The thought of a new book, from a proverbially establishmentarian imprint, on Elizabeth I’s spymaster is not one that immediately gladdens the heart. Anyone who has actually been expected to spend time in modern England – rather than simply viewing it through a Downton-Abbey-generated haze – knows perfectly well that English anti-Catholicism has reached during the last 15 years its highest level since the mid-19th century, if not since the 1780 Gordon Riots. The Tony Blair imperium’s successful bullying of Catholic adoption agencies into accepting the homosexualist agenda inspired no serious opposition, from either the national episcopate or what passes for the wider national intelligentsia. English bishops and their lay stooges who repeatedly screamed themselves into a state of laryngitis about the evils of “racism” and “fascism”, not to mention the SSPX’s incurable depravity, found that appeasing Organized Sodom raised no moral issues whatsoever.
If anything, English hatred of Catholics has been for decades much more virulent among so-called conservatives of the Hugh Trevor-Roper breed – a breed of which Andrew Roberts represents the present age’s best-known genetic freak – than within even the blatant Maoist Left. One can well imagine the loutish chauvinist Roberts subjecting Sir Francis Walsingham to unashamed hagiography, making him a kind of Christopher Hitchens avant la lettre. (Indeed, the future possibilities for Roberts’s anti-Catholic non-scholarship seem almost endless: Titus Oates As Thatcherite Hero; Katyn: Anatomy of a Suicide Pact; The Nazi Myth of F.D.R.’s Wheelchair.)
So a sense of profound relief dawns at the realization that John Cooper is a remarkably skilled scribe, free from obvious religious biases, yet with enough honesty to discern the crucial role of religion in all aspects of Elizabethan life. This role Walsingham appreciated at least as well as his Catholic enemies did. Augustine Birrell, Liberal cabinet minister and essayist of the early 20th century, summed matters up with a relevance especially appropriate in the Tudor context. To the Catholic, as Birrell (himself a Quaker) wrote, “It is the Mass that matters; it is the Mass that makes the difference, so hard to define, so subtle is it, yet so perceptible, between a Catholic country and a Protestant one.” Luther himself had said, with praiseworthy candor, “Tolle Missam, tolle Ecclesiam”: “If you take away the Mass, you take away the Church.” Thanks to Cooper’s unobtrusive narrative authority, readers are never allowed to forget what the stakes constituted in Walsingham’s era.
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Nobody knows exactly when Walsingham was born, though 1531 or 1532 is the likeliest year. He had an upbringing appropriate for one of Tudor England’s quintessential “new men”, neither aristocratic (in any event, an independent aristocracy had for all practical purposes perished in 1521, when Henry VIII sent the last Duke of Buckingham to the scaffold) nor overtly trade-oriented. More important to Walsingham than his nurture was the specific time at which he reached the age of reason. He belonged, as Cooper puts it, “to a generation of English men and women who had never known how to pray for the pope.” Through this, as through so much else, he differed from William Cecil, already in his teens during the Henrician schism.
Walsingham arrived at a Cambridge as gripped by nascent Protestantism as, in the 1930s, it would be gripped by nascent Stalinism. There the teachings of the classicist John Cheke – Cecil’s brother-in-law – deeply attracted him, although he would surely have arrived at his ultimate religious destination anyway, without Cheke’s example. More crucial than any single teacher was the failure of the overtly Protestant 1554 Wyatt rebellion against Mary I and her new husband, Spain’s Philip II. The rebels (who came much closer to success than the Pilgrimage of Grace had done 17 years beforehand) enjoyed, for a while, particular strength in Kent, a county which Walsingham knew well. Cooper conjectures that political considerations played at least a big a part as religious ones in guaranteeing Walsingham’s exile for the rest of Mary’s reign.
While Walsingham haunted Switzerland and northern Italy (during his period in Padua he acquired a quantity of wine and, surprisingly, a clavichord), the more malleable Cecil so completely adjusted to the Marian dispensation that he reinstated the Catholic Mass in his own household’s chapel. Cecil, in this, behaved much more typically than did Walsingham. John Foxe, of all unlikely people, found himself admitting that those in London who stayed loyal to Protestantism under Mary’s government “numbered … in the dozens rather than the hundreds.”
With Elizabeth’s accession in 1558, Walsingham became as happy as he could ever be. Cooper supplies enough evidence to demolish the hoary notion – which, it must be said, this reviewer long believed – that a discreet Catholic restoration under Elizabeth remained on the cards before 1570, when St. Pius V spectacularly upped the ante by declaring her excommunicate. Well before that declaration, Elizabeth had already purged most of the existing bishops for their “papist” sympathies. In liturgical affairs she had prohibited the elevation of the consecrated Host. Only on the secondary issue of opposing a married priesthood did she take Rome’s side. As early as 1567, at the village of Aysgarth in Yorkshire, parishioners found guilty of possessing “idols” and “old papistical books” were “forced,” Cooper informs us, “to burn them and stand barefoot in white sheets in a public shaming ritual.” A regime thereby determined to inflict conspicuous humiliation on unreconstructed Catholics clearly had no interest in simply letting them die out.
What arose in most cases was the phenomenon of the “Church papist”: the Catholic who dwelt just within the law by taking Communion in an Anglican service once per year. Very often, as students of human nature might expect, wives kept the Catholic faith alive in their own households, through private devotions, whilst their husbands’ “Church papist” adherence calmed suspicious authorities. Sometimes the private could be surprisingly public; the Paston family of Norfolk, patrons of William Byrd, would sing Catholic music – possibly including Byrd’s own – “in open possession around their gardens.” More often Catholic fealty would involve secret attics, priest-holes, and (with luck) a local magistrate prepared to ignore such observance.
The judicial murders of Campion (whom Cecil, in more felicitous times, had called “one of the diamonds of England”), of St. Margaret Clitherow, and of the other Elizabethan martyrs constituted spectacles of a value that Walsingham himself found dubious. Not through any misguided humanitarian sentiment, but because the victims’ “obstinacy,” in his own words, “moveth men to compassion and draweth some to affect their religion, upon conceit that such an extraordinary contempt of death cannot but proceed from above.” We must not make too much of this credo, nevertheless: the public hangings, drawings and quarterings continued as smoothly after these fine phrases were uttered as they had done before. (They continued even while the Armada’s defeat was being greeted with pleasure by the seminarians at Rome’s English College.)
So did the executions of those who openly planned, or ostensibly planned, regicide: the most bizarre of whom was the parliamentarian William Parry. The absolute incoherence of Parry’s stated motives makes the normally even-handed Cooper quail: “at this distance,” he sighs, “we simply cannot tell where his true identity lay, whether an agent provocateur in the English seminary in Rheims, or a Catholic traitor engaged in a breathtaking double bluff. Perhaps he no longer knew himself.”
This grand confusion can readily be observed, in any period, among those who spend too much time in secret police work. In a sense, it redounds perversely to Walsingham’s credit that even as his tactics involved recruiting agents, suborning double-agents, and if need be hiring the occasional triple-agent, his strategy remained clear: keeping Elizabeth alive and the “Whore of Babylon” at bay. He defended in theological terms not only the common-or-garden pursuit of recusant priests, but also the celebrated forgeries by which he destroyed Mary Queen of Scots: “I see the wicked creature,” he assured the Earl of Leicester, “ordained of God to punish us for our sins and unthankfulness.”
In 1590, following years of poor health, Walsingham died: without any of the sensational scenes that certain Catholic gossips optimistically attributed to his final illness. “Mortality,” Cooper remarks, “probably held few terrors for [him]. Calvinists usually included themselves among the elect, while the torment of purgatory was just so much monks’ cant.” No nonsense about offering a state funeral crossed Elizabeth’s mind. Probably she had never forgiven Walsingham for clandestinely ensuring Maria Stuarda’s 1587 decapitation – he went so far as to brief the executioner personally – before she had taken the chance to change her decision for the umpteenth time. Quite apart from his having thus affronted her sense of monarchical decorum, her natural parsimony would have prevented an adequate recompense for her most pitiless and most dedicated servant.
Everything Walsingham did, he did on a budget that these days would scarcely cover Diet Coke consignments in the F.B.I.’s Arkansas branch office. “It is,” Cooper justly states, “this absence of bureaucracy which makes Walsingham’s achievement so remarkable.” The absence of many other weapons too.
Unlike modern totalitarians, Walsingham possessed no radio network; no telephones (and hence no wiretapping); no institutionalized Papa-Doc-type security force for setting against the permanent army (indeed, no permanent army); no significant military aid from foreign allies; no posse of sycophantic foreign intellectuals. Perhaps more astonishing still, he had at his disposal no daily gutter-press to whip semi-literates into cyclic hysteria. Likewise, he could not benefit – as can any Third World president-for-life, however inherently half-witted, in 2012 – from mass university enrollment, to engender clerks so reliably treasonous that the merest thought of ethics higher than raison d’état nowhere assails them. As a guide for optimizing picayune administrative resources and for transcending technological limitations, Walsingham’s term as England’s de facto Prime Minister has a permanent managerial interest, to say nothing of its doctrinal import.
The Queen’s Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth I (Faber & Faber)