Shielding Elizabeth from Storm

This is my review of The Queen’s Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth I by John Cooper.

This begins like a novel with Walsingham, the English ambassador in Paris, risking his life by harbouring a Huguenot in a vain attempt to save him from the St Barthelomew's Day Massacre in 1572. This appalling event was critical in convincing Walsingham of the absolute necessity of preventing a Catholic invasion of England.

Although destined to play second fiddle to Lord Cecil, Walsingham filled a major role as Principal Secretary to Elizabeth, heavily involved in foreign policy, negotiating the thorny paths of her phony marriage plans, promoting early abortive attempts to extend English influence by founding colonies in North America, but most of all organising a network of secret agents to glean evidence of plots amongst Catholics at home and abroad.

Cooper provides a somewhat repetitive but fascinating analysis of how English Catholics who mostly just wanted to be free to worship "in the old way" were hardened into plotting against Elizabeth by the influence of priests who set up seminaries abroad and ventured into England, at great risk and personal cost, to spread the word. It was a vicious circle in which repressive laws, an inevitable result of foiled rebellions and plots, only made the English Catholics feel more persecuted and rebellious. Cooper debates whether Walsingham was guilty of "entrapment" by infiltrating Catholic families with agents who encouraged them to intrigue against the Queen.

Some events, such as the Throckmorton plot, are not easy to follow since they are presented in a rather fragmented way, and the whole structure of the book is a little disjointed, so that the abrupt switch from Walsingham's reliance on ciphers and code breakers to troubles in Ireland and attempts to found a colony at Roanoke feels like reading two fresh books in which he scarcely figures.

Yet, a sense of Walsingham the man comes through clearly: puritanical but not fanatical, loyal and industrious, stymied by the queen's periods of indecision. While giving her lavish presents, he was reduced to debt partly through being obliged to pay for some of his security work himself, not to mention the indignity of having an ungrateful queen throw a slipper in his face. His occasional bursts of written frustration to others seem almost modern in tone, and very human.

A few clear maps would have been useful, say of the ill-fated colony on Roanoke Island, the ports ravaged by Drake in the Spanish Empire, or even the route taken by the Armada. A timeline and list of main characters for easy reference would also assist the general reader. The illustrations are interesting, but need a full page each to do them justice.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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