HERLE, William (d.1589), of Redcross Street, London.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1558-1603, ed. P.W. Hasler, 1981
Available from Boydell and Brewer



Family and Education

Offices Held

Envoy to the German princes at Hamburg 1560, to the Netherlands 1576; ragler, Card. 1580; envoy to Cologne 1583, to Emden 1584, 1586, to Utrecht 1586.1


Herle was one of Lord Burghley’s political agents who graduated to service as an envoy. Little has been ascertained about his family or background, although he must have been an educated man: his letters and despatches were of high quality, well written and cogently argued. He spoke Latin, Flemish and Italian and could scarcely have been ignorant of French and Spanish. Contemporary opinions of Herle differ: Burghley, his principal master, described him as ‘a gentleman of very good quality, wise, learned, of great experience. ... He has her Majesty’s favour, and is well known of her’, whereas Secretary Thomas Wilson had a low opinion of his veracity. Sir Robert Cecil held him in sufficient esteem to have thought him a likely candidate for the clerkship of the Council. A Spanish ambassador considered him, unsurprisingly, a great spy and a zealous heretic.2

The first known record of Herle’s activities concerns his visit in August 1560 to the Dukes of Holstein and Brunswick. In the summer of 1564 he was serving Sir William Cecil in England, and in August 1565 he was explaining his privateering activities. It seems that he was already beset by the financial difficulties which dogged him for the rest of his life and which were aggravated by the cost of maintaining his sister and her children.3 By 1570 until about 1573, Herle was working for Cecil in London as a political agent, examining political suspects, papists and prisoners, and collecting intelligence about Europe. He spent some time in the Marshalsea, at times heavily chained, in order to extract information from the Catholic prisoners there. In want of money, credit and apparel, he complained to Cecil, now Lord Burghley, that this imprisonment had cost him £50. Next he requested employment as surveyor of foreigners, ‘towards whom’, he said, ‘much vigilance is necessary’. In 1572 he became involved with two conspirators who plotted to murder Burghley: it was presumably Herle who revealed their intentions.4

A specialist in the affairs of the Netherlands, in the spring of 1573 he went on a mission to the Prince of Orange, drafting a lengthy report of their ‘discourse’, in which he analysed the causes of Spanish hostility and the reasons why Elizabeth should make common cause with the Netherlands. Burghley used this document to lay before the Queen a strong case in favour of supporting Orange.5

For the next two years Herle resumed his work in London—he lived in Redcross Street—and also his entreaties for help and permanent employment, Burghley, at one point, countering with a letter of recommendation to any wealthy widow to whom Herle chose to direct it. At the end of 1575 he applied for a passport to go to Ireland, presumably to escape one of his more persistent creditors, William Waad. But if he went at all he did not stay long, and in March 1576 he was in London negotiating with Paul Buiz, one of a delegation of Dutch commissioners who refused to deal direct with Burghley for fear, so he said, of meeting the Spanish ambassador. Some time that year, probably in August or September, Herle went again to the Netherlands on official business. Returning early in the autumn, he asked Burghley—‘from whom all my countenance and preferment is derived’—to continue and increase his favours,

inasmuch as it pleaseth the Queen’s Majesty to continue me now as her servant, and give me access to come unto herself as often as I shall desire it, with a commandment to write unto her own person, as occasion is ministered.6

This access to the Queen brought him close to Sir Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, with whom he now began to correspond, sending him intelligence about the activities of the Spanish ambassador, and writing to him from the Counter, 24 May 1580, where he had been 15 weeks and two days, ‘God has visited me here in prison with a hectic fever, as he did Sir John Throckmorton [John Throckmorton I].’ Towards the end of that year Herle went to Wales to attend to the office he had obtained as ragler, which he soon sold for ready cash after complaining of the expense and tediousness of Welsh business. His debts had become crushing, and he begged Leicester to stay one of Waad’s suits against him. He began to think of going abroad, and considered joining Sir Francis Drake on his ‘circuition of the world’.7

By May or June 1581 Herle was living at Lambeth, having resumed his study of the affairs of France and Spain. In November he informed Leicester that he had ‘means to decipher the Spanish ambassador’s actions’ and his secret means of conveying intelligence abroad, which was by a woman, ‘the letters hanging from the woman’s waist, next her skin, downwards’. In February 1582 he followed Leicester to the Netherlands, where he remained after Leicester’s return home because of Waad’s pressure for the repayment of £50. The matter had been much laboured by Leicester, and Herle tried to obtain the intervention of Sir Francis Walsingham, Waad being one of his clerks. Meanwhile he acted as agent at Antwerp, dependent upon the Prince of Orange. According to one report he claimed to be there as Leicester’s agent, and to Leicester himself he wrote on 5 Mar.: ‘I have been with the Prince of Orange twice, entertaining the best offices I could between you both’. However this may be, he was desperately anxious to receive some payment and official recognition for the services he was able and willing to render. He therefore appealed in turn to Leicester, Burghley and Walsingham. To Leicester he pointed out that the Queen needed an agent in Antwerp, which had become ‘the very centre of all the concourse of Christendom’. He claimed to have penetrated into the secrets of the States, and to have entered into the familiarity and friendship of six or seven of the principal ‘state men’ of that country. He therefore pleaded for some private or open authorisation and some ‘indifferent allowance’. As his ‘principal patron and director’, he wrote to Burghley that his financial troubles not only threatened him with banishment, but had put him out of favour with Walsingham. To Walsingham himself he exposed his ‘hard estate’, and prayed him ‘with good favour to amend the same’, adding that he had means of obtaining information.8

According to the Spanish ambassador, Herle was sent to Cologne in April 1583 ‘to stir up affairs there’, and it was thought he would go to Mainz. The latter part of the year he spent in lodgings at Temple Bar. His next mission was to Emden in 1584 to try to compose the quarrels between the two Counts Edzard and John, and to dissuade one or both from intelligence with Spain. He found the mission ‘tough’, and those he had to deal with ‘slow and dull’.9

Herle spent the summer of 1585 in London and, at least from June to August, was seriously ill. During this time he wrote Burghley a series of letters expressing with great candour what he alleged to be current criticisms against him. Furthermore, since Burghley was held to be largely responsible for England’s perfidious treatment of the Netherlands, Herle exposed with some severity the evils that must ensue if the Queen persisted in her uncertain policy. Burghley thanked Herle for his ‘sensible discourse’, and explained and defended his conduct and policy point by point. This correspondence has been fully discussed by Conyers Read in his life of Burghley, where he suggests that Walsingham was using Herle to try to frighten Burghley into supporting his and Leicester’s more vigorous foreign policy. However this may be, Herle did not impair his own position. Burghley received in good part his letters and his pleas for help, and urged his current suit with the Queen, who sent him a warrant for a buck from Mortlake park.10

Herle’s illness dragged on for some months, but in January 1586 he thanked Walsingham for sending money, and prepared to leave on 1 Feb. to join Leicester in the Netherlands. In March the Earl was instructed by the Council to send him to Emden, to mediate in certain quarrels between the Count and Holland and Zeeland. Herle was ordered to act with diligence and celerity, ‘for that her Majesty (though otherwise she conceive well of him for his sufficiency) hath noted some slackness in him in execution of the charges ... heretofore ... committed unto him, by tarrying long in the places to which he hath been sent ...’ According to Mendoza the real purpose of his mission was to penetrate the relations of Edzard with Spain. This was probably true, for in May 1586 the Count was said to be ‘wholly devoted to Spain’. Herle reported to Leicester in April, and was sent back to Emden in May when his entertainment was ‘cold and contemptible’. However, it was with an ambassador’s reward of a ‘great chain of gold’ that he returned to The Hague in July. Later in the month he was sent to Utrecht with letters from the Queen and, according to Sir Roger North, 2nd Baron North, governor of Flushing, ‘carried himself well and wisely, and can well handle any matter committed to him’. This done, he returned to England in August.11

In the following October, probably to avoid his creditors, Herle was returned to Parliament for Callington, no doubt through Burghley’s influence with his relative the Marquess of Winchester, one of the patrons of the borough. He was not an active Member of the House of Commons although he was probably the ‘Mr. Hearly’ who was appointed to a committee concerning the learned ministry on 8 Mar. 1587. During 1587 and the early months of 1588, he made strenuous efforts to obtain employment, both through Burghley, and from the Queen herself. If he could not be employed at home, then he begged to be sent abroad. In May 1588 he wrote desperately to Burghley that if he did not procure his speedy departure, he would be imprisoned for debt. Two weeks later he received an annuity from the Exchequer of £66 13s.4d. It may have cheered, but cannot have helped him much. In the same letter to Burghley, he said he had been of late at death’s door, ‘escaping the going in very narrowly’. His reprieve was of short duration: the door opened for him either that year or early the next, administration of his goods being granted 8 Feb. 1589.12

Ref Volumes: 1558-1603

Author: N.M.S.


  • 1. Lansd. 28, f. 84.
  • 2. CSP Dom. 1547-80, p. 430; 1581-90, p. 364; CSP For. 1581-2, p. 574; CSP Span. 1568-79, p. 536; 1580-6, p. 463; HMC Hatfield, ii. 3; Read, Burghley, ii. 38-9, 316, ch. iii. n. 3, p. 550.
  • 3. CSP Dom. Add. 1547-65, p. 570; CSP For. 1559-60, pp. 373, 514 seq.; 1560-1, p. 88; 1561-2, pp. 251, 274; 1582, p. 79.
  • 4. Lansd. 15 ff. 164, 171, 180; CSP Dom. 1547-80, 406, 407, 425, 428, 439, 442; HMC Hatfield, ii. 8-9; Read, ii. 38-9.
  • 5. CSP For. 1572-4, p. 360; Read, ii. 45, 157-8; Lansd. 16, f. 80.
  • 6. Lansd. 18, ff. 34, 170; 19, f. 67; 21, f. 44; CSP For. 1575-7, pp. 263, 265-7, 269, 270, 276-7; Lettenhove, Relations politiques, viii. 482-3.
  • 7. CSP Dom. 1547-80, pp. 685, 688, 690, 692; 1581-90, pp. 14-15, 20; HMC Bath, v. 97; CSP Span. 1568-79, pp. 607-9.
  • 8. CSP Dom. 1581-90, pp. 26, 30; CSP For. 1581-2, pp. 514-21, 526, 534-5, 538-9; Froude, Hist Eng. xi. 454.
  • 9. Lansd. 39, f. 190; CSP For. 1583-4, pp. 547-8, 626-32; 1584-5, p. 88; CSP Span. 1580-6, p. 463.
  • 10. Lansd. 46, ff. 14, 22, 36; CSP Dom. 1581-90, pp. 252-3, 257, 258, 260; Read, ii. 315 seq.
  • 11. CSP Dom. 1581-90, p. 303; CSP For. 1585-6, pp. 593, 702; 1586-7, pp. 27, 35, 87, 115, 119-23, 128, 138; CSP Span. 1580-6, p. 533; APC, xiv. 32.
  • 12. Lansd. 54, ff. 145, 147, 150 seq. 156; 55, f. 204; 58, f. 67; 83, ff. 215 seq.; D’Ewes, 413; CSP Dom. 1581-90, pp. 260, 481; PCC admon. act bk. 1589, f. 90.