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Her Majesty’s Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage

Posted By Claire on June 11, 2012

Thank you so much to Niki Incorvia, M.A., for writing this review of Her Majesty’s Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage by Stephen Budiansky

As I was browsing my university’s library shelves, this book caught my eye. I am currently taking a course on international war and as with all my coursework, I incorporate my favorite period in history to the theories and concepts taught in my classes. I took home Stephen Budiansky’s book and was immediately enthralled in the literature. Her Majesty’s Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage (2006) incorporates a straightforward account of the politics of the sixteenth century and the mystery and drama of the Elizabethan era.

The books starts with Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s clever and resourceful secretary, serving his queen as the French Ambassador at the court of King Charles IX and the Queen Mother, Catherine de’ Medici. Walsingham, a devout Protestant, was angered and disturbed by the horrific events of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. Walsingham had the skill and bravery to confront the haughty but weak king and his powerful mother about slaying the French Huguenots in a most detestable manner.

Walsingham, rising from humble beginnings, established himself as a member of the queen’s Privy Council and later, as her secretary, organized numerous official and unofficial spy networks. His advanced skills in decoding cipher led to Mary Queen of Scots’ arrest and implication in plots to overthrow Elizabeth. He arranged for the axmen to arrive at Fotheringhay Castle and even paid his way to secure and eliminate any threats to his queen’s place on the throne, which he whole-heartedly believed Mary presented. In addition, his diplomatic scheming led to objective and intelligent maneuvers while serving as ambassador to France during Elizabeth’s marriage negotiations, cleverly concealing his real thoughts and feelings on an alliance with France. Lastly, as depicted in a chapter titled War at Last, Walsingham’s intelligence-gathering played a key role in fighting the Spanish Armada and he therefore served as an object of hatred to Philip of Spain. Walsingham represented everything Philip hated about England – Protestantism, intellectual advancements, and the support for a politically savvy queen ruling a small and increasingly powerful country.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. The author probably had reasons for formatting the stories the way that he did, but at times, I did find the order of events a bit confusing. Starting his account with the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, rather than earlier background material, might be a challenge for readers new to this time period. However, Budiansky did an excellent job of researching Francis Walsingham and his role as Elizabeth’s ambassador, secretary, and spy during a time of sophisticated political intrigue. It was obvious that Elizabeth respected Walsingham’s opinions and knowledge, while Walsingham showed the same respect to Elizabeth in believing in her abilities as a sovereign and protecting her position on the English throne. It was a mutual relationship of trust and affection for both of these intelligent masterminds of late sixteenth century Europe.


Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Plume (July 25, 2006)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0452287472
ISBN-13: 978-0452287471
Available from Amazon US – click here, Amazon UK – click here, and all good bookshops.


2 Responses to “Her Majesty’s Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage”

  1. Deborah Braden says:

    Great review. Sounds like a good read to add to my summer reading list.

  2. Richard Danks says:

    I must get to read this book. I’m currently reading “The Queen’s Agent” by John Cooper, university lecturer and author whose primary expertise is Tudor history. It’s always to good to see and compare the various gems these scholars bring to light through their respective research on the same subject matter. In reviewing the book, the Literary Review made the interesting comment that Walsingham’s work was “odious though necessary”
    Thanks for the Review.

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