How will these resources help you?

Elizabethan England is a popular topic, enjoyed by pupils and teachers. The topics are familiar: Catholics plots to put Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne and her eventual execution; the treatment of the poor; the defeat of the Spanish Armada; and the fun of the Elizabethan theatre. Less familiar, and given scant attention in school textbooks, is the work of the Elizabethan spy network. Masterminded by Francis Walsingham, this network of spies and agents in England and Europe, with its rather ruthless methods, kept Elizabethan England safe during a time of great danger and made the prosperity of the reign possible. This is an exciting yet overlooked element and one well worth teaching.


A core resource

Elizabeth’s Spy Master: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War that Saved England

by Robert Hutchinson, published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson, (2007), 9780753822487

This is definitely the book with which to begin – it is both readable and comprehensive. It describes the fragility of a Protestant England, struggling to survive in the face of a hostile Catholic continent while at the same time trying to deal with a network of English Catholic families determined to remove Elizabeth I from the throne. Key to dealing with external and internal threats is, of course, Walsingham’s network of spies. Particularly useful are Chapters 4 ‘The Babington Plot’ and 7 ‘Defeating the Armada’, which add depth and complexity when teaching the more usual straightforward narrative. 

The spymaster

The Queen’s Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth I

by John Cooper, published by Faber, (2012), 9780571218271

This book is a detailed and fascinating biography of the man who created and remained at the centre of the vast Elizabethan spy network. If you are thinking of devising a unit dedicated to Walsingham and his spy network, this should be your starting point. Otherwise, go straight to Chapter 4 – The English Mission – which begins with the (gruesome) hanging of the first English Catholic priest to have been trained in Douai, and continues with the covert entry of Catholic priests into England and the ways in which Walsingham’s network identified them. Chapter 5 – Security Services – provides an excellent demonstration of Walsingham’s methods by unpacking the dynamics of the Throckmorton Plot.

A spy with a difference

Under the Molehill: An Elizabethan Spy Story

by John Bossy, published by Yale University Press, (2002), 9780300094503

The immediate focus of the book is an espionage operation in London, designed to discover whether France would support Protestant England or Catholic Europe in any future conflict. Working as an historical detective, the author identifies a mole, deeply embedded in a household central to the operation, who passed vital information to Walsingham’s spies. However, the book encompasses far more than just one operation and sheds light on Walsingham’s methods, successes and failures. Here, Chapters 5, 6 and 7 – Dates in a Diary, From a View to a Death and Old Friends respectively – are particularly relevant. The epilogue addresses the problem of the validity of information obtained clandestinely or under torture – this may be too nuanced for KS3 but could form the basis of a class discussion. 

Audiovisual clip

Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents - “The plots against Elizabeth keep coming”

published by BBC, (2017)

Elizabeth's spies were pivotal in keeping the queen safe from all the plots attempting at her life, but this clip shows how even her collaborators got worried about the amount of threats they discovered in their activity.

Further Materials


The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I by Stephen Alford, published by Penguin, (2013), 9780141043654 Find this book
The Elizabethan Secret Services by Alan Haynes, published by The History Press, (2009) Find this book
Rosemary Rees is an experienced teacher of history to students in the secondary, further and higher sectors of education. She has worked as an examination-board administrator and a chief examiner, and served as a governor of a primary school and chair of governors of a comprehensive school. She now spends her time writing and editing text books for Key Stages 3, 4 and 5. 

Text © Rosemary Rees, 2020.