Sir William Cecil (13/9/1520-4/8/1598)
It is no secret that popular culture tends to distort history. Many people may have seen The Imitation Game and believe that Alan Turing single-handedly defeated Nazi Germany. The roles of such men as Bill Tutte and Tommy Flowers who were even more important to the Bletchley Park war effort than Turing, are now forgotten by all but a handful of experts.
Similarly people who have see such films Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age, are aware of the existence of Sir Francis Walsingham, one of England’s greatest spymasters. Much has been written about him in recent years. He is often lazily referred to the as “the founder of the English Secret Service.” In fact he wasn’t. That was his predecessor and boss, Sir William Cecil aka Lord Burghley. Many of the methods that we think of as part of secret service work today were actually established under Cecil – not Walsingham. But, like Tutte and Flowers, the real hero of the British espionage story has largely been forgotten.
Cecil was Principal Secretary of State twice: 1550-53 (under Edward VI) and 1558-72. It is during that second period in office, during the reign of Elizabeth I, that Cecil really made a difference to English secret service.
It was Cecil who separated secret service work from the general work of the Privy Council. The move that prompted this division was almost certainly when the first evidence appeared of a plot to assassinate Elizabeth. This was provided by Ambassador Norris in France. Cecil now brought all his intelligence agents under one organisation both at home and abroad. This was known as the “Defence of the Realm”. Ambassadors now reported directly to him rather than to the monarch.
Much of the correspondence between Cecil and his ambassadors (of whom Walsingham was one) was encrypted. This was not a new idea brought in by Cecil, all European leaders knew that cryptography was vital as most correspondence could be intercepted. But Cecil insisted on the highest standards of security. He was a very secretive man and did not trust his own clerks to cipher or decipher his correspondence. It was a task he kept for himself.
Directly and through his ambassadors, Cecil established a network of informants throughout Europe. Again this was not particularly new, all state secretaries used foreign informants. But Cecil brought their use to a new level. From surviving correspondence we know the names of many of them: John Prestall – living in the Low Countries and pretending to be a Catholic recusant; Robert Pygot – a sea captain who could be trusted to transport Cecil’s agents; William Parker – a deep cover agent who had managed to get himself hired as a “searcher” in Flanders for smuggled Protestant literature. His family was in the Flanders wool trade and he spent many months working alongside leading Catholic plotters; John Marsh – one of the governors of the Merchant Adventurers, a post he used for spying for Cecil in Brussels; Edward Woodshaw, Cecil’s chief agent in Antwerp; “Rooksby” – an agent lodging in Edinburgh in order to monitor Mary, Queen of Scots and her supporters. These were just a few of the members of Cecil’s networks.
One of Cecil’s principal agents was Antony Standen. He and his brother had been among the murdered Lord Darnley’s supporters. Horrified by the murder and only having just escaped from the bloody aftermath, Standen wrote a report which found its way to Cecil. He joined Cecil’s service and continued to serve under Walsingham becoming for both spymasters“ a most accomplished and subtle Secret Agent of the English Service…”.
So good were his networks that Cecil was always one step ahead of England’s continental enemies. During the early part of Elizabeth’s reign, one of the main threats to the country came from French influence in Scotland which was still at that time an independent nation. The Earl of Arran had a claim to the Scottish throne and at the same time would have made an appropriate suitor for Elizabeth. A marriage would have united the two thrones and ended the plotting. The French knew of this and hatched a plan to kidnap or kill the Earl of Arran. It was Cecil’s spies who learned of the plot and in the nick of time managed to save the Earl of Arran. It was an excellent piece of counter-espionage, but sadly Elizabeth did not find the rather foppish Earl to her liking and the plan fell by the wayside.
Probably the greatest coup of Cecil’s secret service was to foil the Ridolfi Plot in 1571. Roberto Ridolfi (1531-1612) was a Florentine banker. He and his family were Catholics and a leading financial force on the Continent. He had spent some time in England during the reign of Mary I (1553-1558) and knew Cecil personally. When Elizabeth came to the throne he swore to restore Catholic rule. He did not involve himself in the plots personally, but acted as a facilitator, providing money and liaison, travelling between Pope Pius V in Rome, Phillip II in Madrid and the Duke of Alva in the Low Countries. He was arrested in October 1569 following the failed Northern Revolt. He was questioned twice by Walsingham and had his premises searched, but was released on Cecil’s orders on a bond having partly confessed and also having promised to interfere no more.
But Ridolfi did not view his word to a Protestant as binding – especially once the Papal Bull of Excommunication on Elizabeth was finally issued in February 1570 (effectively a death sentence for her). He travelled all over the Continent forming a plot which involved the Duke of Alva bringing 10,000 troops to England from the Low Countries. There he would be met by English Catholic forces under the Duke of Norfolk (who was already out on parole following his part in the Northern Rising) and they in turn would be supported by Scottish forces. Elizabeth would be killed and then Norfolk would marry Mary, Queen of Scots. Philip of Spain agreed to bankroll the whole operation.
Now, part of Cecil’s security system was to have spies on the packet boats that crossed the Channel as well as men based in the actual ports (a ruse still used by border forces today – people are less guarded just before they arrive as they do not think they are being watched). In April 1571, one of Cecil’s men spotted a certain Charles Baily on a packet trying to enter the country at Dover. Baily (spelling varies) was a Flemish-Scot who acted as courier for Ridolfi. At Dover, encrypted messages were found in the lining of Baily’s coat.
But the arrest of Baily wasn’t entirely down to chance. Ridolfi had visited so many different courts all over Europe, including Spain and the Vatican, that there wasn’t a hope in hell of keeping it secret. Cecil already had an agent reporting on the plot from Flanders, a man called John Lee, a warning had been sent from the Florentine ambassador in Antwerp and even Sir John Hawkins, the English admiral, had heard of it.
Eventually, Norfolk was caught sending Spanish gold to Scotland to secure the co-operation of their forces. Enciphered letters were also found confirming his part in the plot. There was no need to crack the cipher of the documents: Norfolk’s servants gave it up under the threat of torture. Norfolk was executed and De Spes was expelled. The plot probably never stood much chance of success, but the effectiveness of Cecil’s intelligence service meant that it didn’t even got off the launch pad.
And Ridolfi? Unlike the other plotters who were brutally executed, he survived to become a senator in Florence where he died peacefully in 1612.
Cecil was a modern spymaster in other ways. We noted above that he appreciated the crucial importance of encryption of his messages. In the same way, he knew that it was crucial to attack the enemy’s ciphers and codes as well. He employed a man called John Somers for this. Somers is the very first person in England named as the government decipherer. He was so good at his work that he remained under Walsingham once Cecil had moved on and he played a part in the training of another great English cryptanalyst, Thomas Phelippes. It was a sign of how much Somers was trusted that he was acting Principal Secretary when Walsingham was ill in 1577.
Cecil also organised one of the first ever cases of “extraordinary rendition”. Dr John Story (1504-1571) was a prominent Catholic plotter. He had been Regius Professor in Civil Law at Oxford and was a leading supporter of Mary, Queen of Scots. He had been the Queen’s Proctor under “Bloody Mary” at the trial of Cramner in 1555 and he had a reputation as zealous in his pursuit of Protestants.
At first, under the new reign, he was left in peace. But when he refused to comply with the Act of Supremacy in May 1560, he was imprisoned. In 1563, he escaped from Marshalsea Prison together with another man and sought sanctuary with the Spanish Ambassador. He was then smuggled to Flanders with the aid of the ambassador’s chaplain. There he took on Spanish citizenship and became an advisor to the Duke of Alva. But although he received a royal pension from Spain, this was not enough to support his family and he took on other work as “searcher” or Customs Officer searching for smuggled Protestant literature.
John Prestall was one of Cecil’s agents. He and Andrew Parker developed contact with Dr Story through this Customs work. They discovered that Story was working on two plots to murder the Queen including a plan for the Spanish to invade England. By 1570, Cecil had been added to the list of targets. Cecil decided to teach the Catholic plotters on the Continent that none of them was beyond the reach of justice.
Twelve men were employed by Cecil for the kidnap operation. In July 1570, they hired a ship and a crew under a Dutch captain. Story was always suspicious and had to be lured into the capture area gradually over a number of days, visiting various ships until the trap was finally sprung in the port of Bergen. He was held at the English Customs House, then transferred to the ship. They then sailed for Yarmouth. The operation did not run smoothly – Story actually managed to escape at one stage, but he was recaptured. He was held at the Tower of London in relative comfort until his trial on 26 May 1571.
Officially, Story was a Spanish citizen. The court got around this by simply ignoring that fact. At the trial, Story put up no defence. He would not even plead on the grounds that the court had no right to try a foreign national for treason. But his trial went ahead, he was found guilty and hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn on 1 June 1571. As with many extraordinary rendition operations, the final result was questionable. Cecil may have put an end to Story, but his “martyrdom” inspired many more Catholics, including Edmund Campion who was to be a thorn in English sides for many years to come.
Criminals and plotters had been sought on the Continent before by officers of the Crown, all the way back to the reign of Edward III and probably before. But a rendition operation had never been organised on this scale before. It was not to be the last time. Interestingly (and demonstrating another espionage truism) the rendition team were never fully paid for the job. Most of the money had come up front out of their own pockets. Several of them were also hunted down because of their involvement once the Spanish found out who they were and Cecil did not do much to help them. But that is a tale for another day.
Finally, probably one of the best measures of a spymaster is what your enemies think of you. Don Guerau De Spes, the Spanish ambassador – and no mean spymaster himself – wrote of Cecil: “he is a fox, cunning as sin, and the mortal enemy of Spain. He moves in silence and falsehood and what he will try to do against us is only limited by his power.”
De Spes was expelled from England following the exposure of his part in the Ridolfi Plot. But De Spes was determined to strike a final blow against the English secret service before he departed. He sent two youths from Norwich, named Mather and Berney, with instructions to kill Cecil. They were to murder him at his home with a blunderbuss through the window of his study as he was working in the evening. Fortunately, Cecil was warned by his own spies and Mather and Berney were arrested in London shortly before they could carry out the attack. A swift rider from the embassy informed De Spes who was waiting at Dover for news of the attack. He hastily sailed away before he could be arrested.
In 1573, Cecil moved on to the post of Lord High Treasurer. Walsingham was appointed as one of two new Principal Secretaries of State, but it was Walsingham who was given charge of the secret service as he had worked so closely with Cecil. He had been one of Cecil’s agents and also an ambassador in Paris.
Walsingham did not start from scratch. He inherited many of his agents and methods from Cecil. Walsingham did improve and expand Cecil’s networks, that much is true. But, meanwhile, Cecil still kept a close eye on Walsingham’s activities and was ready to offer his advice. Cecil’s son, Robert, continued the good work when he became Principal Secretary of State in 1596.
So, contrary to what many have written, it was under Cecil, not Walsingham, that the English secret service was established. It is a fact deserves to be remembered.