Sir Francis Walsingham and the Marranos
By Ann Swinfen
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.
Burghley had developed an embryonic secret service, but when Walsingham took it in hand it became a sophisticated and highly skilled organisation which reached 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 population.
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, one of the next generation, was certainly Christian.
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 Walsingham?
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 these trading routes and through the great merchant houses that news mostly flowed.
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 Tudor espionage. The first book in the series is The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez.
The series has now reached the fifth book, Suffer the Little Children, and we are nearing the end of Walsingham’s life. After years of 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 Essex.
And what would happen to the Marranos, with Walsingham gone? Ah, well, that too is another story.
Ann Swinfen (Website: Ann Swinfen) originally published three novels with Random House, but has now become an independent author publisher with her own imprint, Shakenoak Press. She writes adult historical novels set in a wide range of periods.
The Testament of Mariam takes place in the first century Roman provinces of Palestine and Gaul. Flood was inspired by discovering the struggles of 17th century fenlanders in defending their homes and livelihoods against exploitation by unscrupulous land-grabbers.
Her series set in 16th century London, featuring a young physician coerced into becoming a code-breaker and spy in Walsingham’s secret service, begins with The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez and continues with The Enterprise of England, The Portuguese Affair, Bartholomew Fair, and Suffer the Little Children.
Also in 2015 she has published This Rough Ocean, a novel based on the real-life experiences of her husband’s ancestors in the war-torn 1640s. Loving the whole independent publishing process, she thinks it unlikely she’d ever return to conventional publishing.
Buy links for The Secret World of Christoval Alvarez
Amazon US: http://amzn.com/0992822831
Amazon UK: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0992822831