Magazine article The Spectator

Ministry of Fear

Magazine article The Spectator

Ministry of Fear

Article excerpt

ELIZABETH'S SPY MASTER : FRANCIS WALSINGHAM AND THE SECRET WAR THAT SAVED ENGLAND by Robert Hutchinson Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20, p. 416, ISBN 0297846132 . £16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Just because you're paranoid, as the cliché runs, it doesn't mean that they aren't out to get you.

They certainly were out to get Queen Elizabeth I -- and how.

Her situation was strange and dangerous.

She was a Protestant queen ruling a country the majority of whose citizens remained Catholic. 'The ancient faith still lay like lees at the bottoms of men's hearts, ' as Sir Ralph Sadler, a member of her Privy Council quoted here, put it, 'and if the vessel were ever so little stirred, comes to the top.' She was obliged to harbour the main Catholic hope for succession, Mary, Queen of Scots, in her own kingdom, albeit under house arrest. And in 1570 the Pope issued the bull Regnans in Excelsis, which excommunicated the Queen and absolved her subjects of their allegiance to her, effectively declaring open season for any Catholic with a mind to assassination or rebellion. Many of them took the hint.

Francis Walsingham was, if you like, Elizabeth's paranoiac-in-chief. In a career marked by extraordinary deviousness and ruthlessness, he set about foiling and undermining a host of threats against the English crown, real or imagined, competent or bumbling and ranging from poisoning plots, via local uprisings, to a full-scale Spanish Armada. He was both spy master and secret policeman, running a network of paid informers at home and abroad, dealing in complex codes and invisible inks, 'turned' agents, intercepted letters, and, of course and especially, torture. He wouldn't cut an attractive figure to a modern human rights lawyer, but he was jolly good at his job.

Walsingham's fervour in the cause was not merely ideological. One of his formative experiences, his biographer suggests, came early in his career, when he was ambassador to Paris and witnessed the genocidal massacre of the Huguenots on St Bartholomew's Day. Throats were slashed, heads hacked off, bodies gibbeted;

70,000 Protestants died in the ensuing violence in France, and Walsingham may have been lucky to escape Paris with his life. His memory of the day will have given him a visceral reason to dread the return of a Catholic ascendancy to the English throne. He sought to prevent it, as they now say, 'by any means necessary'.

'Without torture, ' he said, 'we will not prevail.' These were truly horrible times, and Walsingham's network of informers and enforcers included some truly horrible people. Most horrible of the lot was the executioner and torturer Richard Topcliffe. Hutchinson notes:

Today Topcliffe would be labelled an out-and-out certifiable sadist, possessing unhealthy sexual fantasies. In the 1580s-90s, the authorities regarded him as a determined hunter of fugitive priests, whom he pursued with a grim, paranoid persistence verging on obsession. He sought them out like a circling jackal that never deviates from its quarry, always sensing and seeking out their weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Pity the poor priest or recusant who fell into his merciless clutches.

That's a clumsy piece of writing (in a book, unfortunately, containing a lot of clumsy writing), but you get the general idea.

Topcliffe spent a lifetime cheerfully torturing, racking, hanging, disembowelling, and flinging still-beating hearts into braziers (great box office, in those days). …

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