Francis Walsingham is best known as Elizabeth I’s secretary and spymaster. As Elizabeth’s trusted ally and a master of political and military intelligence, Walsingham was also a staunch supporter of the Protestant cause. He was one of the instigators of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (the rival Catholic claimant to Elizabeth’s throne), and directed English espionage on their Spanish enemies. You can well imagine my surprise then to find a 17th Century Jesuit tract authored by a Francis Walsingham, outlining the causes of his conversion from Anglicanism to Catholicism. What had caused a man so committed to Protestantism to suddenly renounce his faith?
The answer is that there are in fact two different Francis Walsinghams, distantly related to one another and born 35 years apart. The younger Walsingham could not be more different in his religious outlook than his elder relative. Yet the younger Walsingham was still an apostate – he had been a Deacon in the Church of England, before traveling to Rome and entering a seminary to train as a Catholic Priest. In 1609 he published his A Search Made into Matters of Religion – the copy held at Worcester Cathedral Library is a second edition of 1615. It was deemed so effective as Jesuit propaganda that it was used until well into the 18th Century as the standard recruitment textbook to be shown to Protestants inclining towards Catholicism.
Naturally, such a work would not be without controversy. In 17th Century England, the lot of Roman Catholics did tend to fluctuate with the time, but it can’t be said to have ever been a happy one. There were notable outbreaks of persecution following the Gunpowder plot of 1605 and Titus Oates fabricated ‘Popish Plot’ of 1678-81, with attacks on Catholic individuals, property and books. While I have been unable to find any evidence that Walsingham’s book was ever officially proscribed, many similar works did suffer that fate at one point or another. What we can state for certain is that the circulation and ownership of this book would have been limited and largely taboo.
By "taboo" the author means that possessing this book would have been considered evidence that the owner was a Catholic, perhaps himself a convert, perhaps hoping to convert another, perhaps assisting priests, knowing where a priest would be saying Mass, perhaps attending Mass--and therefore violating several English laws. Someone found with Father Walsingham's book, or any other Catholic book, would be arrested, detained, questioned, and depending on the dedication of the pursuivant, tortured for information (in spite of the fact that was illegal). The term "apostate" earlier in the post is also rather startling--after all, England had been thoroughly Catholic before Henry VIII's breakaway.
From the Dictionary of National Biography:
WALSINGHAM, FRANCIS (1577–1647), jesuit, who assumed the name John Fennell, the son of Edward Walsingham of Exhall, near Alcester, Warwickshire, was born at Hawick, Northumberland, early in 1577. His father died before his birth, and his mother, who was a Roman catholic, brought him to London. His uncle, Humphrey Walsingham, who was kindred of Sir Francis, placed him at St. Paul's school. As the result of his instruction there he read the protestant divines Foxe, Jewell, Calvin, and Beza, and in 1603 was ordained deacon by Martin Heton, bishop of Ely. Doubts were raised as to the validity of his orders and of his belief by reading the ‘Manual’ of Robert Parsons (1546–1610) [q. v.], and in October 1606 Walsingham entered the English College at Rome. He was ordained priest on 12 April 1608, and early next year, having entered the Society of Jesus, he visited England, and there published his ‘Search made into Matters of Religion, by F. W., before his change to the Catholike’ (s. l. 1609, 4to; 2nd edit. St. Omer, 1615). The work was dedicated to James I, to whom the author states he had formerly submitted his religious difficulties. Down to the time of Alban Butler it has been frequently commended to those showing an inclination to Roman catholicism, and has been often reprinted and abridged. In the controversial parts, and especially in the attack upon the ‘falsities’ of Matthew Sutcliffe [q. v.], it is probable that the author was aided by Father Parsons. In 1618 Walsingham published his ‘Reasons for embracing the Catholic Faith’ (London, 16mo). Two years previously he had been formally attached to the ‘English mission,’ and served in Leicestershire. In 1633 he removed to the college of the Immaculate Conception, Derbyshire, and there he died on 1 July 1647. He left in manuscript at the convent at Newhall, Essex, a little prayer manual, ‘The Evangelique Pearle,’ dedicated to the abbess of the English nunnery at Pontoise.