Elizabethan Unit Study: Week 5: Spies and spycraft


This was our last week on the Elizabethan Times.  The children still have one further week to finish up the Pirate’s of the Golden Age projects and we will be doing a five week unit on Shakespeare over the summer.


This week we finished Elizabeth I: The People’s Queen:


We learnt about Elizabeth’s later years and her death.  The children have found this book really interesting and a very good fit for our morning meeting read aloud.

Over the last few weeks the children have also read the following biographies about Elizabeth:


Elizabeth I has been a fascinating queen to learn about and to be honest the whole unit study could have lasted a bit longer.  This week we focused on Elizabethan spy craft.  Spy craft has been around for as long as there have been humans, becoming more and more sophisticated as the years have passed by.  The following two books were useful to give us lots of extra information as well helping me form some ideas for fun activities:

Ribbet collagecipherandcodes 4

We did a quick ‘spying’ or at least close observation activity which was from the Elizabethan book at the top of the post.  The children needed to study this very famous picture of Queen Elizabeth and find all the important symbols the painter included which were there to portray ‘secret’ messages:

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We were all naff at this, and I’m thinking we would have made very poor spies!

Spy Craft: Codes and Ciphering

We had learnt about Elizabeth’s spy master, Francis Walsingham, and how he uncovered a plot to destroy his queen by Mary, queen of Scots.  Mary was communicating with Babington, thanks in part to Walsingham, via secret letters which were hidden in beer kegs.  Of course they weren’t secret and Walsingham intercepted them and deciphered them which led to the arrest and eventual execution of Mary.

I set the children a fun challenge of creating their own code and cipher.  Then using this they were to write a note to Gary, hide it somewhere he was guaranteed to find it but where no one else would find it.  The challenge was that Gary needed to find the letter before anyone else, be able to decipher it and answer the question being posed without anyone else finding it first.

Here are their notes in code with the translation written next tot hem:

Ribbet collageciphers and codes

T13 put his note in his father’s cycling glove.  They go biking almost everyday, so you’d think it was a good place, yes?  Well, no as it happens.  Gary went for an hour long bike ride with note still in situ.  When he got back T informed him of said note which by that point was drenched in Gary’s sweat which had rubbed off half the ink!

A6 had written Gary a note but it wasn’t in code.  She had hidden hers in his bike helmet.  He saw this one and thought it was a label so tore it out and left it on the floor of the bike shed!

L12 left her’s in Gary’s ear buds, which he uses every day, but somehow he hasn’t noticed it yet.  I’m thinking this might have been just as well given she was asking him for blue highlights in her hair.  I’m not sure he’s ready for one of his twin daughter’s to have blue hair.  Not yet anyway.  Likewise, C12 left her note in Gary’s undies drawer.  So far he hasn’t seen it!  So as you can see this was a colossal success on all levels!

Almost giving up the will to live, I tried one more activity which thankfully worked, possibly our first of the week!  The children had been reading about the types of invisible ink which were used in Elizabethan times.  One was lemon juice and the other was milk.  We had both, so I asked them to choose one or the other and write me a secret note:

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Then we held them over a candle flame and the words did indeed show up beautifully:

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I even ended up with a note of love.  What more could a highly unsuccessful home school mother want?

cipher and codes

Ahhh, the sweet feeling of success!

Elizabethan Torture

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First the children watched this video:

Ribbet collagetorture1Source

I had the children read this summery of Elizabethan torture, after which we concentrated on some primary evidence written by Father John Gerard.  Father John was a catholic spy who spent three years in captivity, during which time he was tortured.  He did not divulge any information and made an escape from the tower of London in 1597, after which he wrote a book detailing his adventures.  You can find his account here.

I suggested we try some out on T13 to make the study, y’know, a bit more authentic, but he was having none of it….

Well that’s it for our Elizabethan study, although I guess it will overlap somewhat with our summer Shakespeare study.  The children will spend the next week or so finishing their project based learning on the subject of pirates during the golden age and then we break for a short two or so weeks before returning to all things Shakespeare.  Everyone’s just a tiny bit excited.