Who was William Herle?

William Herle was an agent, spy and diplomat to the court of Elizabeth I. His date of birth is unknown but his letters - which survive from 1559 to his death in 1588 - reveal that over a thirty-year period he was a client of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and the Earl of Leicester. Educated and with some legal training, Herle was a talented linguist. In possession of French, Italian, Dutch, Latin and German, he was frequently sent abroad to the continent on diplomatic service; sometimes officially sanctioned, occasionally as an unofficial agent. Many of his letters are sent from Antwerp, where, in the spring of 1582, he was ideally situated to report the news of the assassination attempt on William of Orange to the Elizabethan court. Around the time of the Ridolphi Plot in 1571, he was briefly imprisoned in the Marshalsea Prison where he acted as a secret conduit for letters between Lord Burghley and the suspects involved. Thereafter, he was sporadically re-imprisoned for financial problems and his letters are filled with evidence of his efforts to settle his debts and appease his creditors. His attempts to secure official posts were mostly unsuccessful. Although he never married, he had a relationship with Rosa Jones before 1576, when an illegitimate daughter, Jana, was born.

The letters of William Herle have never been published in a critical edition. A very small selection of his letters have been employed to illustrate various aspects of Elizabeth's reign, particularly concerning his diplomatic legations and his term in prison during the Ridolphi Plot of 1571. It may be the diverse and slippery nature of Herle's 'career' which has prevented a comprehensive study of his life and letters; thirty years of adapting to shifting policies and tensions make his correspondence difficult to classify. Political historians have dismissed Herle as an untrustworthy character, originating from his unenviable position of intelligencer and spy. However, this is to ignore the letters' rich content of curious epistolary forms and strategies, which offer an invaluable context to Herle's position in the political landscape of the day.

For further biographical information see David Lewis Jones, "Herle, William (d. 1588/9)." DNB [subscription required]

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