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William Herle and the English Secret Service

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posted on 2021-11-10, 19:46 authored by Gill, Michael Patrick

This thesis examines William Herle's life through his surviving letters to William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and other Elizabethan Privy Councillors. It emphasises the centrality of the Elizabethan patronage system to Herle's life, describing how his ties to Cecil helped Herle escape prison, avoid his creditors, and gain recompense for his service to Elizabeth. In exchange for Cecil's protection, Herle became deeply involved in Elizabethan intelligence networks, both domestic and foreign, throughout the 1570s and 1580s. Herle helped uncover plots against Elizabeth, passed vital information about events in the Spanish Netherlands back to England, and provided analyses of English foreign policy for his superiors. Despite his vital role, Herle never experienced true success, and died deeply in debt and abandoned by his patrons. Herle's life allows us wider insights into Elizabethan government and society. His experiences emphasises the inefficient nature of the Tudor foreign service, which utilised untrained diplomats who gained their position through political connections and were left to pay their own way through taking out loans they had little hope of repaying. Similarly, the numerous law suits which Herle describes in his letters are absent from official records, implying that Tudor society was even more litigious than previously assumed. Herle's life-long status as a gentleman, despite being arrested as a pirate and frequently imprisoned for debt, reinforces the lack of social mobility in Elizabethan England. His focus throughout his life on the need to support the 'Protestant Cause,' and his fear of an international Catholic conspiracy was shared by Cecil, Leicester, and Walsingham, and shows how deeply religious divisions affected English foreign and domestic policy.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Master of Arts

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of History, Philosophy, Political Science and International Relations


Parry, Glyn