|The Rainbow Portrait – the eyes of the state can be
seen on her gown protecting Elizabeth from her enemies.
Many of the conspiracies came from the Catholic exiles, plotting from the continent. Foremost amongst these was William Allen, who trained young men in seminaries abroad and then sent them back to sow dissent in England. It is impossible to miss the parallels between Allen’s pamphlets and radicalisation of young Catholics and the words of hate preachers in recent years and the propaganda from Bin Laden. Countering them however were Elizabeth’s team of watchers, those committed by personal loyalty and interest to safeguarding the queen and her reign. The Watchers sets out to demonstrate that the Privy Councillors and their associates were prepared to stoop to some measures that were murky in the extreme.
There were some names that I had not come across before, such as Thomas Phelippes, a gifted mathematician and cryptographer who is described as the most intelligent man of the Tudor age. Having also read quite widely about espionage in World War Two, it was interesting to compare the differing strategies. Clearly, codemaking was nowhere near as complex but I did wonder how a mind such as Phelippes’ might have adapted had he been born five hundred years later – might he have found his way to Bletchley? Compared to more recent conspiracies, some of the plots seem rather laughable but at the time they were no laughing matter.
The most constant threat was of course, Mary Queen of Scots. Deposed by her own kingdom and fleeing to England, Mary was the main focus for Catholic discontent. The Watchers spent years trying to gather evidence that would persuade Elizabeth to have her executed and Alford makes it plain that the Babington plot was allowed to run so that Mary could gather enough rope to hang herself. To truly settle the matter, Walsingham falsified the Casket Letters with an added postcript. Mary protested in her trial that Walsingham had been conspiring against her for years, to which Walsingham agreed that indeed he had been ‘curious’.
In an age of paranoia and distrust, the ruthless lengths that the watchers were prepared to go to are unsurprising. Elizabeth herself remains a rather background figure, rarely taking centre stage. This was dark, grubby work, not for the queen to sully herself with. I did wonder if a male monarch might have involved himself more directly with the more unpleasant areas of the task, but most likely the torture was something that would only ever take place behind closed doors. Elizabeth was furious when Mary was executed, even though she had given the order herself. She knew that a monarch being put to death, even by another monarch, would cause shockwaves across Europe and indeed, those were the waves brought over the Spanish Armada.
|Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.
The descriptions of the different ‘ground-level’ spies were fascinating. Then as now, spycraft gathers up some rather odd characters. There was William Parry who started a spy for the government but who ‘went rogue’ after spending time with the Catholics. The stark contrast to twentieth century espionage though was how reliant a Tudor spy was on their patron. Walsingham and Cecil frequently paid their agents out of their own pockets, the Tudor ‘MI5’ was a very different beast. Indeed, Alford also demonstrated how the rivalry between the Cecils and the young Earl of Essex built up with the two factions pitting their spies against each other. The most disturbing fact was that when Essex claimed that some of the agents allied to the Cecils were plotting against the Queen, the Cecils merely agreed and stood back while their associate was executed.
While Walsingham and the Cecils seem to have understood which men could be trusted and where the valuable information could be found, Essex seems not to have understood the nuances quite so well. Alford’s narrative tails off in the 1590s and does not cover Essex’s fall from grace and rebellion, but it is not hard to imagine that the young man lost patience. It was a slower world, messages could not be passed instantly. Transporting information back and forth could be incredibly difficult. By contrast, having a believable ‘legend’ must have been far easier, with far fewer ways of checking someone’s identity.
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Published by Penguin UK on 2012
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