Keeping the Peace in Elizabethan England

There was no institutionalized police service in sixteenth century England but law and order nevertheless had to be maintained.

England had become a divided nation since Henry VIIIs confrontation with the Vatican at Rome over his divorce from Katherine of Aragon.  Elizabeth I set out re-inforcing her Fathers proclamation in favour of the protestant faith and forbidding catholics to be practiced openly.

Accountability of the common man was to the church of his parish and to the Magistrate appointed by the State.  Every man was also accountable for his business dealings to the town Councillors.  Municipality evolved this way.

It was not enough to maintain law and order.  Vagabonds and tramps were everywhere and new theatre entertainments performed from pageant wagons and at Taverns Inns and Guild Halls brought strangers to town.  Theatre was not seen as glamorous but seedy low life and presenting opportunity to those who wished to exploit it for propaganda and sedition.

John Shakespeare, as we know, was a Town Councillor in Stratford upon Avon but he was also an illegal trader of wool and a recusant, a secret catholic who did not attend Sunday morning church service. Sir Thomas Lucy was the Stratford Magistrate who would be John Shakespeare’s adversary in life until their dying days.

The one man who changed the face of law and order in England and protected his monarch, Elizabeth, from harm and assassination was Francis Walsingham.  He set up an independent and intricate intelligence and spy network which placed agents in the field across Great Britain and Europe.  He became forever known as the Spymaster.

There were many plots during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I which would justify the existence of such a secret service.  Most, but not all, were plots from catholics who wished to depose Elizabeth and achieve the monarchy for the imprisoned Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots.  The most famous plots were the Northern Uprising of 1569, the Norfolk conspiracy of 1572, the Ridolfi plot, the Throckmorton and Babington Plots.

Some of these Plots were proven to be a legitimate threat to the Queen and to the State but others were shams and mere fabrications of the spymaster to create disinformation and a feeling of endangerment to justify a cause of action which led to the execution of the Duke of Norfolk, Mary Stuart herself, Francis Throckmorton and Robert Devereux the Earl of Essex during Elizabeth’s reign.  In the reign of James I, Sir Walter Raleigh would suffer a similar fate.

Francis Walsingham co-operated with fellow Ministers William Cecil, Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester and Robert Deveureux the Earl of Essex to administer the intelligence network.  Paid informants might be the ordinary merchant of any town but spies were hired according to social position, religious connection, profession and skill.

A key feature of espionage in sixteenth century was espionage and the gathering of information for the protection of the State.  How ironic perhaps that Robert Devereux should marry, Frances, the daughter of the chief Spymaster, yet face execution himself as a direct result of the secret service, whether disinformation or not.

The effectiveness of intelligence gathering depended on interception.  This involved the service of correspondents, secretaries, agents and cryptologists.  Codes had to be written in secret ink of lemon juice and milk or of urine and water.  Cryptology is a specialty in itself and no person was better at it in the field of action than Thomas Phillips who was largely instrumental in providing the intelligence which led to the eventual execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587.

The implementation of intelligence gathering involved bribery, blackmail and coercion, pseudonyms and cross dressing.  Extraction by torture was the last resort but Priest Hunter Richard Topcliffe was known to keep a torture chamber at his home.

Being a recusant was not a simple affair in Elizabethan England.  Missing Sunday morning church service, not abiding by the Book of Common Prayer, keeping a copy of the sacred Catholic testament, not paying your taxes, trading illegally in a commodity which was monopolized by the State, these were all things which would attract the attentions of a paid informant and the likes of John Shakespeare and son William walked a tightrope every day of their lives, be in no doubt.

It is perhaps appropriate to now bring brothers Francis and Anthony Bacon into the story.  They were not blood brothers at all but both fostered by Sir Nicholas Bacon and wife Lady Anne and initially lived out their childhood at York Place on the Strand in London before moving out to St Albans, a small town thirty miles north of London.  Sir Nicholas was the Queens Lord Keeper.  Lady Anne was the sister of Mildred, the wife of William Cecil.

Francis and Anthony Bacon set up and managed a brilliant Scrivenary in the 1592s once Anthony had returned from his intelligence service in France and Francis had established himself at Twickenham House in league with Robert Deveureux the Earl of Essex.  This was an elaborate office which would provide a service to the spymasters of the secret service and also provide a library of literature and information to the Playwrights of the day such as William Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe and many others.

The Bacon brothers, Francis, in particular, provided a social bridge to the theatre entertainment the Playwrights wanted to offer.  It was no co-incidence, surely, that Francis Bacon hosted a ‘Good Pens’ meeting in 1595 and the Promus Library was uniquely established to be preserved now as the Northumberland manuscript.  The Bacons employed Secretaries, Writers, Translators, Copyists and Cryptologists and were uniquely placed to influence material for the Shakespeare Plays against censorship of the Master of Revels and the Spymasters of the Privy Council. 

The Secret Service, under the watch of Robert Cecil in 1605, Son of William, was of course responsible for thwarting the Gunpowder plot which intended to blow up Parliament and King James on the State opening.  William Shakespeare, the Stratfordian, must have been nervous at this time as the conspirators of the plot, many of whom he knew as fellow Stratfordians, were arrested tortured and executed.

Even Francis Bacon himself would fall foul of disinformation and face corruption charges later in his life in 1621.

There was even propaganda in the form of the publication called the Leicester Commonwealth which dared to suggest that Robert Dudley the Earl of Leicester, who died in 1588, held catholic sympathies.  It is hard to reconcile Dudley as a spymaster in the context of his patronage of the Leicester Players, the first official acting group to perform a Play in Stratford in 1572, and that he did not or would not have known of John or William Shakespeare’s allegiance to the catholic faith during his own lifetime.  Indeed, William would likely have rejoined the Leicester Players in 1588 on his return from Italy if it was not for Dudleys death a week before.

The final footnote concerns Robert Dudley who was famously called 007 by the Queen herself during their most intimate correspondence and it is this signature which inspired writer Ian Fleming to create the spy character James Bond in modern times.  There you have it.


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