Her Majesty’s Spymaster, by Stephen Budiansky


Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage

I have to say, this is probably the finest biography written in this decade I have ever read. It definitely falls into the casual biography category, but it’s a very good one. There isn’t a plot, really, except to tell Francis Walsingham’s life as interestingly as possible. There is a lot of detail, and a lot of overview, in this book. It sounds like a contradiction, but when you are talking about a person most non-history-buffs have never heard of, well, the interesting pieces aren’t very interesting unless you know what is going on. As much as I love the 16th century… there are a lot of people who don’t, and this has just enough background information to keep you grounded without interfering with the fascinating side of history.

Sir Francis Walsingham was born under King Henry VIII, left during (King Henry’s oldest daughter) Mary’s reign, and returned after Elizabeth ascended to the throne. He became ambassador to France, member of the Privy council, and eventually became, as the title suggests, Mr. Secretary, the queen’s internal affairs coordinator and head of her spy organization. He was involved in a lot of things, most famously the various Mary Queen of Scots affairs (too numerous for this short biography to get into them all), and the Spanish Armada. His most interesting job, in my opinion, was as ambassador to France during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Stephen Budiansky does such a fabulous job of encapsulating the best of the details while overveiwing the basic situation, I had to add a few quotes.

“… yet all were agreed, Catholic and Protestant alike, that the King’s official version of events was nonsense. There had never been any Protestant conspiracy to seize the throne. What there had been was the craftiness and ruthlessness of the Queen Mother, Catherine De Medicis, who had long been viewed as the real power behind the throne of her weak son. Of course, she had long been whispered to have gone about poisoning her rivals too, but, then, they always said that about Italians. (pg. 18)”

I also liked all the context given to the events that Walsingham had to deal with. So few writers mention what happened to cause the events that our main characters have to handle. Mary Queen of Scots, for example, a case that Walsingham had to take care of for many years, did not arrive to England an innocent refugee of circumstance.

(NOTE: Mary’s first husband died, then she married Lord Darnley, who,
“like Mary, he was a grandchild of Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister; the marriage infuriated Elizabeth. She needn’t have worried. Darnley… was easily manipulated by a group of resentful Scottish lords – there was always a group of resentful Scottish lords—into believing that Mary’s secretary, an Italian singer named David Rizzo, was bedding her, and so led a band that … stabbed the Italian to death before her. Pg 64) That in mind…

“It was perfectly fitting, in retrospect, that the events that would cascade toward the sundering of Europe along irrevocable lines of religion, that would force even the most reluctant to identify the cause of England with that of the Protestant faith and her enemies with Catholicism, that would define the personal nemesis whom Francis Walsingham would pursue through most of the two decades to come, began with an explosion.

A literal explosion: the astonishing blast of gunpowder that awakened the good citizens of Edinburgh at two in the morning on the 10th of February 1567 reduced to rubble a house known as Kirk o’Field that stood by the city walls.

It was a magnificent but in the end slightly wasted effort, for the intended target of the blast, the increasingly irksome second husband of Mary Queen of Scots, Lord Darnley, had apparently become alarmed by the noise of those coming to light the charge and had managed to clamber out a window and through a gate into the garden by the time the gunpowder went off. The assassins had, in the end, been forced to dispatch Darnley, rather anti-climatically, by strangling him. (Pg 62)”

There are a few pieces of revisionism in Budiansky’s work. Most of them are put forth as a matter of opinion, admittedly disputed by some scholars. A few, like the implication that Elizabeth I was not really a virgin queen, are not, and should be noted as such.

A highly recommended work, especially given the number of historical documents quoted herein. Few authors in the last twenty years have been humble enough to include original sources in any form in their books, particularly from a time period known for the complexity of its sentences. Francis Walsingham was a fascinating character, and I enjoyed getting to know more about him.


3 thoughts on “Her Majesty’s Spymaster, by Stephen Budiansky

  1. Thanks! I love biographies about spies, becuase of all the historical genre’s they are most likely to be written as they are (a story) and include details about people besides the subject themselves (which is a defining characeristic of good historical writing, in my opinion).

  2. Read the book. Was very good but it is true that you have to have a somewhat strong knowledge about the events that took place before picking the book up. They were all recognizable, but I didn’t know allot of the details… details that the book filled me in on. I recommend this one!

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