I’ve recently been reading ‘The Queen’s Agent’. This is a scrupulously detailed book, covering the life and times of Francis Walsingham, the spymaster who worked for Elizabeth I. His office was at a time of great insecurity for the English state, both from abroad and at home. His actions were formed by a desperate need to protect England, Elizabeth and the ‘the reformed religion to which he was devoted’.
It was not unheard of for him to send agents into Catholic communities and trick them into treachery. Actions like these can only speak of a man who was deeply motivated, in Walsingham’s case it was for the protection of Protestant England.
His ‘Machiavellian’ techniques in dealing with Catholic agents within Britain stopped hundreds of plots to depose Elizabeth, viewed as a heretical bastard by most Europeans. Her mother had been Anne Boleyn, the second wife of Henry VIII. To marry her Henry had to break with the Roman Catholic Church, an action so remarkably self-centred that it could only be the work of a medieval monarch. The result was that most Catholics regarded her as illegitimate, and unfit to sit a throne.
Her grandfather had united Britain after a bitter and bloody Civil War, as I’ve mentioned in an earlier post. His claim to the throne had been weak, but the English people were tired of dynastic bickering. Now, it was Elizabeth’s turn to shield English hopes, and the Tudor dynasty with which they were invested. But she faced a series of problems:
- Henry VIII needed to divorce his wife, and Protestant ideas gave him an excuse to do so. When he died England was left as a country Catholic in tradition, but removed from the Pope’s jurisdiction. Edward and Mary had very different views. The official line on religion had been changed far too often in the last few years, and what England needed was consistency. Elizabeth made the Church of England into something which most Catholics could adhere to, as well as Protestants. Those Catholics which refused to merge with her religious settlement became known as ‘recusants’, and would be the focus of Walsingham’s superstition.
- The greatest threat to Protestant England was Spain, wealthy and populous with the ability to field a large army against England. In 1587, this threat was to become realised when Spain sent an Armada of 34 warships across the sea to invade England. The invasion was defeated by bad weather and bad timing more than English naval strength, but it was a crisis narrowly avoided. France and Scotland were also hostile to the English nation, and exiled English Catholics made a home for themselves in Paris.
- Elizabeth had no heir. She was the last of her line, and unless she married and had a son, the throne would pass either to the Greys or to Mary Queen of Scots, a Catholic. Several attempts to negotiate a marriage alliance with the Duke of Anjou ended in failure. Because of the woman’s submissive role in the 16th century marriage, any foreigner marrying the queen would lead to ‘blurred lines’. Who would rule the country? Elizabeth or her husband? The people of England had no wish to see the country ruled by a foreigner, as Bloody Mary had learnt when she tried to marry Philip of Spain.
Of course, these were only a few of the problems Elizabeth faced. The interesting point is that in this book, Elizabeth is not portrayed as the excellent leader for which most people take her. The author (John Cooper) makes frequent references to the queen shutting herself off for days when important decisions had to be made, unwilling to face difficult situations. Whether this view is valid or not, I would be the last person to say. Indeed, I would almost always trust a historian’s view over my own. But there you are. The most amusing of Cooper’s side notes are when he describes how she hit her privy councillors with her slippers, frustrated at some slight they had done her.
On the whole, and I think the author would agree with me, Walsingham did what needed to be done. His methods in dealing with hidden traitors were often questionable, but I feel that they were necessary. In the long run, Francis Walsingham and the spy network he controlled took such a harsh line against Catholics because they were in no position to take chances. The sad truth is that if England had let its guard down for one moment in those years, things might have gone very differently. There might not have been an Empire, or two World Wars. It’s impossible to tell if history would have been bloodier or more peaceful had Spain, France or the Pope managed to defeat England in one way or another, but I’m glad they didn’t.