The Elizabethan Secret Service; & Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair

Kevin Sharpe | Published in History Today

The Elizabethan Secret Service

Alison Plowden – Harvester, 1991 - ix + 158 pp. - £30

Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair

John Bossy - Yale University Press, 1991 - xix + 294 pp. - £16.95 ($29.95)

Living in a secret society with its complex network of unarticulated codes, the English are particularly fascinated with espionage. And perhaps the less than open dealings in their own world has always drawn academics to the subject and business of spying – and in the distant no less than recent past. We have long known that Elizabethan England had little to learn from modern regimes about espionage, and the name of Marlowe provides a link with the scholarly world. But Alison Plowden provides some valuable details and John Bossy some startling new findings about spies and scholars during the decades of plots and fears of invasion in late Tudor England.

Plowden's Elizabethan Secret Service is a study of the discovery and breaking of the Ridolfi, Throckmorton and Babington plots against Elizabeth, the Earl of Essex's intended coup in 1601, and the Powder Plot against James I. In each case she attributes the neutralisation of the threat to the skilful intelligence networks, primarily of Walsingham, until his death in 1590, and of the Cecils. In several cases sophisticated intelligence led to the use of agents provocateurs in order to probe the depths of conspiracy or trap the principal plotters – as they did Mary Queen of Scots in the 1580s and the Percies in 1605. The account, often familiar, is most interesting on characters like William Herle, George Elliot, William Parry and other 'shadow men only rarely emerging into the daylight'.

Stories of ciphers hidden under roof tiles, mirrors with a false back for illicit correspondence, and brewers and others acting as double (even triple?) agents offer fascinating insights into the precursors of Bond and Q. Overall, however, because it is based on no new research the book has little of substance to offer as history. And the style is too pedestrian and cliched to make of its promising subject a gripping story. By contrast, John Bossy's Embassy Affair informs and excites, as he tracks down the man hiding behind the name and pen of Henry Fagot. Fagot was the mole (within the French embassy of Michel de Castelnau) who forwarded to Walsingham intelligence of plots to place Mary Queen of Scots as a Guise puppet on the English throne. Bossy's book is a detective story: the pursuit of an intriguing character who operated as a priest, devised his own form of lie detector, wrote a number of hands, and transmitted news of fictional plots (for one to poison the queen’s underwear) as well as the invaluable intelligence that exposed Throckmorton.

Perhaps disappointingly early we learn that Henry Fagot's appearance in 1583 and mysterious disappearance in 1586 coincide with the movements of another resident in Castelnau's household, the philosopher and magus, Giordano Bruno. But while the suspense fades, the excitement of the detection begins as Bossy proceeds brilliantly to prove his identification. The skills deployed are anything but elementary my dear reader. Bossy dazzlingly masters the technical differences of half a dozen hands, deploys his familiarity with Italian, French and Spanish to probe the wilful grammatical errors of a man disguising his origin, and draws on amateur psychology to identify Fagot not only as Bruno's pseudonym but also his alter ego. Most impressive of all is the close, sensitive and subtle reading of Bruno's fiction (especially The Ash Wednesday Supper) for clues to historical reality: an analysis of language, tone, nuance and irony which is a model of how the historian and critic might proceed from world to text and back.

While reading, I confess to wondering whether the subject was worthy of the brilliance and industry. But we now know that Bruno the philosopher and atheist who loved a joke and claimed the Song of Songs gave him an erection was also an astute politician and successful spy. The implications of that discovery point the need for a full reconsideration of Bruno's extraordinary life – and death. I suspect that Professor Bossy, for all his critical evaluation of him, was led on by Bruno's sheer mystery and that his brilliant detection was fired by Bruno's own challenge: 'everything worthwhile is difficult'.

Kevin Sharpe is the author of the forthcoming The Personal Rule of Charles I.

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