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Post Walsingham and the Witch: Anglo-Scottish Relations During QE 1's Reign
Created by John Eipper on 08/05/19 4:31 AM

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Walsingham and the Witch: Anglo-Scottish Relations During QE 1's Reign (Timothy Ashby, Spain, 08/05/19 4:31 am)

Reading and watching media reports of the new Prime Minister Boris Johnson's bumbling visit north of the border last week reminded me of another English "diplomatic" mission to Scotland that similarly set back Anglo-Scottish relations and inflamed Scottish nationalism.

436 years ago next month, Queen Elizabeth I sent Sir Francis Walsingham, her Principal Secretary of State (equivalent to modern-day Foreign and Home Affairs ministries, plus head of both the Secret Intelligence Service and the domestic Security Service combined) to Scotland with a delegation of 80 courtiers, guards, servants and intelligence agents such as William Ashby, one of Walsingham's key "agents of influence," who was appointed English ambassador to Scotland less than five years later in the Armada year of 1588. PM Johnson's entourage was about the same size, although the majority were reporters and public relations consultants.

Good Queen Bess was angry with Scotland´s 17-year-old King James VI, because he was loosening English dominance and surrounding himself with noblemen advocating a more independent domestic and foreign policy, including closer relations with the France, Spain and the Vatican. The Queen wrote to James that he must "... depend on her only in all his causes, and to do nothing in his government to make any alteration without her advice," adding that "the king's proceedings were contrary to her expectation ... she mislikes his late actions."  To keep the teenage King obedient to her dictates, Queen Elizabeth offered him a bribe--"a certain yearly pension ... yet if it shall not suffice his need, she can enlarge it, on condition that she may have assurance of the establishing of the amity as it was proposed."

The Queen made no mention of King James´s mother, Mary Queen of Scots, who had been an English prisoner for fifteen years, and was to be beheaded four years later on Walsingham's urging.

When threats and bribes failed to work, the Queen ordered Walsingham to go to Scotland to bring King James back into the English fold. Walsingham knew that Anglo-Scottish relations were so bad that the diplomatic mission would be a failure, for which he would be blamed. Pleading sickness, he delayed his departure, hoping the Queen would change her mind. Summoned to Richmond Palace, he threw himself at Elizabeth´s feet and swore by "the soul, body and blood of God" that he would not travel to Scotland, even if she ordered him to be hanged for it. The Queen reportedly took off her slipper and threw it at her Secretary of State in a fit of petulance.

Fearing the loss of his own head, Walsingham reluctantly obeyed the monarch, although he wrote to a colleague that his mission would "be with as ill a will as ever he undertook any service in his life," because the Scots´ resentment had "grown into so bad terms that he fears he will be able to do little good there, and therefore would most willingly avoid the journey if by any means he might do it without her majesty's extreme displeasure."

Queen Elizabeth´s secret instructions to Walsingham were explicit.  If King James would "alter the wrong course lately begun," her government was prepared to "augment" his "pension," and to "offer, and to give, some reasonable sums by way of reward" to key Scottish nobles who were pro-English and Protestant. However, if the "young Prince" could not be brought to heel, Walsingham had authority to tell him that the English sovereign had "no cause of further dealing with him," and to make it clear that if the "adverse faction" (i.e. Scots nationalists) were not "overruled" to her satisfaction, it could be at his "own peril and to the ruin of his State." Should Walsingham fail to convince King James to restore "amity" with England, the Secretary was to make it clear that the Queen would lose no time in pursuing a "last remedy," and "that she will not neglect any means, how changeable soever it be, to further it."

Shortly before Walsingham's delegation arrived in Scotland, Queen Elizabeth wrote a scathing letter to James, saying "It moves me much to 'moane' you when I behold how diversely sundry wicked spirits distract your mind and bend your course to crooked paths, and, like all evil illusions wrapped under the cloak of your best safety, endanger your estate and best good."

As Walsingham expected, his mission was a disaster. When he met the "ungrateful and conceited" King James at Perth he accused him to his face of rejecting Elizabeth´s "so good and sound advice" and threatened that "Her majesty means to live in good peace with her neighbours, yet hath she not her sword glued in the scabbard, if any wrong or dishonour be offered unto her," adding that "England could live well enough without Scotland."

The King did not respond well to English threats or bribery. Scottish raids across the border increased and Caledonian pirates captured English merchant ships. The English ambassador was recalled and the Queen was advised to send an army to the border.

Too poor and weak militarily to seriously resist England, the Scots nonetheless had their revenge. On the young King's order, a witch named Kate was hired to sit at the palace entrance in Perth to taunt, revile and otherwise curse Walsingham and his entourage as they passed. Kate was paid the then princely sum of £6.00 and--at her insistence--"a new plaid" for her service to the Scottish government.

JE comments:  A fascinating historical vignette, masterfully told by Tim Ashby.  I presume William Ashby is an ancestor?  Is there a major event of Anglo-American history that doesn't feature an Ashby?

"We mislike your late actions."  I'm going to remember that phrase, and perhaps try it out with inattentive students.

Yesterday we wrapped up Bird Week on WAIS.  Shall we make this one BoJo week?  I'm rather surprised by the silence from our UK colleagues about the new PM.


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  • William Ashby: A Biography in the Works (Timothy Ashby, Spain 08/06/19 8:26 AM)
    I'm in the midst of writing a biography of William Ashby, who led a fascinating life in the service of HM Queen Elizabeth I. He was a relative, not an ancestor, as he was the nephew of my 11th great-grandmother, Barbara Ashby, whose claim to fame (at least during the Tudor era) was that she lived 105 years, dying in 1598.

    I am very fortunate to have a large amount of original source material for my research.


    A close friend (and former very senior UK diplomat) described William Ashby as follows:


    "It is clear your forbear was indeed a highly significant figure given his closeness to FW [Sir Francis Walsingham], the first de facto head of the nascent British intelligence service(s) that in time morphed into both MI5 and MI6. In modern intelligence circles QE1 is always regarded as the first monarch to have created an intelligence service, or more exactly to have one created for her by the great man FW.



    "As regards WA's 20 years prior to becoming Ambassador to Scotland, when he was scooping up intelligence across Europe, his role is best described as that of a senior Agent of Influence.This reflects both WA's secret role under diplomatic cover and the quality of intelligence he collected from his sources/assets; and of equal importance the Information from the household of the Queen of England which he will have imparted to key continental contacts in line with his instructions from FW on behalf of QE1.



    "Subsequently once WA [William Ashby] was posted as Ambassador to Scotland his role was primarily to represent Good Queen Bess in difficult circumstances arising from her vexed relationship with Mary Queen of Scots and from his Scottish sources report on/prevent the Spanish trying to infiltrate the British Isles. But secondly we can be pretty sure also that FW asked WA to continue to use the tradecraft skills honed across the Continent for 20 years essentially to pad out his diplomatic fact-finding with secret reporting. So in a very real sense one could say that WA executed the roles of both Ambassador and Head of Station.



    "Just to be clear, in using job descriptions like Agent of Influence and Head of Station one is of course being anachronistic, as we are imputing roles and titles from a much later era to activities carried out 400+ years ago. But I think in trying to describe as accurately as possible WA's professional life and accomplishments it is actually helpful to use the modern terminology to give the reader the clearest possible vision of what he achieved."


    Hopefully, my book will be timely (and relevant to current events) as a recent poll of Conservative Party members revealed that 63 percent said that they would rather have Brexit take place even if it meant Scotland seceding from the United Kingdom (59 percent said the same about Northern Ireland). There's a growing possibility both of a "No Deal" Brexit and of Scottish independence. A poll out today showed that 46% of Scots said they would vote Yes to independence, and 43% No. Excluding those who say they don't know or wouldn't vote, this amounts to a lead of 52% to 48% for an independent Scotland.


    To quote Good Queen Bess from 1583: "England could live well enough without Scotland." This would probably be the other way around, as the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland voted by a large majority to remain in the EU--62 percent north of the Border, and 55.8 percent in Northern Ireland.


    My thoughts on PM Bojo will follow this week.


    JE comments:  This 1583 quote may finally be put to the test.  Who would ever have imagined no more "U" in the UK?


    Tim, how are you planning to structure the Ashby bio?  In a straight chronological fashion, or with an in medias res "hook"?  Either way, I know you'll knock this one out of the park.  (Are baseball metaphors acceptable for Elizabethan England?)

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    • William Ashby: How to Structure a Biography (Timothy Ashby, Spain 08/09/19 6:37 AM)
      John Eipper asked me on August 6th: "How are you planning to structure your William Ashby bio? In a straight chronological fashion, or with an in medias res 'hook'?"

      I'm very much using an in medias res approach. The book opens in the wee hours of July 29th, 1588, when William Ashby, only two weeks into his job as Queen Elizabeth's ambassador to Scotland, is reading for the third time a letter from Sir Francis Walsingham, "touching the appearing of the Spanish fleet upon the coast of the west country." Ashby is in his drafty, rodent-infested lodgings in a dank close near St. Giles Cathedral, for which he must pay the exorbitant rent of 20 shillings per day.


      He knows from his intelligence contacts that the impecunious King James VI (who was so broke that his last two cooks had quit and the royal kitchen closed) was seriously considering large bribes from the Spanish and French for an alliance that would allow the Armada to use Scotland as a base from which to invade England--"the King was greatly solicited and pressed to hearken to the large offers made to him by Spain and France." The Ambassador is sleepless and exhausted, consumed by a moral and professional dilemma that could not only end his career but result in literally losing his head. He has been charged by Walsingham and the Queen to promise anything to keep King James "in amity" with the English, or at least neutral. But he knows that he must personally take the blame for any failure, as Good Queen Bess expects what today would be called "plausible deniability."


      JE comments:  You've already hooked us in, Tim!  (Timothy Ashby has also sent a post on a decidedly more current subject, Boris Johnson's first fortnight as Prime Minister.  WAIS usually doesn't publish twice from the same colleague on a single day, but what rule isn't meant to be bent...?) 

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