Born to a well-connected family of gentry, Walsingham attended Cambridge University and travelled in continental Europe before embarking on a career in law at the age of twenty. A committed Protestant, during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I of England he joined other expatriates in exile in Switzerland and northern Italy until Mary's death and the accession of her Protestant half-sister, Elizabeth.
Walsingham rose from relative obscurity to become one of the small coterie who directed the Elizabethan state, overseeing foreign, domestic and religious policy. He served as English ambassador to France in the early 1570s and witnessed the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. As principal secretary, he supported exploration, colonization, the use of England's maritime strength and the plantation of Ireland. He worked to bring Scotland and England together. Overall, his foreign policy demonstrated a new understanding of the role of England as a maritime Protestant power with intercontinental trading ties. He oversaw operations that penetrated Spanish military preparation, gathered intelligence from across Europe, disrupted a range of plots against Elizabeth and secured the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots.
- Above all things I wish God's glory and next the queen's safety.
- Letter to the Earl of Leicester (April 1571), quoted in John Cooper, The Queen's Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth I (2011), p. 64
- I see this wicked creature ordained of God to punish us for our sins and unthankfulness.
- Letter to the Earl of Leicester (15 October 1586) on Mary, Queen of Scots, quoted in John Cooper, The Queen's Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth I (2011), pp. 226–227
Quotes about Francis Walsingham
- Now wheras I have alwayes noted your wisdome to have had a speciall care of the honor of her Majesty, the good reputation of our country, & the advancing of navigation, the very walks of this our Island, as the oracle is reported to have spoken of the sea forces of Athens: and whereas I acknowledge in all dutifull sort how honorably both by your letter and speech I have bene animated in this and other my travels, I see my selfe bound to make presentment of this worke to your selfe, as the fruits of your owne incouragements, & the manifestation both of my unfained service to my prince and country, and of my particular duty to your honour
- Richard Hakluyt, dedication to Walsingham in the first edition (1589) of The Principall Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoueries of the English Nation (1907), p. 5