Wes Weems
Individual Project
Sir Francis Walsingham As Defined By the Bartholomew’s Day Massacre
	The memory of truly significant figures in world history live on far after their death. They 
live on as if ghosts haunting the stories and myth that they inevitably leave behind, but the 
historical  “specter,” which these stories and myths twist in mold to fit their narrative, 
leaves it difficult to ascertain what the true identities of these figures were. Even for the 
most well documented figures of the Elizabethan era (including Elizabeth herself) the 
question of who they truly were will, in many ways, remain unanswered, forever masked 
by the politics of their time and the myths and second hand information that followed. 
Whomever we imagine these people to be; the truth is most likely far more complex. This 
is especially true of a person such as Sir Francis Walsingham; who was forced to use his 
natural talents in his professional and personal life even when they contradicted one 
another. It comes at no surprise that, as far as history is concerned, Sir Francis 
Walsingham’s political persona heavily overshadows his personal persona, but his 
complexity must be understood in order to fully appreciate the significance of his 
	Much of what would help make Walsingham who he was would occur while serving as 
Ambassador to the Court of Charles IX of France in 1572. Two major events occurred in 
the summer of 1572. The first was the attempted assassination of the Admiral of France, 
Gaspard de Coligny. Strangely enough, the conspirators responsible for the attempted 
assassination of the Admiral, though the act was initially denounced publicly, were the very 
rulers that he served, Charles IX and the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medicis. The Admiral 
fell out of favor with the royal family due primarily to the fact that he was a Protestant. His 
attempted assassination came at a time when Paris was already stewing in tension 
between Protestants and Catholics, as the marriage of the Protestant Prince of Navarre to 
the King’s Catholic sister was taking place at the same time. The marriage festivities 
brought the arrival of wealthy Protestant Huguenots to the primarily impoverished, 
primarily Catholic, Paris and the attempted assassination of a noted Protestant, French, 
political figure raised the tension between Catholics and Protestants to a fervor. The event 
which would lead to the situation’s boiling pint however was yet to come.
	The foiled assassination attempt left the Court of Charles IX in a precarious situation. With 
the failed attempt on Coligny’s life coming at a time of such raised tension between the 
Paris’ Catholic majority and Protestant minority, Charles IX and the Queen Mother felt they 
had no choice but to commit openly to the attack on French Protestantism which they had 
started. Coligny, at home recovering from his attack, was murdered by men under the 
leadership of the Duke of Guise as well as members of the French military. Coligny’s body 
was thrown from a window to make sure the job was done correctly this time. What came 
next was the “systematic massacre” of the Protestant population of Paris. (Budiansky, 12)  
The city doors were locked and secured and for three days the killings went on within the 
city walls. Walsingham, being both a Protestant and a foreign ambassador, remained 
under the guard of the French military in his residence in Paris to ensure that the slaughter 
of Protestants did not spill over to include foreign dignitaries and create for France even 
more of an international incident.  This event, which would go on to be called the 
Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, undoubtedly secured Walsingham’s belief that no true peace 
could be had between nations who did not agree on religion. Had he not been before, 
Walsingham would forever be wary of Catholic nations. 
	The Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was also one of the first major tests of Walsingham’s 
ability to “know everything, but show nothing.” An attribute that he no doubt acquired, in 
part, from his mentor Sir William Cecil. After having witnessed innocent people murdered 
in the streets for no other reason than practicing a faith, which he shared, he remained on 
as Ambassador to France for some time and continued to work alongside the royal court 
who was responsible for the massacre. Laying even further burden upon the precarious 
position he found himself in, was the delay of the official orders from Queen Elizabeth 
which would direct him as to the official stance of  England on the massacre and the 
standing of Protestant England’s relationship with the heavily Catholic French government. 
His instruction did arrive until September, the month following the massacre. Until then 
Walsingham was left to deal with the Court of Charles IX, on his own while trying not to 
allow his personal feelings contradict whatever England’s official stance on the massacre 
would or would not be. The awkward situation Walsingham found himself in brought to 
view all of the traits which would make him such a infamous political figure in the years 
		. . . faced with a trial that would have tested the skill of any man, he ws pure steel 			and 
ice: if his job demanded that he look evil in the eye, he would do so, and conceal 		his 
feelings and his knowledge of the truth, and extract what he could in the way of 			
information and advantage, and smile if he had to while he was at it. Many of his 			good 
friends were dead; the survival of his very religion was in peril . . . the 				ambassador had 
to do his job. (Budiansky, 20) 
It should be stated however that when Walsingham was promptly called to meet with the 
Queen Mother following the Massacre, though he by no means showed his hand, he spoke 
with a bluntness and frankness to which the Queen Mother was by no means used to. As 
careful as he was not to reveal to much or to betray the forthcoming official stance of 
England, Walsingham was still a Protestant and his comments to the Queen Mother 
contained a, not to subtle, subtext which voiced his displeasure with the events that had 
	Thus the Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was one of the first major political events which 
would showcase Walsingham’s political talents. He gathered every ounce of information he 
could yet revealed what he knew only when it was advantageous for his objective. When 
he did speak his mind he did not mince words and he spoke with little thought as to the 
personal repercussion his words would bring him personaly. He also kept his wits and logic 
about him under situations of extreme duress, as the events transpiring in Paris in August 
of 1572, coupled with the delay of Queen Elizabeth’s official response on the matter, made 
very obvious. The Bartholomew’s Day Massacre also showed that a dedication to logic 
ruled over all of Walsingham’s personal traits, be they personal, religious or political. Their 
were many accounts written of the Bartholomew’s Day Massacre immediately after its 
occurrence. Most of these accounts were ruled heavily by emotion, blind speculation and 
the fervor for the Protestant cause of their authors. In comparison, Walsingham’s sixty-
four page account of the massacre (which he wrote in four days) was ruled by logic and he 
was careful not to assign blame to quickly. Most Protestants were quick to blame the 
Queen Mother completely for both the assassination of Coligny and the massacre. 
Walsingham deduced however that the massacre was most likely not planned or officially 
sanctioned by the Queen Mother, but instead a bi-product of the assassination attempt 
which she decided was easier to take credit for than to attempt to subdue.  As zealously 
Protestant as he was, the account remained an “icily logical” retelling of the events that 
had transpired. (Budiansky, 19)
	These traits: a dedication to logical, zealous Protestantism and the ability to remain calm 
and detached in circumstances in which pressure and emotion  run high, are what history 
will generally record of Sir Francis Walsingham. However, most significant historical figures 
are much more complex than what a general retelling of history reveals. Walsingham is no 
exception and if the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre saw the emergence of of the traits 
that would make him famous in the world of Elizabethan international politics; than they 
also saw the rise of the other, less documented, characteristics of Walsingham’s 
personality that make him such an interesting historical figure such as a sizable aptness 
for compassion, that’s source may have very well been his ability to detach himself from 
situations, thus giving him the ability to separate his personal and political life. 
	The first involvement Walsingham had with the Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was 
providing refuge in his home to Protestant’s fleeing the violent mobs, which had taken over 
the streets of Paris. One of the many individuals to seek safe haven in Walsingham’s home 
included the murdered Coligney’s own lieutenant, Francois de Beauvais. Who had made his 
way over rooftops to Walsingham’s residence. Unfortunately, not long after the massacre, 
Beauvais was taken by force from Walsingham’s home, by the French Military, and 
executed as a traitor. Not long before Walsingham passed away, an English Doctor, 
Timothy Bright, who had sought shelter in Walsingham’s home during the massacre in 
Paris, wrote to him of his thankfulness.
		. . . now sixteen years past, yet (as ever it will be) fresh with me in memory. . .			when’. 
. . your Honor’s house at that time was a very sanctuary, not only for all of 			our nation, 
but even to many strangers then in peril. . . who had all tasted of the rage 		of that furious 
tragedy, had not your Honor shrouded them. . . ‘by’. . . that right 			noble act. (Budiansky, 
This was one of the first public displays of Walsingham’s compassion which has been 
overshadowed in history by the cold calculation and detachment that governed his political 
life. 		Walsingham’s detachment served him two fold. His detachment can in many ways be 
viewed as a tool of personal self-preservation from his political life and identity as well as 
a tool which allowed him to make the hard and often cold political decisions he would be 
called on to make as Secretary of State.  The same detachment that served him so well in 
his political career also allowed him to maintain personal ties (and a personal identity) 
despite the ever turbulent political and social atmosphere of his day. It even allowed him 
to maintain a continuing, lifelong, correspondence and friendship with a French 
Ambassador whom Walsingham exposed as a partial conspirator in the Throckmorton Plot 
and had removed from his office as Ambassador as well as from England. The French 
Ambassador, Mauvissiere de Casteinau, continued to write Walsingham from France, 
where his reputation was in ruins thanks to the Walsingham’s exposure of the plot, and 
even in one correspondence expressed satisfaction that the King of France had finally 
decided to assassinate the Duke of Guise, the murderer of Gaspard de Coligny.
	Another distinction that must be made between the portrait that history paints of 
Walsingham is his part in the persecution of Catholics in England and abroad. Though at 
nowhere near the same level of Mary I’s persecution of Protestants during reign; the reign 
of Elizabeth I was not a complete stranger to the imprisonment and torture of Catholics 
and Catholic Priests in England. The misinterpretation of history has linked the persecution 
of Catholics to Walsingham, but it should be pointed out however that Walsingham was 
unfairly linked to the imprisonment and torture of Catholics in England by many of the 
contemporaries of his day; including Catholic countries such as France and Spain and Pro-
Catholic pamphleteers. This may be due in part to the fact that Walsingham looked the 
part of a zealous Protestant so much more so than his peers in the Court of Queen 
Elizabeth; with his simple black robes and menacing black beard. Many Catholics believed 
Walsingham was no different than Richard Topcliffe; a self proclaimed expert and 
enthusiast of torture, especially when it came to Catholic Priests. In reality Walsingham 
openly denounced the use of torture, except in extreme cases of national security, and 
went as far as to publish pamphlets stating as much. Walsingham was also firmly against 
the execution of Catholic Priests; again except in extreme cases. Staunch Protestant that 
he was (and religion and politics being as intertwined as they were in the Elizabethan era) 
Walsingham’s detachment allowed him to realize that Catholic political threats at home and 
abroad and the practice of Catholicism as a religion were not necessarily one in the same. 
Walsingham was only concerned with Catholics who were directly plotting against the 
Queen he served. He made it no secret that Catholics practicing their religion in back 
rooms and attics were of no interest to him. (Budiansky) Walsingham even had several 
friends and acquaintances that were Catholic; the ruined French Ambassador Mauvissiere 
de Casteinaue being but one.
	The Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was an event that set Sir Francis Walsingham apart 
from his peers. It brought to the forefront many of the talents which Sir William Cecil saw 
in him, when he began selecting him for political assignments. However, the massacre of 
that summer in 1572 also brought to the surface some of Walsingham’s more over looked 
characteristics. Walsingham was ruled by logic, but it was a Protestant logic and he showed 
by example that compassion was often the logical decision. This is not to say that his 
dedication to logic and detachment did not also make him capable of whatever was 
necessary to serve his Queen and country. These personal attributes, when combined and 
contrasted with his well known political persona, make Sir Francis Walsingham one of the 
most intriguing and complex character’s of the Elizabethan era.

Budiansky, Stephen. Her Majesty’s Spry Master: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham and 
The 		Birth of Modern Espionage. New York: Viking Penguin, 2005.
Hibbert, Christopher. The Virgin Queen: Elizabeth I, Genius of the Golden Age. Cambridge:  		
Persus Books, 1991.