Francis Walsingham is best known as Elizabeth I’s secretary and spymaster. As Elizabeth’s trusted ally and a master of political and military intelligence, Walsingham was also a staunch supporter of the Protestant cause. He was one of the instigators of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (the rival Catholic claimant to Elizabeth’s throne), and directed English espionage on their Spanish enemies. You can well imagine my surprise then to find a 17th Century Jesuit tract authored by a Francis Walsingham, outlining the causes of his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism. What had caused a man so committed to Protestantism to suddenly renounce his faith?
The answer is that there are in fact two different Francis Walsinghams, distantly related to one another and born 35 years apart. The younger Walsingham could not be more different in his religious outlook than his elder relative. Yet the younger Walsingham was still an apostate – he had been a Deacon in the Church of England, before traveling to Rome and entering a seminary to train as a Catholic Priest. In 1609 he published his A Search Made into Matters of Religion – the copy held at Worcester Cathedral Library is a second edition of 1615. It was deemed so effective as Jesuit propaganda that it was used until well into the 18th Century as the standard recruitment textbook to be shown to Protestants inclining towards Catholicism.
Naturally, such a work would not be without controversy. In 17th Century England, the lot of Roman Catholics did tend to fluctuate with the time, but it can’t be said to have ever been a happy one. There were notable outbreaks of persecution following the Gunpowder plot of 1605 and Titus Oates fabricated ‘Popish Plot’ of 1678-81, with attacks on Catholic individuals, property and books. While I have been unable to find any evidence that Walsingham’s book was ever officially proscribed, many similar works did suffer that fate at one point or another. What we can state for certain is that the circulation and ownership of this book would have been limited and largely taboo.
Indeed, an inscription in a (probably) 17th Century hand on the fly-leaf of our book reveals one near-contemporary opinion on its subject matter: ‘Francis Walsingham, his book of heresy’.
Opinions and perceptions do of course change over time and from individual to individual. The second flyleaf of our book contains another inscription, this time in a neater, elegant hand more typical of the 18th or earlier 19th Centuries. Its message makes for a marked contrast with the previous accusation of heresy:
‘Let the reader of this book imitate its author, who as oft as he took a book in hand begged of God to illuminate his understanding, to give him courage to embrace truth when found, and perseverance in his service till death.
In vain are our studies and searches unless God’s grace co-operate therewith, and [we have] no better means to obtain divine grace than constant prayer.’
Who penned these inscriptions, and what their circumstances were, is sadly something that we will probably never find out – but they do offer us a fascinating insight into the changing position of Roman Catholicism in England.