October 17 – Walter Marsh, a spy who had an awful end in Rome

On this day in history, 17th October 1560, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, Walter Marsh was baptised at St Stephen’s Church in London.

Marsh came to an awful end in Rome. He was burnt to death in the Campo dei Fiori after having his tongue cut out, his hand cut off and being tortured with burning torches.

Marsh had been accused of being paid by Elizabeth I to spy on Catholics and of showing contempt for the Eucharist.

Find out more about Walter Marsh, how he’d come to be in Rome and what he’d done to upset the authorities…


On this day in history, 17th October 1560, spy and Protestant martyr, Walter Marsh was baptised at St Stephen’s Church, Coleman Street, London.

Marsh came to a sticky end, being burned to death in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori after having his tongue cut out and one hand cut off. He had been accused of being paid by Queen Elizabeth I to spy on Catholics and of showing contempt for the Eucharist.

What a horrible end!

Today’s talk is based on a talk I did for Tudor Society members a few years ago after I decided to find out more about Marsh and what led him to this brutal end in Rome.

Walter Marsh was the son of MP and mercer John Marsh and his wife Alice Gresham, a cousin of the well-known merchant and financier Sir Thomas Gresham. Marsh was baptised on this day in 1560 and babies were usually baptised within a few days of birth.

Marsh was educated at the Merchant Taylors’ School before going on to St John’s College, Cambridge, where he graduated BA and MA. While he was at St John’s, he wrote verses against idolatry. Marsh was ordained as an Anglican priest in 1586 and had risen to the position of archdeacon of Derby by 1588, but he lost his archdeaconry after the position was contested by another clergyman, John Walton. By 1590, Marsh had given up all of his benefices.

In 1591, Catholic recusant Sir Thomas Tresham, who was under house arrest in London, recorded that Marsh had visited him. Marsh had cut off his beard and he told Tresham that he was going to leave his ministry in England and travel to the English College at Douai, the Catholic seminary known for supplying missionary priests to England. These priests would enter England covertly and then go about trying to bring the English people back to what they saw as the true faith. Tresham was suspicious of Marsh’s motives, believing him to be a spy, and so reported him.

Marsh did go to Douai, arriving in September 1591, but just a few months after he had registered at the seminary, he travelled back to England, via Flushing in the Low Countries, where he met with Sir Robert Sidney who was governor there. Marsh offered to “discover matters which do greatly concern her Majesty”. Marsh’s father was an information gatherer or an intelligence agent for William Cecil, Lord Burghley, in England and on the Continent, so Marsh seems to have been following in his father’s footsteps.

Marsh was admitted to the English College in Rome in March 1593, but left due to illness. He rejoined it later but he was then burnt to death for committing sacrilege in Rome.

What happened?

Well, there had been a procession in Rome on 15th June 1595, and Marsh knocked the monstrance containing the Eucharist from the hands of a priest in the procession, shouting that it was an idol. On 20th June 1595, his tongue was cut out before he was escorted to the Campo di Fiori to be executed.

His death is recorded in the Cecil Papers in a paper of news headed Rome, 24 June 1595. It tells of how he was carried naked on a cart through the main streets of Rome, being tortured all the way by being scorched with torches. Then, at the place where he’d committed his offence of sacrilege, his right hand was cut off. Finally, he was taken to the Campo di Fiori, where he was burnt alive, all the time refusing to be converted although many powerful theologians tried to persuade him to. The paper goes on to say that “Under torture he confessed to being sent by the Queen of England to assassinate Cardinal Allen, who getting notice of it, sent him to the prison of the Holy Office; where he denied it and was released.”

Father Robert Persons, the well-known English Jesuit priest who undertook religious missions to England with men like Edward Campion, wrote of Marsh in his memoirs:
“One Walter Marsh, having been an unquiet scholar in the College of Rome, and going away into England and returning suspiciously again, was put in the said Inquisition by the Cardinal Allen his means, but after his death being gotten forth by his suit (as is thought) of the Bishop of Cassano, and lodged in his own house, was burned openly in Rome for violence offered to the Blessed Sacrament the year 1595.”

As we can see from Persons’ record, Marsh was already in trouble in Rome before his outburst in Rome. He’d been interrogated by the Inquisition and had done penance for his acts against English Catholics and for being a spy for Elizabeth I and her government. His actions on 15th June were the last straw.

Former Catholic priest Richard Sheldon mentioned Marsh’s death in his book regarding his conversion to the Protestant faith, going so far as to link his conversion to being in Rome when Marsh was executed:
“…but most of all I was filled with such foreapprehensions, and presages being in Rome upon the same day and hour when that glorious and renowned Christian Marsh suffered the cutting off of his right hand, the gagging of his mouth by the Counsel of the Ignatian Cowlin, who boasteth himself thereof in England, after that the pulling, tearing and burning of his flesh with hot glowing pincers for many hours together, through many streets of the city of Rome, and lastly death itself by fire, with such admirable patience and constancy, that the Romans themselves did greatly admire him therefore. His act, for which he was so tormented, was because he had thrown down their sacrament, as it was publicly carried through the streets of Rome in public procession to be adored, worshipped and invocated as God himself (an idolatrous superstition lately crept into the church contrary to the custom and practice of all ancient churches whatsoever.)”

What an awful awful end!

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One thought on “October 17 – Walter Marsh, a spy who had an awful end in Rome”
  1. I hate and cannot understand the rationale behind these terrible punishments, but even more I can’t understand the people — on both sides of the issue — who absolutely “ask for it.” I can understand working undercover for a cause, but not deliberately destroying that cover knowing a terrible death will be the only result. It seems insane.

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