h i st or y
His critics claim that in his eagerness to incriminate Mary, Walsingham resorted to entrapment. ‘The Papists accused him as a cunning workman in complotting his businesses and alluring men into dangers.’ He let Mary think she had established a foolproof way of communicating secretly with her supporters, when in fact all her correspondence passed first through his own hands. When Mary endorsed a plot to kill Elizabeth, the secretary pounced, confident that Elizabeth could no longer resist the clamour for Mary’s head. At her trial Mary taxed him with trickery, to which Walsingham retorted that though he had ‘curiously searched out the practices’ against the state, he had ‘done nothing unbeseeming an honest man’. Walsingham’s detractors have condemned this response as Machiavellian and evasive, but such criticism is not entirely fair. Walsingham may have used enticement to ensure that Mary compromised herself, but her sanctioning of a murderous attack upon Elizabeth was entirely voluntary.
Walsingham’s grasp of foreign intelligence was no less impressive than his monitoring of the English domestic scene. Within days of Philip II of Spain receiving a report from his admiral outlining the resources he required for an invasion of England, Walsingham had a copy of the document. On learning that the English ambassador to France was betraying secrets to Spain, Walsingham fed him with false information, designed to mislead the enemy. After the Armada was dispersed in 1588, one admirer told the secretary, ‘You have fought more with your pen than many have in our English navy.’
At a time when religious extremism and terrorism have once again become intertwined, and the response of supposedly civilised nations has all too often involved recourse to torture, this biography of Walsingham is timely. Making full use of recent scholarship, John Cooper neither vilifies nor lionises his subject, preferring to set his actions in context. It would, perhaps, have been welcome if he could have devoted more attention to Walsingham’s place within the factional struggles at court, and to his relations with Lord Burghley, but Cooper does not neglect other less wellknown aspects of Walsingham’s career, such as his involvement in colonising ventures. Inevitably Walsingham will always remain a bête noire of English Catholics, but Cooper’s lucid and readable study of this ‘most subtle searcher of hidden secrets’ does much to show that Walsingham’s work was (as one of his agents said of the profession of spying itself ) ‘odious though necessary’. To order this book for £16, see the Literary Review Bookshop on page 29
p e t e r marshal l
Dynasty Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England
By Thomas Penn (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press 448pp £20)
It is hard to understand why the reign of Henry VII has for so long had the reputation of being one of the most boring periods of English history. Perhaps it is because successive generations of A-level students have been made to wrestle with the technical aspects of bonds and recognisances, and to memorise the contents of trade treaties called things like the Malus Intercursus. In fact, Henry’s story is truly remarkable and often engrossing. He was a king who, in the final stages of the Wars of the Roses, as Thomas Penn puts it, ‘appeared out of nowhere’ – an obscure exile who seized the throne from Richard III in 1485 with a single, desperate throw of the dice. His enjoyment of it might easily have been brief. He faced a succession of serious challenges, not merely from the pretenders Lambert Simnel and Perkin Warbeck (reduced, unfairly, to comic-opera status by 1066 and All That), but from Cornish rebels, hostile foreign powers, and bona fide Yorkist heavyweights such as the Earl of Suffolk. Treason, real and imagined, festered in the highest circles of the land throughout his reign. Henry’s response was to enmesh his leading subjects in layers of financial threat and obligation, employing the talents of a crew of ruthless cronies operating through the euphemistically titled Council Learned in the Law. Resentments quietly mushroomed. That Henry’s son succeeded him, unchallenged, in 1509 must be regarded as a triumph against the odds.
It is pushing things a bit to suggest, as Penn does in his introduction, that this story has hitherto been ‘ largely untold’; his own endnotes and acknowledgements reveal a heavy debt to recent academic scholarship. Nor does the account here contain many startling new
Terracotta bust of Henry VII by Pietro Torrigiano revelations or original insights into the character of the reign. The shakily insecure foundations of the Tudor dynasty; Henry VII’s persistent political paranoia; his rule through an escalating system of fiscal tyranny; the intense (and ultimately misplaced) optimism upon the accession of Henry VIII – these are all familiar themes to anyone who has studied the period. Penn does, however, succeed in investing the material with urgency and eloquence, and imposes on
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