Queen Elizabeth I & Francis Walsingham
By Michael Howard
It is not really surprising that historically occultism and espionage have often been strange bedfellows. The black art of espionage is about obtaining secret information and witches, psychics and astrologers have always claimed to be able to predict the future and know about things hidden from ordinary people.
Gathering intelligence is carried out under a cloak of secrecy and occultists are adept at keeping their activities concealed from sight. Like secret agents they also use codes, symbols and cryptograms to hide information from outsiders. Occultists and intelligence officers are similar in many ways, as both inhabit a shadowy underworld of secrets, deception and disinformation. It is therefore not unusual that often these two professions have shared the same members.
The ‘father of the British Secret Service’ was the Elizabethan lawyer, politician, diplomat and spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. He was a Protestant and as a young man during the bloody reign of the Catholic Queen Mary was forced to flee abroad to escape persecution. While in exile, Walsingham learnt Italian and French and became acquainted with the work of the famous Venetian Secret Service that used its spying skills for trade and commerce under the cloak of diplomacy.
When Queen Elizabeth I was crowned Francis Walsingham returned to England. He was appointed as a secretary to the English ambassador to the French court in Paris and also worked as a secret agent reporting back the intelligence he gleaned to Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, Sir William Cecil, later Lord Burghley. Between 1568 and 1570 Walsingham, who had become a Member of Parliament, worked in England in domestic counter-espionage exposing Catholic plots against the monarchy.
In 1570 Walsingham was appointed as the new ambassador to France. He proceeded to set up his own network of undercover agents in France, Italy, Spain and the Low Countries. The late Cecil Williamson, who worked for British Intelligence during World War II and later ran a witchcraft museum, told this writer that Walsingham often used witches as spies.
The Mysterious Dr Dee
One of the famous occultists he is known to have recruited was Queen Elizabeth’s court astrologer and the magical architect of the British Empire, the Welsh magician Dr John Dee. Walsingham was involved in the machinations for the proposed marriage of the Duc d’Anjou and Elizabeth. At the spy master’s personal recommendation, the queen dispatched Dee to France with orders to report back on the progress of the marriage negotiations. The magus travelled to the Duchy of Lorraine and drew up the birth charts of both the Duc and his brother, who was also regarded as a possible husband for the English monarch. Dr Dee, probably influenced by Walsingham, diplomatically reported back to London that the stars suggested a political alliance would be far wiser than matrimony and the queen took his advice.
In 1573 Sir Francis returned to London and became a privy councillor. This placed him at the heart of government and he proceeded to set up what amounted to the first organised foreign espionage service to operate from England. In 1566 he had put in place a pan-European network of spies extending as far to the east as Turkey and Russia, where Dr Dee reported on the goings-on at the Tsar’s court. This network mostly gathered intelligence on the military activities of the Spanish, who were England’s primary enemies at this time. Walsingham was also responsible for foiling the Catholic plot whose exposure led to the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots. Using Dr Dee’s psychic powers, he was apparently able to discover that the plotters were passing secret messages to the imprisoned Scottish queen hidden in bottles of wine.
While travelling in Europe in 1562, Dr Dee had come across a book written by Abbot Trimethus of Spanhiem (1462-1516). This was a guide to writing ciphers and secret codes for magical purposes and Dee informed Sir William Cecil about his discovery. On his return to England Dr Dee adapted the abbot’s cryptography and gave it to Sir Francis Walsingham for use by his secret agents. He also passed on the political and military intelligence he had acquired during his travels across Europe. It has been alleged that Dee used the famous Enochian magical alphabet as a code to disguise this information. If he had been arrested his captors would not have understood it and dismissed it as nonsense.
In 1587 Dee even claimed he had received a spirit message from one of his angelic contacts concerning a threat to the English Fleet. The message said that a group of disguised Frenchmen working for the Spaniards was secretly visiting the Forest of Dean. The forest was the centre for English ship-building and the French agents planned to bribe disloyal foresters to burn it down. Dr Dee sent his supernatural intelligence to Walsingham and the saboteurs, who were masquerading as squatters, were arrested.
Information supplied to Sir Francis Walsingham from his European spy network convinced him that a Spanish armada would be launched against England in 1588. He asked Dee to use his knowledge of astrology to calculate the weather prospects for an invasion. The magus told him there would an impending disaster in Europe caused by a devastating storm. When news of this prophecy was leaked and reached Spain, naval recruitment fell and there were desertions of sailors from the Spanish Fleet. In Lisbon an astrologer who repeated the prediction was charged with spreading false information. In an act of psychological warfare, Dr Dee also informed Emperor Rudolf of Bohemia (the modern Czech Republic) and King Stephen of Poland that the predicted storm would “cause the fall of a mighty empire.” Rudolf, who was an occultist and Dee’s patron when he stayed in Bohemia, passed on the warning to the Spanish ambassador.
It is a fact that in 1588 a great storm did scatter the ships of the Spanish Armada in the English Channel and aided the English victory. This metrological event was popularly credited to a magical ritual performed by the buccaneer Sir Francis Drake on the cliffs at Plymouth. Superstitious people believed Drake was a wizard and sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for success over the Spanish. It is claimed that he also organised several covens of witches to work magically to raise the storm and prevent the invasion. Meanwhile, as a result of scrying in his shewstone or crystal, Dr Dee saw a symbolic vision of a castle with its drawbridge drawn up (England) and the image of the elemental king of fire. As a result he urged the Navy to employ fire-ships against the Armada and they did so with good results.
After Sir Francis Walsingham’s death in 1590, and the ascension to the English throne of the Scottish king James, Dr John Dee fell into royal disfavour. The new king had an unhealthy obsession with witchcraft and his early reign was dominated by this preoccupation. It led him to employ the Secret Service in his own personal vendetta against suspected witches. James I ordered its agents to hunt down alleged practitioners of witchcraft and expose their alleged plots against the monarchy. One of those involved was the Earl of Bothwell, accused of high treason for organising a coven of Scottish witches to work magic against the king in an attempt to seize the throne. To assist his secret agents in their new witch-hunting activities, King James persuaded Parliament in 1604 to pass a new and stronger Witchcraft Act to deal with the problem. The Bill was rushed through and it was made law within three months.