History

Lower Sixth History Reading Group

The book to be considered in the first half of the 2018 Autumn term is John Cooper's fascinating account of the life and career of Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I's spymaster.



The Daily Telegraph review of October 2011 read as follows:

The Queen’s Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth I by John Cooper

A Tudor tale of cloak-and-dagger intrigue

By Ian Thomson

Sir Francis Walsingham, the spymaster extraordinaire and priest-hunter at the court of Elizabeth I, was devoted to the defence of the Tudor realm and its anti-Catholic cause. With Machiavellian adroitness, he infiltrated Papist cells in England and abroad, and subjected “Romish” suspects to a brutal and insistent Protestant dogma. Hundreds were hanged or burned alive in post-Reformation England; perceived Spanish attempts to dethrone Elizabeth redoubled the persecutions.

The Queen’s Agent, a superb new account of Walsingham and the Tudor age, paints a John le Carré-like world of double-dealing and intrigue, where moles were planted in Catholic seminaries and loyalties were seen to shift opportunely. In the looking-glass war of Elizabethan diplomacy, traitors were never far away. Walsingham was so subtle an operative, according to John Cooper, that he was able to turn priest against priest and extract confessions with ease.

Central to Cooper’s book is the question of whether English Catholics really conspired to undermine the Elizabethan regime. Through circles of informants and spies, Walsingham was able to disrupt a number of plots against his patron-monarch. But how serious were they? Post-Reformation England was jittery with fears of recusant Catholicism; in the eyes of Walsingham and his enforcers, Jesuits especially were seen as sinister types bent on popish intrigue.

With a fanatic’s heart, Walsingham spread fear (the most important weapon in his armoury) among Jesuits and their followers. In this paranoid climate, almost anyone could be smoked out of hiding and sent to the gallows. Walsingham had been in Paris in 1572 during the St Bartholomew’s massacre of Protestants, and was left with a lifelong loathing of Catholicism.

His finest hour was the discovery of a plot to put Mary, Queen of Scots, on the throne and depose her cousin Elizabeth. Having established Mary’s involvement in the Catholic plot, Walsingham authorised her beheading without Elizabeth’s knowledge. Outwardly, at least, Elizabeth was devastated.

Some historians have viewed her as crypto-Catholic and she was certainly known to keep a crucifix and candles in her bedside cabinet. Unlike Walsingham, Elizabeth saw no contradiction between tradition and reform, but that did not make her Catholic.

In pages of crisp prose and with punctilious scholarship and vivid storytelling, The Queen’s Agent brilliantly recreates Elizabethan England in all its cloak-and-dagger intrigue and glory. George Smiley would have liked it.