The Queen’s Agent – John Cooper

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Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth 1st is the longer title of this book.  It’s the back story to lots of stuff that we all learned at school about the Tudors: death plots against Elizabeth, relations with Spain and France, the Scottish queen,  the impact of the Protestant reformation on C16 politics.

Walsingham was a name I had heard, but I knew little about him.  Exiled to Paris in the reign of Queen Mary, he witnessed the St Bartholomew’s day massacres.  His presence in Paris during Mary’s reign was testament to the depth of his protestant feelings, and his experience of this massacre of French protestants is cited as a significant influence on the development of his character.

In Elizabeth’s reign the tables were turned and the English Catholics lived in exile, in many cases travelling to Rome and Spain to find support for their anti-protestant cause. A school for English priests was set up in France, and many Cambridge graduates found their way there.  The existence of priest holes in English houses dates from this period: Walsingham was active in identifying these wandering priests who supported the recusant nobility as they attempted to remain loyal to their Catholic faith.

This book gives a detailed and interesting account of this time – when Catholic threats, and Spanish galleons helped establish a clear Protestant identity for the English nation, and when Protestant incursions into Ireland created a reaction in the opposite direction – to an Irish nationhood defined by anti-English, anti-Protestant sentiment.  Walsingham was active in both these areas, in protecting the queen from threats from within and outside the borders, and in promoting the first colonies – in Ireland and America.

It was interesting to read that in this period the use of torture was justified as a response to the terrorist incursions of Catholics in England!

It’s hard to gauge the limits of Walsingham’s influence on us today: he protected the Protestant idea of man’s direct access to God through Christ, which was an incredible step in the direction of the sort of individuality that typifies the modern world.  It’s not a world that Walsingham would have wanted though – he would require much more acknowledgement of God and the Bible, as would I.

Daily Telegraph Review

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