.
Two topics dominate Budiansky's book. The first is the queen's campaign to prevent invasion of Protestant England by Roman Catholic forces of France and Spain. Serving as ambassador to France, Walsingham was the primary negotiator trying to arrange Elizabeth's marriage to one of the French king's younger brothers. At points when the deal seemed almost done, the queen always backed out, leaving Walsingham to pay all the debts of the diplomatic mission. Later as principal secretary, he developed a team of double agents who misinformed England's enemies about the island nation's military and financial resources. The second topic is Walsingham's efforts to protect the queen from assassins trying to supplant her with Mary of Scotland. He arranged to read all of Mary's secret correspondence and eventually provided the evidence to condemn her.
In this account of Walsingham's life at court, where most councilors sought power and prestige, the author shows how the spymaster worked quietly and carefully under the queen's ever-changing foreign policy. Budiansky's reassessment of Walsingham will interest English history fans.
Budiansky, Stephen. Her Majesty's Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage. Viking, 2005. ISBN 0670034266