Just Finished Reading: Her Majesty’s Spymaster – Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage by Stephen Budiansky (FP: 2005)
It was a dangerous age. With the Catholic ‘Bloody’ Mary dead and her Protestant sister Elizabeth now on the throne the realms enemies, both foreign and domestic, only seemed to be growing. Catholic Spain’s enmity was implacable and very public. Everyone knew that England had an enemy here like no other. A regional super-power with a global reach, immense wealth and, inevitably, the ear of the Pope. The relationship with France was more nuanced and more open to politics and negotiation. Or it was until, one fateful morning on St Bartholomew’s Day the Catholics in Paris and, later across France, struck out at the Huguenots and killed them in their hundreds. In the middle of the carnage was the British ambassador – Francis Walsingham – and here he learnt lessons that he would never forget: the dangers of fanatical religion, the duplicity of princes and what was truly at stake with England’s political and religious survival. It was nothing less than a life or death matter for an entire nation. On his long awaited return home to serve his Queen more closely that he became entrusted with more and more aspects of the nation’s security – against assassination attempts, plots, state sponsor terrorism, threats of invasion and war and, most disturbing (and dangerous) of all the unresolved situation with Mary, Queen of Scots. To counter so many enemies across countries and continents Walsingham needed to create something that had never existed before. A secret intelligence organisation comprising of professional spies, paid informants, skilled interrogators, codes and cyphers (and their breakers) and minds that could plan moves to counter moves behind moves shrouded in the fog of clandestine conflict. This was, at least to begin with, a Cold War wrapped in a Religious War wrapped in a War for Survival itself. At the centre of it all, pulling strings, was Walsingham, a man who, on his death, Catholic hierarchies throughout Europe would celebrate.
Of all of the Tudors Elizabeth is definitely my favourite. The Elizabethan Age is so full of intrigue it makes Game of Thrones look positively mild by comparison. There are also a surprising number of parallels with the world we find ourselves in today. There is political unrest based on religion. There are assassinations and attempted plots. There are bombs going off, secret communications, radical propaganda, state sponsored terrorism, arming and financing of insurgents in enemy homelands, the turning of blind eyes to suspiciously well-armed and well financed ‘private citizens’ joining rebel groups, acts of rendition (extraordinary or otherwise) and much else besides. If we read an equivalent Elizabethan newspaper today a great deal would be recognisable to us. The author brilliantly brings this alive with an impressive understanding of the period and the politics and religious tensions that drove it. He handles the double (and sometimes triple) dealing with seeming ease and not only keeps multiple ‘balls in the air’ but explains both where and why each fell. At a mere 215 pages this is a great way to become familiar (or more familiar) with a highly dangerous and equally fascinating period in English history. I shall be turning my attention to Elizabeth and her fellow Tudors again and soon not least because of this gem of a book. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the reality of political intrigue played for very high stakes indeed.