The Queen’s Agent: Sir Francis Walsingham and the Rise of Espionage in Elizabethan England by John Cooper

Much has been written of Sir Francis Walsingham, both as a hero to the realm and as a Machiavellian puppet master. As with anything in history, the truth is usually somewhere in the middle, and this book does a fine job of navigating the waters of statecraft and espionage that were virtually uncharted at the time. John Cooper paints a nuanced picture of Elizabethan England, explaining how it developed to what we know it to be and what particular threats were faced at the time, and then maps out exactly what Walsingham felt he had to do and why. The end result is that we get a complex look at something that’s usually painted as two-dimensional, and Walsingham himself comes across as both hero and villain within the subtext of his era. It’s fascinating to see how this compares to other spy/torture setups across other times and places in history as well as how the ramifications continue to affect our modern world.

Champions of Elizabeth may have problems with the notion that the events and attitudes described in this book make the queen look weaker than modern perception might paint her otherwise. I think that assessment is to be expected considering Walsingham’s operating procedure was that he only had to be wrong once for Elizabeth to be assassinated, whereas the outside forces had many opportunities to plan and attempt. Personally, I think this fits perfectly with my own understanding of how flighty and prone to tantrums Elizabeth could be at times, which is one of the aspects Walsingham had to work around when positioning his network. But that’s just my perception. Regardless of how you want to perceive the queen, the fact remains, she had enemies aplenty, both within and without, both religious and secular. To protect her was a Herculean job by any standard of the day, and for me it’s a treat to peel back the layers and see how it was handled. From the perspective of a post-9/11 world, it rings with familiar echoes.

4 stars

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