Bloomberg News

Lewis Lapham: Spymaster Snared Queen Mary With Beer Keg

February 23, 2013

Francis Walsingham served Queen Elizabeth I as ambassador, secretary, security chief and spymaster. Among the biggest threats to the sovereign’s safety were the recurrent Catholic plots to replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots.

(To listen to the podcast, click here.)

Walsingham routinely employed agents, torturers, cryptographers, forgers and men capable of breaking and repairing seals.

To set up Mary, Walsingham placed her under stricter custody and had all her mail opened and read. He also arranged for one seemingly secret conduit, a beer keg, which was also monitored by his agents.

In 1586, Mary replied encouragingly to Anthony Babington -- via the keg -- about his plans to free her and kill Elizabeth. Despite a spirited defense at her trial, she was convicted of treason and executed in February 1587.

I spoke with John Cooper, author of “The Queen’s Agent: Sir Francis Walsingham and the Rise of Espionage in Elizabethan England,” on the following topics:

1. Power Player

2. Private Spy Ring

3. Plots Against Elizabeth

4. Setting up Mary

5. Mary’s Execution

To buy this book in North America, click here.

(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

Muse highlights include Zinta Lundborg’s NYC Weekend Best and Lance Esplund on art.

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at lhl@laphamsquarterly.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.


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