Top Ten Sir Francis Walsingham Moments from “Elizabeth I”

And now for something completely different!  Rather than a detailed recap – because, let’s face it, you could get the same information from Wikipedia if you really wanted to – Admin and I thought we’d provide our thoughts on Sir Francis Walsingham’s (as played by Patrick Malahide) Top Ten Moments in HBO’s 2005 miniseries production of “Elizabeth I“.  So without further ado, here are our picks:


RFodchuk’s Top Five   |     Admin’s Top Five    |       Part 1 Gallery     |       Part 2 Gallery


RFodchuk’s Top Five:

  1. (RF) Sir Francis is baffled by online dating:
Walsingham: The World's Worst Matchmaker  - Patrick Malahide as Sir Francis Walsingham

Walsingham: The World’s Worst Matchmaker

Elizabeth’s council is pushing her to consider Francis, the Duke of Anjou (not to be confused with any other Francises) as a potential suitor and Elizabeth (quite understandably, I thought) wants to know what he’s like.  Walsingham’s the only one who’s actually met the Duke in person, so she asks him for his opinion.  Big mistake.

Walsingham: “His religion, madam? His politics? His sincerity or otherwise in his support of the Dutch Protestants?”
Elizabeth: “His appearance, Master Secretary. Is he a man to my liking?”
Walsingham: “…”

RF:  I love Walsingham’s look of complete befuddlement here.  Clearly of all of Anjou’s attributes, this is the one he’s never considered.  It just goes to show that even the cleverest, most cunning spymaster in the entire kingdom can still be stymied by a simple question.  I was thinking that “He looks French,” might be a good answer, but after some thought Walsingham finally manages to say, “He was not ugly, madam… but he was not beautiful,” which is really about as lame as it gets.  C’mon Walsingham, you can do better!

Admin:  Walsingham should have said “Put it this way, he’s better looking than that Leicester guy.”  Walsingham is used to handling the Queen’s questions with great tact, and considering her temper that is wise.  But, his awkwardness at that particular question is really funny.  Although, that beard of his takes some upkeep, so you’d think he’d know a bit more about male pulchritude than he lets on.

RF:  I think you’re right that he knows something about male pulchritude…  He certainly seems to have some idea that he looks smashing in basic black.  😉

2.  (RF) Sir Francis has interesting hobbies:

Actually very tame compared to "Game of Thrones" (Dutch angles courtesy of "Batman" circa 1966).

Actually very tame compared to “Game of Thrones”
(Dutch angles courtesy of “Batman” circa 1966).

RF:  All part of being a successful spymaster and one of the reasons he’s been able to keep Elizabeth on her throne as long as he has (and historically accurate), but still a tad disturbing in today’s contexts.  However, it does give us a chance to see a very different side of Sir Francis.  He plays “good cop” by sponging the tortured man’s face, offering him water, and asking him questions in a very calm, even friendly tone of voice, yet we know that his intent, and the lengths he’ll go to to achieve his ends, are anything but benign.  It’s an interesting study in contrasts and Mr. Malahide makes it incredibly menacing and effective.

Admin:  That is a tough scene to watch;  the sound effects are particularly jarring.  Mr. Malahide’s soft voice, which is always wonderful, does seem to offer up hope.  His smooth gestures are perfect also, particularly the head droop when the prisoner initially stays silent.

3.  (RF) Sir Francis is very good at his job:

"The young man who once tried to kill you, madam. We turned him." He loves it when a plan comes together.

“The young man who once tried to kill you, madam. We turned him.”
He loves it when a plan comes together.

RF:  Remember that guy on the rack?  Sir Francis succeeds in turning him,  making him into a double agent whose purpose is to expose the conspirators who want to place Mary, Queen of Scots (or “so-called Queen of Scots”, as Walsingham consistently describes her) on Elizabeth’s throne.  We see just the tiniest smirk of satisfaction when, after producing evidence of Mary’s guilt (neatly transcribed and bearing Walsingham’s gallows mark), Walsingham presents the former would-be assassin to Elizabeth.  However, Elizabeth’s suspicious that Walsingham had no small part in engineering Mary’s guilt and says so;  Walsingham’s response is an uncharacteristic but brief emotional outburst, declaring that he’s “done what [he’s] done” for Elizabeth’s safety.  It’s a glimpse of his deep dedication and devotion to his Queen.

Admin: “We turned him.”  You can hear the fervor and fanaticism when he says that.  Sir Francis is absolutely sincere in his beliefs and devotion, and he is dangerous for it.  I probably found the gallows mark funnier than what I should have.  I couldn’t help but imagine him intently drawing it like he was some rope loving judge who already knows the defendant is toast.

RF:  Apparently the gallows mark bit is historically accurate as well – it does have a sort of black humour aspect to it.  Not only do we get a sense of Walsingham’s devotion here, we also see his disappointment when it seems, at first, that Elizabeth is rather unappreciative of his efforts and he’s forced to defend his methods.

4.  (RF)  Sir Francis gets all the worst jobs:

The joy of telling a monarch you did exactly what she asked you to - sort of.

The joy of telling a monarch you did exactly what she asked you to
– sort of.

RF:  Sir Francis has to be brave enough to do what even the Earl of Leicester (Jeremy Irons), the Queen’s Favourite, refuses to do when he informs Elizabeth of Mary’s  execution.  He knows he’s on shaky ground bringing her such unwelcome news – while she signed Mary’s death warrant, she wasn’t expecting or wanting it to be carried out, sorta kinda, not right away, except she really did but she didn’t.  She’s experiencing a lot of karmic guilt and it’s all very complex.  It’s rare to see Walsingham actually look intimidated (and Malahide conveys the change in mood between one shot and the next) but he knows he’s risking being beheaded himself.  As it turns out, he has good reason to be afraid; Elizabeth’s so enraged that she physically beats him up, smacking off his skullcap and backing him into a corner near some candles (I hope Mr. Malahide wasn’t burned!).  Of course, Walsingham has the wisdom and forbearance not to raise a hand in his own defense.  He survives the ordeal (no thanks to Leicester) to spy another day.

Admin:  I know, those candles looked pretty dangerous and he was being forced right into them.  His cat like entrance into the scene, Elizabeth is slow to notice him as she plays at her harpsichord, is also worth noting.  It acts as a metaphor  for how stealth and shadow-like he has to be as the palace spy master.  In other scenes we understand that she is partly repulsed by his sneaky and shadowy ways.  Only, unlike kitty, Walsingham isn’t going to wear a collar and bell.

Who throws a shoe? memeRF:  If only Walsingham could have stealthily crept away after delivering his bombshell!  😉  Elizabeth (Helen Mirren) beats up Leicester and Essex (Hugh Dancy) too, and it doesn’t look as if she held back in any of those scenes!  She’s truly scary in a temper.  Later she even throws a shoe at poor Walsingham during a particularly bad tantrum (she’d just discovered that Essex left for Portugal without asking her permission), and I have to give credit to Mr. Malahide for neither flinching nor ducking even though her aim was dead on!

5. (RF)  Sir Francis is part of a great trio:

The best Elizabethan trio act ever

The best Elizabethan trio act ever

RF: It was great fun watching Walsingham and Burghley (Ian McDiarmid) gang up on Leicester in Part 1 of “Elizabeth I”, but it was even better watching the triple act created in Part 2 when they were joined by Burghley’s son, Robert Cecil (Toby Jones).  Together, this unlikely looking trio forms an unbeatable power base of clandestine intelligence and political machination within Elizabeth’s government.  They also make up the He-Man Earl of Leicester Haters Club, later expanded to the Earl of Essex Haters Club after Leicester’s death.  They’re well aware of Essex’s intrigues and ambitions even though Elizabeth blinds herself to them.   The three have some wonderful interplay and snarky dialogue together; it would’ve been great to see more of the sneaky goings-on they were undoubtedly getting up to.

Admin:  I love that picture 🙂 There is a very touching moment when Robert Cecil is first introduced.  Walsingham enters the room, sees Robert, and his eyes just light right up as he dashes forward to clasp the nervous, young man’s shoulders.  Seriously, Sir Francis doesn’t just smile; he smiles with his eyes.  Tyra Banks would be so impressed!  I would have loved to have seen more of those three together.

RF:  Tyra Banks!  😀  Walsingham was indeed very kind to Robert Cecil and that gesture, brief as it was, suggested a personal connection with the Cecils outside of the council chambers.  It was a nice added touch.

RFodchuk’s Top Five Clips:


Admin Top Five:

5. (Admin) Take a bow:

This is as flamboyant as he gets.

This is as flamboyant as he gets.

Admin:  Elizabeth agrees to see the Duke of Anjou.  When the French show up they do a highly elaborate bowing spectacle.  Madame Maxine would truly approve of such delicate and refined manners.   The British?  Not so impressed.  Their bows are pretty pitiful in comparison.  Poor Walsingham especially looks like he’d rather be doing anything other than bowing to a bunch of fancy foreigners.  Yet, his wooden bow is a perfect fit for his sombre clothing and disciplined demeanor.   This disdain for any frippery reminds us, once again, of his intense Protestant beliefs.

RF:  I also liked that Walsingham was noticeably more austerely dressed than pretty much everyone else there, especially those overdressed Frenchies.  😉  The script doesn’t mention it, but the real Walsingham lived for a time in France and sheltered Protestant refugees from the Catholic regime in his own home, so he would’ve disliked the French delegation on more than one level.  Mr. Malahide portrays his disdain perfectly.

Admin:  It seems everything Walsingham did is connected to his Protestant zeal.  It is very impressive that this production, and Mr. Malahide’s performance, really held to that.

4. (Admin) He is a fighter til the end:

I have laid down my life for the Protestant cause

I have laid down my life for the Protestant cause

Walsingham’s final scene is a powerful one. He has recently confronted Essex, the father of Frances’ unborn child, about what he intends to do. The Queen then casts Essex out of her favor. In order to get back in, he stages a mock funeral possession. Says the Queen, “and as might be expected, the apology is on far grander scale than the offence.” Ouch! Walsingham winces at that barb. Sometimes you just have to hate that woman. “He looks well dead, does he not?” Walsingham distractedly replies, “None of us can escape it, madam.” Finally, she shows some concern for him. Walsingham tells her he will not live out the year. “This cannot be.” “I am afraid it can, Your Majesty.” I like the way he says that with rueful amusement, it is one of the few times he can openly say she’s wrong without fear of reprisal.

But, fighter to the end, he is far more worried about King James of Scotland and the threat he may pose to the Crown. He is always so determined and it really shows in Mr. Malahide’s acting. But, the Queen just doesn’t want to talk about such things right now. Holding his hand, and in a slightly patronizing tone, she says, “I feel we have worn you out.” “I have laid down my life for the Protestant cause, madam, and I have done it gladly.” He speaks with intense strength, and then he looks away, as though he is trying to get his emotions in check, holding onto his Bible all the while. It is a beautifully acted scene, his sheer resolve and determination are palpable.

RF: This scene was so understated and yet incredibly moving and sad. It takes Elizabeth more than a beat or two to finally understand what Walsingham is saying without saying – he’s very calm and accepting of his fate – and once she does understand, her reaction is rather… casual and disappointing. She seems to treat his news as a minor inconvenience, like he’s telling her he’s going away for a bit rather than that he’s going to die soon. And it’s very telling that Walsingham’s last words concern the health of her reign. I was sure that when he mentioned “look[ing] to what comes after” that he was going to discuss the afterlife, but he was actually more worried about the threat from James of Scotland.  He’s dedicated to his job up to the very end. I was dismayed that we’re never shown Walsingham’s death on screen; instead we hear about it third-hand from Elizabeth, when she mentions it rather offhandedly and resentfully to Robert Cecil, after the fact. It seems a rather ignominious epitaph for the man who devoted his life to keeping her on the throne.

Admin:  The way we were told about his death was a let down, although I understand why they did it that way.  It was obvious that she didn’t really like him;  it was equally obvious she relied on him.  In that regard, her nasty attitude makes sense.

3. (Admin) He’s a loving father:

Daddy dearest.

Daddy dearest.

There are a few scenes that highlight Sir Francis’ devotion to his daughter Frances (Jr?). But this one combines his chagrin at Essex’ escapades, acknowledgement of the Queen’s power and his desire to protect his daughter in a beautifully shot, exciting, and highly entertaining scene. It is the Succession Day tournament and Essex is making a total ham of himself. It seems the Queen isn’t his only admirer either, Walsingham gently reminds his daughter not to be too enthusiastic. You can see him analyzing the situation and, as usual, get things under control. When Essex is toppled from his mount, Walsingham immediately appears genuinely concerned, but the concern turns to wry amusement when he sees it was only Essex’ pride that was wounded. Once again, though, he is back to settling his very pretty daughter down, less she displease Queenie. This perfectly acted scene gives us a glimpse into his family life as a protective father, and puts Walsingham’s eagle eye in action.

RF: Poor Walsingham was doomed to be plagued by Leicester and Essex no matter which way he turned! You’re right that this is an excellent example of Walsingham’s analytical powers and political astuteness; without him saying a word, we see that he fully realizes the potential danger of Frances’ attraction to Essex even though she obviously doesn’t. Walsingham’s protectiveness here is also a good precursor to his heartfelt concern and anger on Frances’ behalf when he demands to know Essex’s intentions as the father of her unborn child. He’s probably the last man in England that Walsingham would ever want as a son-in-law.

2. (Admin) He’s hard to impress:

Even in Portugal, Essex annoys.

Even in Portugal, Essex annoys.

Admin: The boys get a brief respite from Essex who has openly defied the Queen’s wishes and zipped off to fight in Portugal. But, like a bad penny, it seems he is doomed to return back to her favor after a letter concerning his exploits arrive. “He rode right up to the gates and drove his pike into the wood…and challenged anyone who doubted your wisdom and beauty to a duel.” Mr. Malahide reads it with eye-rolling, sarcastic aplomb. If he had made gagging noises and mimed being hung, he couldn’t have made his view more clear. Of course, miming being hung is probably an unwise choice when in HER vicinity. He does manage to get in a nice little pained wince when the Queen gushingly states “We have forgiven him.” Thank goodness she didn’t notice that!

RF: Ooohhh, I loved the eyerolling! So effective and hilarious to watch. 😀 Mr. Malahide made Walsingham’s opinion of Essex’s hyperbolic exploits very clear without saying a word. Obviously he knows gooey, overdone flattery when he hears it. If he’d added gagging noises and miming being hanged, I would’ve been on the floor!

Admin:  And she would get terribly gushy over Essex’ overdone flattery, so we got to enjoy lots of winces,  eye-rolls and jaw clenches.  Oh, and a few “you’ve got to be kidding me” moments.  There was some lovely wordless acting during those moments.

1. (Admin) You want this guy on your side:

Stand back!

Stand back!

Admin: While holding an impassioned court, the Queen is dizzy and unwell.  She suddenly faints, and everyone rushes toward her.  Walsingham remains calm and is firmly in control.  He springs into action, pulls out a very long knife (complete with a very cool sound effect, thank you foley artists) and holds a very large crowd at bay.  He can be heard shouting instructions to get the Queen to her chambers.  Sir Francis is the man!  It is a pity she didn’t get to see him do all that, what with being passed out and all.  She would have seen how dashing he is.  Of course, she would have just swooned again.  Top that, Essex!

RF:  The dagger-drawing scene is a wonderful little bit of action!  We get to see Walsingham’s ability to take charge in a crisis and look very intimidating doing it.  I liked how quickly he established an extremely wide perimeter (no one dared to go near him!) and as you mention, shouted orders throughout – which, it should be noted, were instantly obeyed.  It’s a brief scene but it establishes Sir Francis’ status within the command structure as well as his loyalty to the Queen and ability to size up a situation and think on his feet.

Admin:  In an earlier scene, when she was wailing for Leicester to return, she disdainfully said all she had to protect her “is you (Walsingham) and sad, old Lord Burghley.”  But this scene shows us that Walsingham would have been quite capable of protecting her.

Admin’s Top Five Clips:


Some Concluding Thoughts on Sir Francis Walsingham

Walsingham spy memeRF:  I’ve seen two other versions of the Elizabeth I story (Cate Blanchett’s “Elizabeth” and Anne-Marie Duff’s “Elizabeth I: The Virgin Queen“), and this one remains my favourite.  Mr. Malahide is such a strong omnipresence as Walsingham, even if he has no dialogue in a scene.  He’s easily believable as a spymaster with an immense, shadowy network of contacts throughout the kingdoms and courts of Europe.  Yet we also see his human side, when he has to endure physical abuse from the Queen he’s devoted to without even thinking of retaliation, or when he’s expressing concern for the daughter he loves, and especially when he’s describing his own death, yet his paramount worry remains his Queen’s reign.  He’s just extremely solid and fascinating throughout, and the show is missing something vital (his offscreen death really annoyed me) when he’s no longer there.

I also have to give kudos to the production and set designers and wardrobe staff for this miniseries.  They did an excellent job recreating the Elizabethan milieu with what seems to be a high degree of accuracy.  Although Mr. Malahide never got the chance to wear anything other than Walsingham’s austere costume, it perfectly reflected Walsingham’s secretive, ascetic nature – plus he just looks really good in basic black.  🙂

Admin:  It is a gorgeous costume.  I probably liked it more than I was even meant to!  I’ve not seen any other Elizabeth I production, unless you count Blackadder II 😉  But, I did enjoy this production very much.  And I really appreciate that they went in a more serious historical direction as opposed to glamorous titillation.  His character remained serious, devoted and resolute until the end.

Everything got so messy and complicated, particularly with Essex, after Walsingham departed.  I know part of that is because the Queen herself was now getting older, but it appears that much of her vulnerability was greatly exposed without his ever minding presence.  In every scene it certainly felt like something was missing when Walsingham was not there to watch over her.

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