Sir Francis Walsingham and the Marranos - by Ann Swinfen
Sir Francis Walsingham
The first well organised secret service in England was the
lifelong achievement of Sir Francis Walsingham. During the early part of his
career, he worked for William Cecil – Lord Burghley – Queen Elizabeth’s chief advisor,
undertaking a number of roles in the service of the state, including the post of
ambassador to Paris
at the time of the notorious St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Walsingham, his
pregnant wife and small daughter, together with young Philip Sidney, who was staying
with them, were caught up in a series of terrifying and horrific events in that
August of 1572 which would mark them for life.
The St Bartholomew's Day Massacre
Burghley had developed an embryonic secret
service, but when Walsingham took it in hand it became a sophisticated and
highly skilled organisation which spread out from his London
home in Seething Lane
to cover the whole of Europe and even reached into the Ottoman
Empire. Its purpose was to safeguard the queen and the English
nation from treason and foreign invasion. After the death of Catholic Queen
Mary and the accession of her Protestant sister Elizabeth to the throne, the Pope
had judged that England was likely to fall back into the heretical beliefs
which had been promoted under Henry VIII and (even more vehemently) under his
young son Edward VI. He declared Elizabeth
a bastard and an excommunicate heretic. (Henry VIII’s run-in with the papacy
still rankled.) Moreover, he gave a pardon in advance to any man who succeeded
in assassinating Elizabeth.
The papacy thus fostered, encouraged, and
sometimes financed repeated assaults on England for the whole of Elizabeth’s
reign, including those undertaken by the Duke of Guise, cousin of the
half-French Mary Queen of Scots, and by King Philip of Spain, widower of the
half-Spanish Queen Mary, who still claimed that he had a right to the English
throne. Having seen the violence and bloodshed in Paris,
Walsingham knew exactly what a Catholic seizure of England would mean, not only for
the queen but for her Protestant subjects, by this time the majority of the
King Philip II of Spain
There was another community living in London at the time which
had as much to fear from the threats of a Catholic invasion as Walsingham.
Indeed, its members frequently had had even more terrifying personal experiences
than he had. These were the so-called ‘Marranos’. It is an unfortunate term,
though now the best known, for it is a Spanish insult, meaning ‘pig’, a sneer
at those who do not eat the meat of that animal. Their own name for themselves
was ‘Anusim’ meaning ‘the Forced Ones’. They were the Jews living in the
Iberian peninsula, forced by the rulers of Spain, and later by the rulers of
Portugal (under Spanish pressure) to convert to Christianity, becoming the conversos, or novos cristãos, or New Christians.
There had been a slow drift from Spain and Portugal
of those New Christians who could afford to move to the more tolerant countries
of northern Europe, primarily England
and the Low Countries. As the Inquisition grew
in power, so this drift became a flood. Spain had already driven out most
of its Jewish citizens who, like the Christians, had, in the past, lived fairly
peacefully in those parts which had been under the rule of the Moors, though
without full citizenship. Ironically, once the Christian Spanish monarchs had
driven out the Moors, they turned on the Jews, many of whom fled to Portugal, where
at first they were more or less tolerated, until Spanish influence increased.
In 1580, Spain seized Portugal,
bringing with it the Inquisition and its elaborately staged autos-da-fé for the burning of heretics
and the scourging of ‘penitents’.
Those who saw the writing on the wall
escaped ahead of the Inquisition. Those who survived its tortures followed
them. Many of these Marrano refugees came from well-to-do professional classes
– doctors, lawyers, merchants, university professors. They were tacitly
welcomed in England, where
most settled in London,
and provided they kept their heads down, not too many awkward questions were
asked. Probably some continued secretly in their Jewish faith, meeting to
worship in each other’s houses, but the evidence seems to suggest that their
forms of worship in this foreign land began to lose any strict orthodoxy.
Others seem to have kept to the new faith into which they had been baptised.
This is certainly true of Aemilia Bassano, English poet and perhaps
Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. The Bassanos were a family of Italian Jewish musicians
brought to England
by Henry VIII, and Aemilia was one of the next generation, who was certainly
Englishmen of the time – and particularly
Londoners – were suspicious of all immigrants, labelling them ‘Strangers’.
These immigrants were constrained by certain restrictions on their rights and
the running of their businesses, but when times were prosperous they fared
well. In periods of starvation and unemployment they fared less well, but that
is another story.
The three best-known Marranos contemporary
with Sir Francis Walsingham were Dr Hector Nuñez, Dr Roderigo Lopez, and
Dunstan Añez, who were the leaders of the Marrano community in London. All three were wealthy men. The first
two were graduates in medicine from the university
of Coimbra, which had one of the
finest medical schools in Europe at the time,
where the advanced practices of Arabic medicine were studied. In London they continued to work as physicians, rising to the
top of their profession, fellows of the College of Physicians.
Dr Nuñez’s most distinguished patient was Lord Burghley. Dr Lopez rose even
higher. He was chief physician to the queen herself. Dunstan Añez was first and
foremost a merchant, and his daughter was married to Dr Lopez.
But what has this to do with Sir Francis
All three men were merchants with an
international network of trading routes. The two physicians were involved in
trade as well as medicine, Dr Nuñez in particular owning ships and trading in
silks, spices and other exotic goods throughout the Mediterranean and as far
away as the East Indies. Dunstan Añez was exceedingly prosperous, also trading
throughout the known world, and so distinguished in the merchant community of London that he became the
Queen’s Purveyor of Groceries and Spices. These men had family members and
close colleagues placed in the major trading centres worldwide. And it was
along the trading routes and through the great merchant houses that news mostly
Sir Francis Walsingham recognised the
potential of this information network and seized upon it. The Marrano merchants
were happy to oblige, having their own compelling reasons for defending England against invasion by Spain or France. Thus it was that these
trading networks came to serve a second purpose, as a route for intelligence
pouring into Walsingham’s London
office. Walsingham employed a large body of agents – some reliable, some less
so, some even double agents – and these agents passed information along the
trade routes. Coded messages could be hidden in bundles of cloth or barrels of
spices, or slipped between innocent ship’s manifests. The agents also
‘diverted’ messages being passed by enemy agents, above all by the agents of
Philip of Spain.
In his Seething Lane office, Walsingham
maintained a group of code-breakers, headed by Thomas Phelippes, who deciphered
and translated coded despatches. When an enemy message had been decoded, it
would be resealed by the skilled forger of seals, Arthur Gregory, and slipped
back into the enemy network to go on its way. The work had to be done quickly,
to avoid suspicion arising from any delay.
I decided that it would be appropriate for
a young Marrano physician with a gift for code-breaking, also from Coimbra, to be recruited
into Walsingham’s service, and this was the starting point for my series of
novels about late sixteenth century espionage. The first book is The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez.
It has now reached the fourth book, Bartholomew Fair, and we are nearing the
end of Walsingham’s life. Suffering for years from ill health and unflagging
overwork, he was to die early in 1590 and the secret service would become the
centre of a struggle between two factions at court, one led by the Cecils (Burghley
and his younger son Robert) and the other by the ambitious but wayward Earl of
And what would happen to the Marranos, with
Walsingham gone? Ah, well, that too is another story.