Saturday, February 19, 2011

Guest post from C.W. Gortner: Birth of a Spymaster

I'm happy to welcome historical novelist C.W. Gortner back to the blog today.  He's written an enlightening guest post about the Elizabethan intelligence network begun by Francis Walsingham, and Walsingham's complex working relationship with the queen herself during a time of intense political activity and religious strife. 

Christopher's latest novel, The Tudor Secret, first in a series of historical mysteries, was published by St. Martin's Griffin in February ($14.99/$16.99 Canada) and by Hodder & Stoughton in the UK.  Welcome, Christopher!

Birth of a Spymaster: Francis Walsingham and Tudor Espionage

Spies have intrigued us ever since we started telling stories. I imagine that even cavemen told tales of those who infiltrated rival tribes to ferret out secrets and report back on potentially damaging plans. The clandestine act of obtaining information for a cause, while risking one’s life, carries with it an undeniable glamour and adrenaline rush that many of us find irresistible.

The Chinese and the Mongols used spies; feudal Japan relied on ninjas to gather valuable information. In Elizabethan England, Francis Walsingham is credited with giving rise to the modern notion of intelligence gathering, creating a vast organization dedicated to protecting the queen. Walsingham’s targets were Catholic agitators, such as Jesuit priests, assassins and other recusants who might subvert or otherwise damage the established order. Whether or not it was right to hunt down those who opposed a particular religious view was beside the point. So iconic has Elizabeth become in our eyes, so gloriously do we view her realm, in comparison to the brutal suppressions of Spain, that protecting her seems like the right, indeed, the only, thing to do.

While Elizabeth herself was known to dislike Walsingham’s methodology— which included torture— dubbing him her "Moor" because of his complexion or preference for dark clothes or perhaps his infamously somber personality, she contended with his brusque manner. She understood that he was the right man for a nasty job, unparalleled in his competence and fervor, his penetrating insight into foreign affairs, and his devotion to her safety. To him, she was England—the heart and soul of the Protestant movement. She faced a formidable foe in the Catholic king of Spain and legions of dedicated counter-reformation fanatics whom Philip unleashed. Papal dispensation guaranteed passage to Heaven to whoever managed to murder the queen of England. Walsingham was determined that no Catholic on his watch would ever win that prize.

Since time began, there have been men willing to die for a cause; we only need to look at our world today to see that. Some also put themselves at the service of a charismatic leader; and Elizabeth was indeed that. She promised tolerance in an intolerant age; she wanted peace and prosperity for her subjects, above all else. While the latter days of her reign were plagued by upheavals and a savage persecution, she had been literally yanked into that stance by the advent of the Armada and the very real threat of another on the horizon. Walsingham drew upon Elizabeth’s charisma and the threat posed by the Counter Reformation to conscript men of both noble and ordinary birth, who decided they had to do something to safeguard their way of life.

In The Tudor Secret, we meet Francis Walsingham before he becomes Elizabeth’s trusted spymaster. Here, he is still a hireling of the princess’s secret protector, William Cecil, but he’s already converted to the reformed faith upheld by Elizabeth and her brother, King Edward. Dark and enigmatic, Walsingham abducts Brendan Prescott, the book’s lead character, who as a squire to the Dudley family, is drawn into Cecil’s burgeoning spy network in order to uncover a conspiracy against the princess. Walsingham trails Brendan; lurking in shadows, he is a panther with a knife, disapproving of the callow youth whom Cecil has seen fit to hire. Is he friend or foe? Will he help or hinder Brendan’s mission?

It is the beginning of the grand era of Tudor espionage and of Brendan’s, and his rival Walsingham’s, service to an embattled future queen.

Thank you so much for spending this time with me. To learn more about me and my books, as well as access special features, please visit me at: Happy reading!


  1. Wonderful post. I have never been the biggest fan of Elizabeth - so I didn't know anything about the spy network before reading this book. It is fascinating that one man was able to pull so many strings. I am interested to see how he plays out in future books.

  2. Thank you for arranging this guest post, Sarah!

    The Elizabethans and Walsingham in particular were never favourites of mine, but I am intrigued by how you, Mr. Gortner, seem to have specialised in taking as your protagonists ambiguous or reviled figures from history and showing them in a different light. Seeing another side of an argument is one of the reasons I love fiction. It persuaded me to acquire this book and The Confessions Of Catherine de Medici, which I look forward to reading in the coming weeks.

  3. Thanks for a wonderfully educative post!