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The Queen's Agent: Francis Walsingham…

The Queen's Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth I

by John Cooper

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This was an interesting description of the life and times of Francis Walsingham, a man who rose to power in the court of Elizabeth I, at a time of great threatened instability from enemies both within the country and from the outside.
Although unwell for much of his life, he spent all his energies in the protection of his country and his queen by building up a vast network of spies to keep an eye on people on the continent and people within the country who were colluding with the interests of the Spanish and the Catholic cause.
Not all of his actions were particularly praiseworthy--looking at the way he forced confessions from enemies of the State, but he did not end up enriched from his service as many other people did and he behaved with bravery when it would have been safer not to. ( )
  quiBee | Jan 21, 2016 |
Francis Walsingham was Principal Secretary to Queen Elizabeth I and ran a network of informers across Europe to support him. He used the intelligence he received to thwart a number of threats to Elizabeth and to bolster England's position as a junior member of the great nations of Europe. As a Protestant queen Elizabeth was under almost constant threat of attack - personal, political, military, religious - from Catholic regimes on mainland Europe, none more ardent than Philip II of Spain. Undoubtedly, Walsingham was a key player in keeping Elizabeth safe and in power, and in developing England's international reach, primarily into Ireland and America. Walsingham was at the heart of the English response to the Spanish Armada.

The problem is that so little is known about Walsingham that biography is almost impossible. All his personal papers were destroyed after his death by his wife, so all that remains are the State papers related to his work as Principal Secretary. Clearly, for a man working in the shadows of intelligence, these papers may not have always told the whole or true story. This reduces this book to an overview of the history of Elizabeth's reign focusing on those events in which Walsingham would or should have contributed. However, for much of the time he seems to be completely absent from the narrative, and often when he is present our view of him is obscured by lots of 'mights' and 'probables' and 'shoulds'.

A good overview of the key political issues of Elizabeth's reign, but does not get close to Walsingham either as a man or as a player in this turbulent time. ( )
1 vote pierthinker | Dec 12, 2015 |
A frustrating book, but an important one.

Important because this is an excellent study of fanaticism and religious extremism. Anyone who wishes to understand the turbulence that competing religious views cause would find this book a valuable insight into why people are driven to acts of terror or martyrdom in the name of their religion. Cooper also provides an acute understanding of the domestic religious troubles that have shaped the United Kingdom since the split with Rome.

The religious fundamentalism being explored here is that of Protestants and Catholics in the time of Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, when religious arguments were settled by seeing just how flammable the opposition’s books and believers were. It was a time when, depending upon your point of view, foreign trained insurgents were causing unrest and threatening the security of the state, or missionaries were trying to save souls.

Francis Walsingham considered the security of the Crown, be that the state or the person of Queen Elizabeth, paramount. As a result, he ruthlessly protected the both from assaults foreign and domestic by establishing what would now be considered a surveillance network throughout Europe and variously banging up, torturing or making life uncomfortable for anyone he considered a threat or, as we know them today, Catholics.

The importance of religion, both as a personal belief and as a tool of compliance with the state cannot be overstated. If all you had was a life of turnips and toil, the promise of a better life after death was a powerful carrot – quite a lure if all you eat is turnips.

It’s also something of a frustrating read. The book is densely packed with facts and personalities, but comes alive when describing life in Elizabethan England (toil, soil, religious oppression and the constant threat of invasion). England is, however, paradise compared to the rest of Europe, where religious wars and competing dynasties make for an exciting life. Especially in Paris where, if Cooper is to be believed, the locals made massacring protestants something of a hobby.

The book needs to be twice as long. It would have been excellent to have more context, more background on life in the period, because there is much to fascinate. There are tantalising mentions of Elizabeth’s ‘processions’ around the country, which explains why so many houses have a little plaque explaining ‘Elizabeth I slept here’. Elizabeth undertook these processions as much to get away from tiresome foreign dignitaries visiting court and casually proposing royal matches for the virgin queen as to meet with gentry anxious to put the local plaque maker to work.

Walsingham’s origins and rise are well documented (it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, and who you are married to…until you attain power, then it’s what you know and you had better know your stuff). Cunning and ruthless, he puts the security of the state before everything else, including his own health and certainly before the health of Mary Queen of Scots. There are fascinating passages about the use of ciphers and espionage and although Cooper is at pains to point out that Walsingham did not create the secret service as we know it, he is described as an arch spymaster.

But it’s the details though that fascinate. No wonder Walsingham was using, and cracking, ciphers and codes, when paintings and portraits contained symbols and hidden messages. And it was not just messages that were hidden, priests were hiding and catholic gentry were celebrating mass in private chapels. There’s even common use of the word ‘recusants’ – surely one of the most charming words one could come across. Naturally, if you were one, things got sticky.

Walsingham was an important man. Cooper leaves it for the reader, and history, to judge if he was national hero, or a monster. (In this sense, more background information would have been useful, Elizabethan scholars could have skipped bits about the wearing of a ruff if they already knew it).

But the core message, the threat to the state, the determination of religious extremists, and the determination of those who stand against them with their own extreme views and methods on the preservation of the state, is well made. ( )
1 vote macnabbs | Sep 22, 2013 |
When the Elizabethan era is mentioned, I immediately think of Shakespeare and the Spanish Armada. Religion doesn't immediately come to mind. Yet religious matters occupied much of the public career of Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I's principal secretary for nearly two decades. Walsingham, a dedicated Protestant, was vigilant to protect queen and country from Catholic invasion. He developed a network of informers, some of whom were double agents, to stay a step ahead of Catholic plots to kill Elizabeth and put a Catholic monarch in her place.

I was interested in the descriptions of the multitude of documents that Walsingham produced – correspondence, position papers, and reports. Walsingham couldn't have succeeded in his role without the ability to process a great deal of information and organize it in a useful system.

I had never given much thought to the cost of government in Elizabethan England. Financing the nation's defense was a problem. Public figures like Walsingham were expected to fund their own work, and the demands of Walsingham's office often exceeded his income.

Although Walsingham wasn't a particularly likeable man, his life makes for interesting reading. He either influenced or was influenced by many historic events, including the Reformation communities in Switzerland, the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in France, the death of Mary, Queen of Scots, the settling of the Roanoke Colony, and the defense against the Spanish Armada. While there are lots of names, dates, and places mentioned in the book, the big picture of Walshingham's life doesn't get lost in the details. Recommended for readers with an interest in the Elizabethan era.

This review is based on an electronic advanced reading copy provided by the publisher through NetGalley. ( )
  cbl_tn | Mar 10, 2013 |
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The definitive book about Francis Walsingham, the first great English spymaster and the man who saved Elizabeth's regime and England's independence. Elizabeth I came to the throne at a time of insecurity and unrest. Rivals threatened her reign; England was a Protestant island, isolated in a sea of Catholic countries. Spain plotted an invasion, but Elizabeth's Secretary, Francis Walsingham, was prepared to do whatever it took to protect her. He ran a network of agents in England and Europe who provided him with information about invasions or assassination plots. He recruited likely young men and 'turned' others. He encouraged Elizabeth to make war against the Catholic Irish rebels, with extreme brutality and oversaw the execution of Mary Queen of Scots. The Queen's Agent is a story of secret agents, cryptic codes and ingenious plots, set in a turbulent period of England's history. It is also the story of a man devoted to his queen, sacrificing his every waking hour to save the threatened English state.… (more)

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