Saturday, February 23, 2013

Review Essay on Spying in Elizabeth I's Reign


Paul Dean, Head of English at Summer Fields School, Oxford, reviews two books for The New Criterion about the spy network operating in England during the reign of Elizabeth I. One is a new biography of Sir Francis Walsingham, which must be the third biography in the past five to ten years, The Queen's Agent by John Cooper; the other is a book I've mentioned before: The Watchers by Stephen Alford. A couple of excerpts:

A “loyal Catholic” was a contradiction in terms. Since the queen had been excommunicated by Pope Pius V’s bull Regnans in excelsis in 1570—which, incidentally, prompts the surprising reflection that England remained technically a Catholic country for the first twelve years of her reign—her Catholic subjects had been released from obedience to her or her laws. (John Cooper, however, remarks that the bull was not widely publicized in England and suggests that “most English Catholics never saw a copy.”) Many priests and laity worked actively to overthrow and replace her, first by Mary Queen of Scots, then, after the latter’s execution for treason in 1587—an act which was forced upon a reluctant Elizabeth by her ministers, who had effectively rigged the case against her royal cousin—by King Philip of Spain. Alford’s book tells the stories of many plotters on both sides: some, like John Somerville, minor figures, others among the great of the land. Intriguing though these stories are, they give the work an episodic feel; it lacks the narrative drive of Cooper’s biography of Walsingham (which Alford seems not to know). Where they cover the same ground, Cooper is usually clearer and more perceptive.


Cooper sensibly warns us of the danger of reading history written by the victors: “The myth that Catholicism is somehow alien to Englishness has had a long and corrosive effect on the national memory of the British Isles.” The first generation of Catholic missionary priests did not seek Elizabeth’s overthrow—indeed, Pope Pius IV offered to leave the Church of England undisturbed if only Catholics were granted freedom to worship. Cardinal Allen’s seminary at Douai, founded in 1568, initially encouraged its graduates to go to England to give pastoral support to Catholic families, not to make converts. (Allen himself, however, advocated the invasion of England by the powers of France and Spain.) Several priests prayed for the queen on the scaffold. Walsingham was uneasy about so many executions—not from humane motives, but because he felt that to create martyrs was to play into the enemy’s hands. It became increasingly difficult, and finally impossible, for many Catholics to take the oath of loyalty which was imposed on every citizen, requiring them “to withstand, pursue, and suppress” anyone designing to hurt the queen. Meanwhile, parliamentary legislation of the 1570s and 1580s, steered through by Walsingham, greatly extended the legal definition of treason.

Commenting on Cooper's explanation of Walsingham's involvement in the downfall of Mary, Queen of Scots, Dean notes:

Walsingham alone, the spider in the center of the web, saw the whole picture. Propelled by his extreme Protestant zeal, he was not above bypassing the law in order to gain his ends. He even recruited a Catholic priest, Gilbert Gifford, by whose means he was able to intercept correspondence between Mary, Queen of Scots and her contacts in Paris, and thereby unmask the Babington plot. (Among the plotters, by the way, was Chidiock Tichborne, whose poem written on the eve of his execution, “My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,” is a small masterpiece.) Gifford was trained by Thomas Phelippes, Walsingham’s chief cipher specialist, about whom Alford writes interestingly. Phelippes and Walsingham went so far as to add a coded postscript to one of Mary’s letters to Babington, using wording which would support a charge of treason against her. Also working on this case was Robert Poley, who was implicated in the death of Marlowe and was probably acting on government orders. (Alford’s downplaying of the evidence for Marlowe’s espionage activity as “sketchy and circumstantial” is questionable.) Babington realized too late that Poley might not be reliable, and wrote him a heartrending note: “I am the same I always pretended. I pray God you be so.” Babington’s inevitable execution in 1586 was made exceptionally brutal; on the personal orders of Elizabeth, “for more terror,” he was rent limb from limb. Mary, being royal, was beheaded, although Elizabeth would have preferred her quietly murdered in private, and even tried to persuade her jailer to do the deed himself.

Read the rest here. Remember, though, that the public reaction to Babington's horrible execution led Elizabeth to withdraw that order: the other conspirators were hung until dead, then cut up and their body parts displayed as the usual warning to plotters.

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