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:

cipher and codes 2

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:

Ribbet collagecipher and codes 2

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

Ribbet collagecipher and codes 3

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

Ribbet collagetorture2

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.


  1. Sounds like a good week to me. Sometimes it is true that we have a week or two at a time sometimes where our projects do not turn out and nothing seems to go right! LOL

  2. Hearing how other homeschoolers’ projects don’t always turn out is an encouragement to me when my science experiments go awry. I’m glad you enjoyed the funny side as well!

    1. Sometimes the only thing to get out of a week is the humour – and this was one of those weeks! I almost didn’t post anything, so I’m glad it has had a positive affect on someone!

    1. It wasn’t the decoding we had trouble with, it was Gary noticing the notes in the first place in order to attempt decoding them! I’m thinking I just don’t have a very observant husband!

  3. I think the spy adventures worked out great. Spies had misadventures too and really had to be prepared and crafty in their occupation. Such fun learning you’ve all had on this topic.

  4. I’ve waited until you’ve completed your study to comment. Just want to say that I’ve really enjoyed following your weeks of study, which is both very interesting and indepth. This final week seems to have topped it all off with the spy activities and torture study! Pity that T13 didn’t take up the offer to demonstrate the effects of the various torture instruments. It would have been very ‘educational’ for everyone, I’m sure. 🙂 Have a lovely weekend!

    1. Hello Hwee! I smiled big smiles when I saw your comment! I almost didn’t write about the torture, wondering whether social services would come in and cart T off!
      It has been a good unit and I think five weeks has been the perfect time to spend on it also.

  5. Ohhh! I love Shakespeare! I love all the learning you are doing. It is always so awesome to hear about. I wish I had grown up in your school.
    Blessings, Dawn

  6. Fascinating! And fancy T not cooperating.;) I laughed out loud at Gary missing the notes. I could see the very same thing happening at our house. That is just too funny. I am enjoying your book recommendations. My “cart” is loving you.:))
    P.S. I, too, have a girl who would love blue highlights.

    1. LOL! Y’know I’m toying with the idea of having my ends dyed blue. I think I might be going through a second youth (or alternatively am still in first one!)

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