Poets and spies: intelligence work in the sixteenth century

The Elizabethans loved news — the stranger, the better. London presses cranked out pamphlets carried by chapmen to every village, to be read out loud beside the hearth in the local public house. Everyone loved reports of marvelous fish washed up in Cornwall or the bizarre tribes encountered in the New World. The latest depredations of the Spanish Inquisition were guaranteed to gather a crowd.

But those whose interests, whether commercial or political, extended beyond the village green needed real news, solid information on which to base their plans. Should I send my corn to Spain or have they closed the ports to foreign ships? Is Philip truly assembling an armada to land troops on England’s shores? How can I transfer money from Antwerp to Poland? Will the French side with England or Spain this time?

Intelligence wanted


Christopher Marlowe

The men hired to seek answers to such questions were called intelligencers. The OED gives us two definitions: “A person who is employed to obtain confidential information; an informer, a spy, a secret agent,” and “A bringer of news or information; a messenger; an informant.”

Writers of popular fiction tend to emphasize the former meaning, imagining under-cover agents infiltrating Catholic seminaries and penetrating underground networks. There were such persons, undoubtedly. Every government made efforts to insert spies into the households of ambassadors or prominent merchants like Sir Horatio Palavicino. One gets the impression that the spies were known to both sides and used by both sides to distort information, as well as disseminate it.

This sort of spy would typically be a servant or a clerk, engaged for the long term. Men of importance had several secretaries. Every letter had to be drafted, redrafted, fair-copied, and re-copied for record-keeping; sometimes encrypted and decrypted as well. A lot of paperwork!

Intelligence, yes; but why poets?

The second sort — messengers who kept their eyes and ears open — must have been employed by the dozen. Travel was hazardous in every way, with outlaws, bad weather, war, and disease; not to mention seduction, distraction, and defection. What were the odds your messenger would reach his goal? How would you know? The careful merchant or privy councilor would send important messages by several different routes, thus requiring several messengers. Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, kept a stable with 60 horses for the use of his vast network of intelligencers.

These messengers had to be strong, healthy, and free to travel. They had to be literate and it helped if they were fluent in Latin, the lingua franca of Europe. Since everyone assumed there were spies at each end, messages were usually encrypted and terse, so the messenger delivered the crucial bits verbally. Intelligencers thus had to be able to memorize information. They also had to have comely looks and gentle manners, to be admitted into the presence of the great.

Where might you find a ready supply of educated, courteous young men in need of money? At a university, of course. Most biographers believe Christopher Marlowe was recruited as an intelligencer while at Cambridge. We know he was away from the university for months on end, year after year. If that really is Kit in the portrait, he somehow found the money to buy that brave doublet with the brass buttons and the cobweb collar; far too costly for a scholarship boy. We also know his college (Corpus Christi) tried to deny him his Master of Arts degree on the grounds of excessive absences and suspicion of Catholic sympathies, but someone on the Privy Council intervened to be sure he got the title he had earned.

Some modern biographers and novelists think Marlowe was the first sort of intelligencer, sent to Rheims to infiltrate the Catholic school or some such dangerous deception. I think he was the other kind, employed by one or more members of the Privy Council to carry letters to and from the Continent. Those who have studied his plays in microscopic detail believe he may have visited Paris himself. I love thinking of him entering a strange city with his quick eyes and agile wits, ready for adventure, soaking it all up and transforming into timeless verse.

If you want to read more about Marlowe and spies, you can’t do better than Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning, which won the Crime Writer’s Association Non-fiction Golden Dagger Award in 1992. Or you could try my fictional take, limited to Kit’s last year in Cambridge, in Death by Disputation.

Where to Buy

  • Buy on AppleBooks
  • Buy on Amazon
  • Buy on Barnes & Noble
  • Buy from Google Play
  • Buy from Kobo
  • Buy from Audible

My books are also available at at Amazon in the UK, Australia, Canada, and Germany as well as IndieBound, Powell’s, Scribd, Indigo Chapters, Books-a-Million, and Chirp.