Click here to read reviewer Br. Benet Exton's take on Elizabeth's Spymaster.
Elizabeth's Spymaster by Robert Hutchinson tells the story of Francis Walsingham and the numerous Catholic plots to rid Europe of this Protestant queen, culminating in the attempted invasion of England by the Spanish Armada in 1588. The book implies that it is a biography of Walsingham and a detailed account of the great lengths he went to in order to keep his queen and country safe. However, it loses its way occasionally when it turns into a general history of middle-Elizabethan times. We learn a lot about what type of queen Elizabeth was that doesn’t seem to fit the image the general public has of her (as seen in the numerous movies) and how she interacted with her Privy Court, of which Walsingham was a member.
Sadly, Hutchinson tries to make the book relevant by citing how comfortable Walsingham would be with today’s anti-terror laws and other aspects of the war on terror. Rather than blatantly pointing these things out, I would have preferred that Hutchinson let readers come to these conclusions themselves. These passages in the book feel clunky and unnecessary, but thankfully are mostly confined to the prologue. Other aspects of Hutchinson’s writing are better, though none of them stand out as marvelously gripping. Instead, he tells a basic history in a straightforward manner that doesn’t get too boring for the reader. He’s also picked an interesting subject, which definitely helps.
Walsingham was basically the head of Elizabeth’s intelligence and secret police organization, ferreting out Catholic plots against the Queen or just general rebellions (though they all seemed religiously-motivated at the time) and doing an effective job at it. He was a brilliant tactician and willing to use torture to get what he wanted. He was also not above falsifying evidence in order to break up supposed plots. On the other hand, he is greatly credited, along with the ring of spies which he cultivated, with getting information on the Armada forming in Spanish waters for the imminent invasion. This was his greatest triumph, and Hutchinson effectively leads the reader along the path that Walsingham followed to get this information.
The other main focus of Elizabeth's Spymaster is Mary, Queen of Scots, the Scottish queen (and mother of King James VI of Scotland) whom Elizabeth imprisoned as a threat to her authority shortly after taking over as Queen. Mary became the focal point for many Catholic plots against Elizabeth, and Walsingham was a staunch advocate of getting rid of her as soon as possible. This continued for almost fifteen years before finally they were able to bring formal charges against her after Walsingham was able to read her encoded mail. The book deals with Mary extensively and almost seems a biography of her at times.
What I found exceptionally fascinating about the book is how it portrays Elizabeth as a penny-pinching, irritable monarch who often went off into a rage when one of her counselors upset her. She’s vindictive, holding a grudge for long periods of time, and dismissive of many of her closest advisors when the mood suits her. She eventually relents and signs the death warrant for Mary, but when her Council carries it out before she can change her mind, she erupts and literally throws one of her counselors in prison for a while. She is portrayed as being overly cautious, wanting to make peace with Spain at almost any cost, and Walsingham often registers his frustration and disgust at the way she stymies his plots. In fact, he personally goes into debt to pay for some of his spies because Elizabeth won’t fund his position fully. It really is a fascinating look at her, and unfortunately I don’t know how accurate the portrayal is because I haven’t read much about her. My perceptions are based mainly on modern media, such as the movies, and thus it was quite a shock to see her like this.
One other wonderful aspect of Elizabeth's Spymaster is that it is fully researched and documented. Copious notes are in every chapter; unlike some history books, where notes essentially tell you where the author got his/her information, these notes often provide further information about whatever it is Hutchinson has noted, perhaps giving further information on one of the people he has just named. They are quite important to getting the full experience from the book, which makes it annoying that they’re in the back of the book instead of included as footnotes. I had to hold this rather heavy hardcover book with a spare finger in the back (or an extra bookmark) just to read the notes. Not the most comfortable reading posture, especially when there are often two or three notes in one single paragraph.
Hutchinson even provides a “Who’s Who” list of the various spies that Walsingham enlisted, including the fact that these are only the known (or possibly suspected) ones. There could easily have been many more. These names are cross-referenced with their aliases if they have one, and it’s a very thorough list. It’s intriguing to see just how extensive Walsingham’s network was, and all the various walks of life from which they came.
Where Elizabeth's Spymaster fails is in conveying just who Walsingham was. This is probably due to the extremely secretive nature of the man himself, but it’s a detriment that we don’t get a lot of information about how he came to be involved in the spy business. We are given to believe that Walsingham’s extreme anti-Catholic feelings were a result of the massacre of Protestants in Paris while he was there as ambassador, but we’re never really sure. We also don’t get much detail on his childhood or formative years, though there is some.
It’s also tough to get a read on how Hutchinson views Walsingham (which admittedly can be a good thing, as we certainly can’t tell what his bias is). He alternates between crediting Walsingham with saving England and slyly taking potshots at current American policy by saying how well his methods would fit in with what’s going on today. Sometimes he appears to admire Walsingham and sometimes he appears to condemn him.
Ultimately, Elizabeth's Spymaster is an interesting book examining the religious conflicts between aspects of Christianity in the 16th century, and how Elizabeth reigning in England stuck in the craw of Catholics all over Europe, as well as in England. Hutchinson often talks about how the Pope and Catholic Spain wanted desperately to depose her, and how the Pope’s excommunication of Elizabeth from the church seemingly opened the door for any conscientious Catholic to remove her if at all possible. Hutchinson sets the scene well, and while his writing style doesn’t keep you reading, the facts that he presents definitely will. If you have any interest in the period, this would be a good place to start.