Lewis Lapham: Spymaster Snared Queen Mary With Beer Keg

Francis Walsingham served Queen Elizabeth I as ambassador, secretary, security chief and spymaster. Among the biggest threats to the sovereign’s safety were the recurrent Catholic plots to replace her with Mary, Queen of Scots.

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Walsingham routinely employed agents, torturers, cryptographers, forgers and men capable of breaking and repairing seals.

To set up Mary, Walsingham placed her under stricter custody and had all her mail opened and read. He also arranged for one seemingly secret conduit, a beer keg, which was also monitored by his agents.

In 1586, Mary replied encouragingly to Anthony Babington -- via the keg -- about his plans to free her and kill Elizabeth. Despite a spirited defense at her trial, she was convicted of treason and executed in February 1587.

I spoke with John Cooper, author of “The Queen’s Agent: Sir Francis Walsingham and the Rise of Espionage in Elizabethan England,” on the following topics:

1. Power Player

2. Private Spy Ring

3. Plots Against Elizabeth

4. Setting up Mary

5. Mary’s Execution

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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

Muse highlights include Zinta Lundborg’s NYC Weekend Best and Lance Esplund on art.

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