Friday, September 21, 2012

Spying in Elizabethan England

Appropriately enough after yesterday's post on the Babington Plot and Sir Francis Walsingham's spy network against Mary, Queen of Scots, here is a review from the U.K. Guardian newspaper of a book about spying in Elizabethan England:

The age of Elizabeth I, so often celebrated as a period of glorious national achievement, was one of intense insecurity. Beset by enemies at home and abroad, the Queen knew that her hold on the crown was always precarious. The Catholic powers of Europe regarded her as a heretic and a bastard. Pope Pius V tried to depose her. Philip II of Spain attempted armed invasion. The loyalty of English Catholics, unreconciled to her Protestant church settlement, was always in doubt.

Elizabeth created further anxiety by persistently refusing to nominate her successor. The stability of the regime thus depended entirely on her own personal survival. As one MP put it in 1567: "If God should take her Majestie, the succession being not established, I know not what shall become of myself, my wife, my children, lands, goods, friends or country."

Feelings of anxiety and distrust were intensified by an unending series of conspiracies and assassination plots. The Rising of the Northern Earls in 1569, the Ridolfi Plot of 1569-71, the Throckmorton Plot of 1583 and the Babington Plot of 1585-6 were only the best publicised of repeated attempts to dethrone the Queen by insurrection, foreign invasion or simple assassination. There were three such plots in 1596 alone. Many of these conspiracies sought to replace Elizabeth with the Catholic Mary Stuart, the ex-Queen of the Scots who had taken refuge in England after her forced abdication in 1568, and whose strong hereditary claim to the succession was terminated only by her execution in 1587. . . .

Confronted by these threats, the Elizabethan government embarked on a draconian policy of counter-terrorism. The laws of treason were extended to catch not just those who questioned Elizabeth's right to rule, but all missionary priests and those who sheltered them. Torture was not permitted by the common law, but special powers were invoked to justify its regular use to extract information from Catholic suspects. The procedure in treason trials gave the accused no chance of offering an adequate defence, and unsafe convictions were common. The standard penalty for traitors was to be hanged, cut down when still alive, castrated, disembowelled and dismembered. Over 100 Catholic priests suffered this fate. This was not enough for Elizabeth, who wanted her Privy Councillors to devise an even more terrible death for the Babington conspirators, who had planned to murder her.

In my book collection I have this interesting title, Tudor Underground, by Denis Meadows. Kirkus Reviews wasn't that thrilled in 1950, but perhaps I'll read it again some day:

Personalities, hangings and quarterings, spies and Elizabethan religious turmoil provide a tempestuous background for a relatively pallid story of religious conversion. Hugh Rampling, young Catholic heir of an aquiline-nosed (and therefore, of course, loyal) English family attempts to align his hereditary Catholicism with a neutralized religious position which his career with the Protestant Principal Secretary, of Queen Elizabeth, Sir Francis Walsingham, demands. Aiding in the Secretary's spy ring formed to root out Catholic infiltration into England, Hugh, in successful adventures with a female demon aiding the purge, pursuers in Rome and in other narrow squeaks, is on the way up. However, in the midst of this uneasy neutrality, Hugh meets one of the most coveted prizes of the State -- Father Persons, a Jesuit priest. Not only does the priest induce Hugh to allow him and other followers to escape, but brings Hugh back into the fold, and positive action for the Catholic mission. Some elements of a good story here, but Hugh as the hero is the usual blank cartridge bright boy not peculiarly adaptive to heavenly meditation. A sprawling, uneven historical.

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