Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents – The spymasters who ran the world’s first secret service

Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents


The starting point is the term intelligence itself.
For many of us, intelligence invokes images of daring covert operations. Daring-do for Queen (or King) and Country, exotic locations, mind boggling gadgetry, a designer tuxedo, car chases and martinis; lots and lots of martinis – shaken not stirred. This really could not be further from the truth. There are many definitions of what intelligence is. Some intelligence agencies define it as the product resulting from the collection, evaluation, analysis, integration, and interpretation of all available information which concerns foreign nations or areas of operations and which is immediately or potentially significant to planning. Put more simply, intelligence is knowledge for the practical matter of acting.

Intelligence is hard, sometimes boring and monotonous work that is nearly always done in the shadows. The fictitious spy alluded to earlier would be a terrible intelligence officer – all that fighting, drinking and womanising; far too conspicuous.
Espionage has been an integral part of statecraft for millennia, but it was under the reign of England’s Elizabeth I, that the foundation of what an intelligence agency is, was laid. Elizabeth’s reign was long, but her England was bloodily divided by sectarianism. Elizabeth’s Protestant England was alone in a Catholic Europe and a little over ten years into her reign Pope Pius V issued the encyclical Regnans in Excelsis, which declared Elizabeth I a heretic and released her (Catholic) subjects from allegiance to her. This was effectively a death order which placed England’s young queen in great danger.

Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents looks at the public and covert lives of two men who lived and worked in politically complex and violent times, father and son William and Robert Cecil. The Cecil’s are acknowledged as the founding fathers of the modern intelligence service.

William Cecil was born into minor Welsh nobility in 1520.
After a good education, ironically completed at Cambridge, William became a Member of Parliament and quickly developed a reputation as a fine administrator. William ultimately rose to be one of the major political figures of Elizabeth’s reign. He held all the major political posts in Old Blighty and was for all intents and purposes, the most powerful non-royal in England and Wales.

William was the consummate intelligence director. He had an ability to hold and interpret a seemingly vast amount of information, worked torturously long hours, was tactful and based all operational decisions on verifiable intelligence.
In addition to this, it is said that he was also a very patient man who knew that Elizabeth would always want to have the last word in any argument. William had known the Queen since she was a Princess. In 1550 he was appointed as her Surveyor of Estates and upon Elizabeth’s coronation in 1558, William Cecil was appointed her Secretary.

During William’s time in Her Majesty’s public (and secret) service he amassed a massive intelligence network based on what could be described as a clear and present danger from European Catholic states, insurgent English Catholics loyal to the Pope and the known unknowns of the Puritan movement.

William Cecil gathered, collated and issued orders based on a vast amount of intelligence from merchants, diplomats and courtiers working in continental Europe; insiders in England’s Catholic and Puritan communities; the military; the aristocracy; prisons and elements of the priesthood divided between their loyalty to Rome and England. William’s vast scope of influence touched on just about all aspects of policy that occurred during Elizabeth’s reign. A conservative by nature, he strongly believed that anyone in public office was there for Queen and Country and expected everyone else to think likewise.
William was however very tolerant as far as religion was concerned. If Catholics and Puritans were loyal to the Queen, he believed that they should be allowed to practice their faith and worship – if they did it quietly and discreetly. In one sense William Cecil was a Puritan – he recognised that the clergy at the lower end of Church hierarchy had to be improved if they were to serve the function that was intended.

Cecil wanted men to join the Church who were highly educated and who could give a lead to people. This is an idea with which the Puritans would have agreed. However, he was also aware that the Puritans represented a potential threat to the Queen and he would have had no qualms in supporting with lethal force any actionable intelligence found against them.
Whilst William was tolerant of Catholicism, if English Catholics were loyal to the Queen, any Catholic who betrayed the Queen had to expect the most severe of consequences. It was for this reason that William Cecil was one of the key figures in the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, Elizabeth’s half-sister and a devout Catholic. Cecil believed that her very presence in England was a threat to Elizabeth, Mary could potentially be a figure that disloyal Catholics could rally around.

History tells us that it did not end well for The Queen of Scots and it was William Cecil that played the key role in her demise. Mary’s death put great strain on the relationship between the Queen and her most loyal servant and, it ultimately resulted in William’s banishment from her court.

In modern parlance, William Cecil had been burned.

William’s remarkable career at the very top of Elizabethan politics had spanned close to four decades. A remarkable political career that saw him as Principal Secretary to the Queen, Lord Treasurer and Chief Minister. His forced retirement from the service created what could be described as a power vacuum. Who in the realm could inherit, let alone manage such high office and such a vast intelligence network?

Robert Cecil was to have a life in political service just as successful as his father’s.
Robert was quite short. A modest 5’ 4” tall, had scoliosis, and was hunchbacked and living in an age that attached much importance to physical beauty in both sexes. Robert endured terrible bullying and ridicule as a result.

Elizabeth, who was none too impressed with the Cecil name since father William’s banishment from court, referred to young Cecil as ‘my pygmy’, her successor, James I of England nicknamed him ‘my little beagle’. Nonetheless, Robert’s father William, none-too worried about a man’s looks, recognised that it was Robert, rather than his half-brother Thomas, who had inherited his shrewd political genius and cunning.

Early in Robert’s career with the service, he came into dispute and conflict with Robert Devereaux, an English nobleman known more readily by his title, The Second Earl of Essex.

From what we understand of these two Roberts, their clash was not only political, but deeply personal.

34 years her junior, Essex had curried favour with the Queen through flattery and flirtation. Elizabeth indulged the cad and put him in charge of several important military operations and postings. For all of Essex’s rugged good looks, his physical attributes and mellifluous charm, he was a vain, arrogant, ambitious and temperamental man with an ego that would be described today as, out of control.

In 1599 Essex was sent to Ireland as Governor General with an army of 17,000 men and explicit orders from his Queen to crush the Earl of Tyrone’s rebellion and bring Ireland back under control.
Instead of following orders, Essex had a secret meeting with Tyrone and made a truce in Elizabeth’s name. In a decision that could at worst be described as idiotic, at best imprudent, Essex abandoned his post and returned to London to explain his decision to the Queen.

Elizabeth was furious and immediately put Essex under house arrest while an inquiry into his behaviour was held. Found guilty of the serious crimes of disobedience and dereliction of duty, Essex was stripped of most of his positions, and banished from court as punishment.

In August 1600, following his release from this astonishingly lenient sentence, Essex was determined to regain his position at court as a favourite and councillor. He wrote Elizabeth many pleading and outraged letters to no avail. The last straw came in September 1600 when the Queen refused to renew the lease and patent on Essex’s extensive pastoral holdings. A livid Essex made the foolhardy decision to make a bid for power.

He and his supporters, mostly disaffected nobles and soldiers, planned to capture the Queen, rid the Council of the “caterpillars of the Commonwealth” (Robert Cecil being one of these said ‘caterpillars’) and proclaim James VI of Scotland her successor. In February 1601 Essex and his supporters marched on the City where they anticipated the support of droves of delighted Londoners. The anticipated support did not materialise, and the rebellion collapsed within a day.
Wherever Essex went he was thwarted by Robert Cecil and his operatives.

Before the month’s end, The Second Earl of Essex and many of his co-conspirators were executed for the crime of high treason. A now aged Elizabeth was deeply shocked and devastated by the betrayal of a courtier that, was once one of her favourites. With Essex now gone, Robert Cecil now faced a far greater problem than a pretty-boy aristocrat gone rogue.
The question of succession had been an issue for Elizabeth’s government from the moment she’d ascended the throne. Her frailty and advanced age heightened these concerns. In what is a poignant insight into the nature of this woman, Elizabeth forbid any discussion on the matter of succession.

Having not produced an heir, many at court felt that Elizabeth’s cousin and godson, James VI of Scotland, the Protestant son of Queen Mary I, had the best claim to the throne. Robert shared this belief and took it upon himself to arrange for a smooth succession. He began secret correspondence with the Scottish court in March 1601. Elizabeth was at Richmond Palace when her health began to seriously fail in February 1603. As her condition deteriorated, Robert sent James a draft proclamation, which he approved.

The last of the Tudors, Queen Elizabeth I dies on March 24, 1603 and James VI of Scotland ascends to the English throne as its first Stuart monarch, James I of England. With any transition in leadership, intelligence communities are faced with unique challenges. Robert Cecil’s England was no exception; James was a vastly different monarch than Elizabeth. Robert Cecil would also face one of the greatest challenges of his career in the service – the events surrounding November 5, 1605. An event that became known as the Gunpowder Plot.

Robert Cecil plays a fascinating part in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. He was now a trusted servant of James I and, like his father William had become one of the most powerful non-royals in England, Wales and Scotland. The intelligence network he had inherited from his father had grown under Robert’s direction to a bureaucracy that more closely resembles today’s SIS (MI6).

To this day, there are historians who believe that sufficient evidence exists to show that Robert Cecil orchestrated the whole plot unbeknownst to the plotters to convince James that Catholics were not to be trusted under any circumstances and that they should, once and for all, be expelled from England. The idea is that Robert Cecil was the skilled puppet master and Guy Fawkes and company were the puppets in his total control. If there is any truth to this idea it is very difficult to substantiate given that any writings we have from Cecil are deliberately vague and nothing can really be pinned on him. Plausible deniability perhaps?

What can accurately be reported is that Robert Cecil was the principal discoverer of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605: at what point he first learned of it, and to what extent he may have acted as an agent provocateur, will continue to fascinate historians, conspiracy theorists and intelligence analysts with an eye for history.

William and Robert Cecil certainly did not solve all the problems troubling the reigns of Elizabeth and James, but as politicians, they were skilful and effective manipulators. In the context of intelligence, as controllers and handlers, these men had formidable skills, dextrous minds and other abilities that ensured a steady rise to the top. With reference to Robert, much of his work in the years immediately prior to his death is still veiled in mystery, not least his association with the Gunpowder Plot.

The collection, collation and analysis of human intelligence, or HUMINT, as it has been referred to since the late 20th century, is the result of vast and intricate networks that are cultivated, created, managed and maintained across all levels of society at home or abroad for the protection of the realm – just as it was in the day of The Cecil’s. What must be said of William and Robert Cecil is that despite the careful thought and meticulous planning behind every operation in the name of their majesties, there was an unquestionable and insatiable desire for personal success and great wealth. Despite their stumbling and occasional falls from grace and favour, personal success and great wealth were things that this father and son achieved admirably, often at the great expense of many others.

One would hope that today’s equivalents of The Cecils, that is the directors and chiefs-of-staff of modern intelligence agencies, are not driven by such motives and unquestioning loyalty to, sometimes erratic, heads of state.


By: R. J. Hawksworth