Elizabeth's Spymaster by Robert Hutchinson

What Tony Blair could learn from the torturer
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The Independent Culture

The J Edgar Hoover of his time - universally disliked even by his political allies but feared and considered indispensable - Walsingham mastered all the supposedly modern arts of the spymaster: signals intelligence, cryptanalysis, disinformation, psychological warfare, lying propaganda and the art of running agent provocateurs, double agents, torturers and assassins. He was expert at "turning" enemy agents and knew how to use money and bribes to the best advantage. When England was in danger from the Spanish Armada, he got the banking houses of northern Italy, like the Corsinis, to refuse credit to Philip II of Spain; unfortunately for him, Philip immediately got the Vatican to plug the financial hole.

Walsingham expressed his credo as follows: "Without torture I know we shall not prevail." Walsingham relished his various instruments of barbarity: the rack, the "Scavenger's Daughter" (an iron band compressing the head), the "Little Ease" (a room so small that the prisoner could not sit down), rat-infested oubliettes and the peine forte et dure (pressing to death with rocks). As his chief torturer he employed a genuine sadist and sociopath with morbid sexual fantasies, one Richard Topliffe, the self-styled "priestfinder-general". Torture in England reached its apogee under "good Queen Bess" and was a source of scandal to other European courts in an age not noted for its humanitarianism. Cruel and barbarous torturers may be, but it is their crass stupidity that most impresses historians, since men put to the torture will confess to anything and simply tell their tormentors what they want to hear. Yet Walsingham did not limit himself to psychopaths as his employees. Thomas Phelippes, his master cryptanalyst and forger, was a man of genuine intellect, and another luminary on Walsingham's payroll was the playwright Christopher Marlowe. The only slight comfort the reader of all these unsavoury practices can derive is that by and large Walsingham's agents were uninterested in his anti-Catholic zealotry and were concerned only with money. Money too was the rock on which Walsingham almost perished, for the notoriously tightfisted Elizabeth almost ruined his elaborate spy network by her parsimony; there is a mystery about Walsingham's declaration of bankruptcy shortly before his death,since he had received many favours and emoluments,but it may be that he had to finance some of his anti-Catholic operations out of his own money.

Robert Hutchinson's lucid and learned volume gives us a vivid portrait of Walsingham and clears up many of the conundrums that have beset academics interested in the spymaster's career. He demonstrates that Walsingham's hatred of Mary Queen of Scots was every bit as poisonous as that of Robert Cecil, universally recognised as her nemesis. Hutchinson also probes deeply into the inner Walsingham, uncovering a genuine egomaniac and prima donna, who absented himself from court if he felt he had been slighted or unappreciated, pleading his well-known and habitual ill-health. The man who emerges from Hutchinson's careful study is a dismal apology for a human being, a loathsome spider.

On only one occasion did he strike the right note, though even here one suspects rationalisation, since he had been passed over for the highest honours by a queen who personally detested him, while appreciating his value to her. Speaking of the honours system, Walsingham remarked: "As for titles, which at first were the marks of power and other rewards of virtue, they are now according to their name... like the titles of books, which for the most part, the more glorious things they promise, let a man narrowly peruse them over, the less substance he shall find in them. I say, let a man by doing worthy acts deserve honour and although he do not attain it, yet he is much happier than he that gets it without dessert." Words that Tony Blair and New Labour might do well to ponder.

Hutchinson has written an excellent book, but there is one thing that puzzles me. It is more than surprising that a writer who saw through the disgusting Henry VIII, as Hutchinson did in his last book, should be so indulgent towards his equally bloodthirsty and rebarbative daughter. Hutchinson's case for Walsingham is that he saved England through his espionage network. He didn't: the Armada campaign was lost by Spanish incompetence rather than won by English seamanship or intelligence. As for the threat to Elizabeth and Protestantism from invasion and assassination threats, these were perils she brought on herself, by the anti-Catholic zealotry which led to her excommunication by Pope Pius V in 1570, by her meddling in European politics, especially the Spanish Netherlands, by her encouragement of piracy and preying on Spanish possessions in the Indies by her "sea dogs". Alongside his myopic, indulgent view of the foreign policy of Elizabeth I, Hutchinson reaches for hyperbole when trying to justify the unjustifiable in the form of Walsingham. "It is now time," he says, "for him to come out of the darkened wings to receive the audience's applause for his unique role in creating the England, the Britain we know today." After all his wickedness, it is a kind of poetic justice that Walsingham should be regarded as the spiritual father of mugging, binge-drinking, gang warfare, universal thuggery and the other glories of modern Britain.