Running concurrently with the plot to snare Mary, Walsingham had been successful in obtaining intelligence on the Spanish preparations for invasion. The first of his successes was in the running of the double agent, Sir Edward Stafford. Sent to France as Elizabeth’s ambassador in 1583, Stafford was quickly snapped up by the Spanish who exploited his precarious financial position. In return for Spanish bribes, Stafford disclosed the contents of official British papers. Walsingham was wise to the temptations offered to ambassadors working abroad and was doubly suspicious of Stafford, who appeared a little too eager in his acclamations of loyalty to Elizabeth. Walsingham sent an agent named Rogers to spy on the ambassador and quickly established that Stafford was indeed selling secrets. Bigger news was to follow. Stafford was in contact with agents of Mary Queen of Scots and was acting as a go-between for French and English Catholics.

Armed with even a fraction of this evidence, Walsingham could easily have obtained Stafford’s recall and a one-way trip to the Tower. The fact he did not do this proves Walsingham’s mastery of the art of espionage. By retaining Stafford, Walsingham embarked on a classic deception ploy. He fed the ambassador with false intelligence, which he knew would quickly find its way to the French and Spanish. By July 1586 Stafford actually began reporting good intelligence to Walsingham. The ambassador revealed the Spanish were gathering an army strong enough to mount an invasion of England to depose Elizabeth and restore Catholicism.

If true, this was important news to say the least. But Walsingham knew he could not trust Stafford and so needed another source of information. Although many gave him intelligence on the Spanish Armada, the key to success was Anthony Standen. A curious ally, Standen was in fact a Catholic refugee and former supporter of Mary Queen of Scots. Although Walsingham was wary of him, Standen became his chief source on the Armada. Operating in Florence under the alias of ‘Pompeo Pellegrini’, in February 1587 Standen reported that he had befriended Giovanni Figliazzi, the Florentine ambassador to Madrid. Although Standen feared Philip II might offer to employ Figliazzi, he need not have worried. The Florentine ambassador’s declaration that he was ‘addicted’ to Walsingham prompts suspicions that Figliazzi and Walsingham knew each other from earlier in their careers.

After receiving a 300 crown loan from Walsingham to fund the network, Standen recruited a Flemish agent whose brother – as luck would have it – was a secretary to the Grand Admiral of the Spanish Fleet, the Marquis of Santa Cruz. Using Figliazzi to pass his reports back to Standen at Florence, this unnamed Flemish agent obtained a complete inventory of the ships, manpower and stores required for an invasion of England.

Armed with this intelligence Walsingham was able to act. The use of this intelligence is recorded by Richard Hakluyt in his 1589 work The Principal Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation. To repeat his archaic prose:

Her Maiestie being informed of a mightie preparation by Sea begunne in Spaine for the inuasion of England, by good aduise of her graue and prudent Counsell thought it expedient to preuent the same.

In plainer words, Elizabeth ordered Francis Drake to launch a preemptive attack. To the astonishment of the Spanish, Drake arrived in Cadiz harbour on 29 April and spent the afternoon cannonading and burning everything in sight. The Spanish lost 37 ships and enormous quantities of stores. Continuing his raid, he netted the San Felipe, a Spanish treasure ship laden with a cargo in the tens of millions of pounds in today’s prices. Drake had, they said, singed the Spanish king’s beard.

Walsingham was able to assess the damage inflicted by Drake through a grain merchant in the Low Countries named Wychegarde, who spied on behalf of England despite losing his cargo in Drake’s attack. Wychegarde also produced an accurate assessment of the Spanish land forces gathering in the Low Countries under the Prince of Parma. Having been seized by pirates and deposited in Boulogne with just his underwear, Wychegarde made his way home across land and accurately counted just 5,000 veteran Spanish troops. Unfortunately this assessment was disregarded as it did not tally with other reports, which put the figure much higher at 18,000 men. In fact, Walsingham’s biggest failing in the war with Spain was his inability to get a spy inside Parma’s headquarters, or to intercept his correspondence with Philip II.

About the time of Drake’s raid, Walsingham drew up a document he called a Plot for Intelligence out of Spain. Because it was difficult to get information directly out of Spain, this seven-point intelligence masterpiece called for the targeting of the Venetian ambassador by Stafford and the French ambassador to Spain. Spies would be placed in French ports observing visiting Spanish ships, while two special spies – French, Flemish or Italian – would be sent to find out what was happening on the Spanish coast. These two spies would be furnished with letters of credit so they might appear as merchants while performing the operation. Walsingham also wanted to try and place two intelligencers in the court of Spain, one to the port of Finale and another sent to Genoa. Other intelligence-gathering posts would be set up in Brussels, Leyden and Denmark.

In addition, Standen continued to report on the build-up of the Armada and in June 1587 correctly estimated that it would be unable to set sail until early in 1588. Walsingham dutifully reported this intelligence to Burghley, but asked that everything possible be done to protect its source. Standen also reported that Philip II had gone to Genoese money-lenders to make good the damage done by Drake. With this intelligence, Walsingham was able to put pressure on Genoa to refuse Philip the loan he so desperately needed. An even bigger coup may have been performed in February 1588. Walsingham had an agent in Malaga named Nicholas Ousely, who, in addition to sending ciphered intelligence reports hidden inside barrels of wine, is rumoured to have fatally poisoned the Spanish Grand Admiral, the Marquis of Santa Cruz at Lisbon.

However, it must be said that despite all the secret service work, when the Armada finally sailed later in 1588 it was as much destroyed by Spanish incompetence and storms as by English cunning. When Walsingham died of natural causes in 1590 there was, quite understandably, much rejoicing in Spain. In terms of espionage he left no heir, but Lord Burghley, who had first passed the torch to Walsingham, now intended the office to go to his son, Robert Cecil. In the immediacy of Walsingham’s death, there appears to have been something of a ‘turf war’ to take control of his interests. Although Cecil was the leading candidate, other contenders included Elizabeth’s Vice-Chamberlain, Sir Thomas Heneage, and the Earl of Essex, both of whom were dabbling with secret matters of their own.

This jostling for position may have had an unlikely casualty in the guise of the playwright Christopher Marlowe (1564–93). Of the countless figures on the periphery of the Elizabethan secret service, much is made of Marlowe’s connection with espionage – perhaps too much. If it had not been for his celebrity as a writer and the dubious circumstances of his death, Marlowe the spy might not have been remembered at all.

The details are sketchy, but most commentators agree that Marlowe entered Walsingham’s secret service while studying at Cambridge University. From 1584 Marlowe appears to have been absent from Cambridge for several lengthy periods. When it came time to receive his master’s degree, the university refused him on the grounds that he was suspected of having travelled to Rheims, the French city where Englishmen went to be trained as Catholic priests. The university reversed its decision after the Queen’s Privy Council explained that he had not been to Rheims but instead had been performing good services for Her Majesty. This service may have been posing as a Catholic in order to infiltrate their underground network in England.

Marlowe’s violent murder lends to his cult status among purveyors of fine conspiracy. He met his end in an upstairs meeting room by the Thames at Deptford. He was with three men, all of whom had secret service connections of their own: Robert Poley, Nicholas Skeres and Frizer. Drawing together all the pieces, Poley, who we know from the Babington plot, was now working for Heneage. Skeres had also formerly spied for Walsingham, but now served Essex. Frizer was a ‘servant’ of Thomas Walsingham, a cousin of the great spymaster. Quite where Marlowe fitted into this picture is unknown, but it is possible that all the interested parties had decided to silence him in case he defected to the Catholics. Over drinks and a game of backgammon, Frizer pulled a knife on Marlowe and stabbed him through the eye. Frizer claimed he acted in self defence and received a royal pardon with surprising haste.

Another Cambridge man and dabbler in espionage was Lord Burghley’s nephew, Francis Bacon (1561–1628). Although more famous for his philosophical works, like his elder brother, Anthony, Francis attended Cambridge and became a member of Gray’s Inn. Between 1581 and April 1582 Francis went on a tour of Italy, Spain, Germany and Denmark. This trip was in part organized by Anthony who had been abroad since 1578 on various intelligence missions of his own. Francis compiled a lengthy intelligence report, which was presented to Burghley and the queen.

The ultimate irony of Elizabeth’s reign was that upon her death in 1603, the throne passed to the son of Mary Queen of Scots, James I (ruled 1603–25). Suspicious of the power previously wielded by Walsingham, his reign is said to have marked a low tide in the employment of spies. Instead, he adopted the Spanish practice of relying on ambassadors for foreign intelligence, in particular the services of Sir Henry Wotton (1568–1639). Going abroad at the age of 22, Wotton travelled extensively through France, Germany and Italy. While in Florence he was sent on a secret mission to James, using the alias of Octavio Baldi, warning of a Jesuit plot to poison him. In reward, James knighted Wotton and appointed him ambassador to Venice. The old republic continued to prove itself an effective listening post against plots emanating from Spain, and Wotton was also able to monitor the Jesuits with a network encompassing all Italy, making great use of postal intercepts.

One notable incident of James I’s reign concerned the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The plot has similarities to the Babington plot. A group of Catholic conspirators met on 20 May 1604 at the Duck and Drake Inn on the Strand. The conspirators included a ringleader, Robert Catesby, and Guy Fawkes, a Yorkshireman in service with the Spanish army. Together they decided to blow up the Houses of Parliament and rented a cellar underneath the House of Lords, in which they stacked 36 barrels of gunpowder – more than enough to send the whole edifice sky-high. In the meantime, Fawkes travelled to Flanders to solicit foreign aid. While there he was spotted by spies of Robert Cecil, now Earl of Salisbury and James I’s First Minister.

In October, Fawkes was chosen to light the fuse, before escaping to Europe. However, someone betrayed the conspiracy on the night of 26 October. Guy Fawkes was arrested in the cellar while preparing to light the fuse and was taken in for questioning. Perhaps mindful of the fate met by Babington, the other conspirators fled and with good reason. On 6 November James I authorized torture on Fawkes, but failed to extract any information for two days. However, it was only a matter of time before eight others were rounded up and the trials began on 27 January 1606. All were found guilty and, like the Babington plotters before them, were brutally hanged, drawn and quartered.

It was not until after the English Civil War (1642–49) that anything like a return to Walsingham’s day occurred. After the execution of Charles I in 1649 and the rejection of Charles II, England came to be ruled by Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658) as Lord Protector. In 1653 Thomas Scot was replaced as director of intelligence by the recently appointed Secretary of State, John Thurloe (1616–68). A lawyer like Walsingham, Thurloe shared his predecessor’s enthusiasm for uncovering plots, this time aimed at Cromwell by Catholic Europe and, in particular, by Charles II, son of the executed monarch. So vehement was Charles’s desire for a restoration of the monarchy that he let it be known a knighthood awaited Cromwell’s assassin.

In order to thwart these plots and conspiracies, Cromwell ensured that his spymaster-general was adequately funded. Later, in the reign of Charles II (ruled 1660–85), the diarist Samuel Pepys recorded in an entry of 14 February 1668: ‘Secretary Morrice did this day in the House, when they talked of intelligence, say that he was allowed but £70 a-year for intelligence, whereas, in Cromwell’s time, he [Cromwell] did allow £70,000 a-year for it.’

Thurloe built up a formidable network of spies throughout Europe who, not being ambassadors, were much harder to detect. He revitalized the cryptographic service, which was put under the astute leadership of the mathematician John Wallis (1616–1703). In 1655 Thurloe took charge of the post office, enabling him to intercept the letters of royalist supporters and other conspirators.

His successes were many, including foiling Leveller plots to assassinate Cromwell. Edward Sexby (1616–58) was an English Puritan and Leveller, who had fought on the side of Parliament during the Civil War, but who considered Cromwell a tyrant. In 1655, he was discovered plotting against Cromwell and had to flee to the Continent, where he began negotiating with Spain and English royalists for the invasion of England and Cromwell’s overthrow. In Flanders he met a fellow Leveller, Miles Sindercombe, who returned to England with a plan to assassinate Cromwell.

Sindercombe soon found out that assassinating public figures is one thing, but escaping from the scene of the crime with one’s life intact is something different entirely. It was this element of ‘self preservation’ that rendered Sindercombe’s efforts ineffectual. Aided by two companions, Sindercombe hatched a plan to kill Cromwell while he walked from Westminster Abbey to the Houses of Parliament. A house overlooking the entrance to the abbey belonged to a Royalist sympathizer. On the day in question, Sindercombe and his two henchmen arrived at the house with a blunderbuss concealed inside a musical instrument case. Fortunately for Cromwell, the crowds were so great that Sindercombe could not get a clear view for a shot. Unwilling to go outside and fire the shot from close range – to do so meant certain capture, torture and execution – the plotters packed up and left.

A second attempt was staged. This time Sindercombe planned to fire on Cromwell’s carriage on its regular Friday journey to Hampton Court. He hired a room in Hammersmith, which overlooked the road at a narrow point where Cromwell’s coach would have to slow down. Having bribed one of Cromwell’s escort troopers, John Toope, for details of Cromwell’s itinerary, Sindercombe laid in wait all day, only to learn that Cromwell had made the journey by boat.

With his patience running out, Sindercombe planned to shoot Cromwell in London’s Hyde Park. It had been noted that Cromwell often took exercise in the park and was only lightly guarded. Sindercombe’s accomplice – an old soldier named John Cecil – was chosen to commit the deed. To facilitate Cecil’s escape, the park gate was broken and a fast horse was provided. However, when push came to shove, Cecil’s courage appears to have failed him. He returned to Sindercombe with the sheepish excuse that the getaway nag had been too ill for him to ride.

Lastly, the plotters decided they would kill Cromwell by blowing up the Palace of Westminster. To that end they placed a bomb in the palace chapel but were betrayed to Thurloe by John Toope, the Life Guard trooper they had earlier bribed.46 Thurloe caught up with Sindercombe & co. on 8 January 1657 and had them imprisoned in the Tower. To avoid the humiliation of public execution Sindercombe committed suicide and, as befitted a suicide, was buried anonymously under a public highway.

Sexby met his end after producing a pamphlet called Killing Noe Murder in which he justified political assassination as a means to defeat tyranny. There were no prizes for guessing which tyrant he had in mind while penning the piece. On a visit to England in 1657, he was captured and sent to the Tower. After interrogation, Sexby apparently went insane and died of fever in January 1658. The following year, Thurloe’s spies infiltrated and thwarted another plot, this time by a group known as the Sealed Knot. A combination of exiled royalists and dissatisfied parliamentarians, the Sealed Knot planned for a national rebellion set for 1 August 1659. However, with Thurloe well informed by his spies of the group’s plans, the army was mobilized in readiness and the revolt was crushed.

With such successes, it is surprising to learn how Thurloe was himself betrayed by his secretary, Samuel Morland (1625–95). When the Cambridge-educated Morland learned that Thurloe was plotting to assassinate Charles II, he became a double agent, leaking out the details of the plot to the royalist camp. Another blow came from the former scout-master-general in Scotland, George Downing (1624–84), after whom Downing Street, London, is named. Cromwell had sent Downing to Holland on a diplomatic mission, which appears to have provided a cover for him to spy for Thurloe on English exiles and the Dutch military. However, with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Downing sent Charles II Thurloe’s papers. For this Downing was knighted while Thurloe was arrested on charges of high treason. It is an indication of the spymaster-general’s worth that he was released after just a few months on the condition that he would make his services available, should the new government require them.