Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,

Under the Molehill: An Elizabethan Spy Story, by John Bossy

Second paragraph of third chapter:
Nevertheless, to judge from the abstract in the Calendar, six months later he was still on the job, coaxing along one of Mary's correspondents in London. It emerged from the letter itself that Williams was not doing quite what one had supposed. It had no address, but had evidently not been written to Mary: nobody, in August 1583, was likely to write to her about the peace and quiet of her present state and kingdom. The 'sovereign lady' addressed was Elizabeth, and the person to whom the queen had written the letter it mentioned was or hoped to be serving her, not Mary. The letter to the unnamed 'party' must have been delivered by Williams himself, and he was reporting a conversation he had had with him after delivering it. The party, when he had read the letter, was not enthusiastic; he said it was not in the queen's handwriting, with which he was familiar. He was in a panic: the queen was asking him to do 'a thing wheron his life dependeth'. He was also very nervous that others than those originally acquainted with the matter had been let into the secret; he would not continue if anybody else was brought in.
The late great John Bossy was a family friend, and my sister's godfather; his best book is still Christianity in the West, 1400-1700, but towards the end of his career he achieved a remarkable coup of winning both the Wolfson History Prize and the Crime Writers Association Gold Dagger for Non-Fiction for Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair, which examined the connections between the Renaissance philosopher and the murky world of espionage in Elizabethan London. This short, dense book concerns one particular wrinkle of the wider story of which Giordano Bruno was also part - identifying the individual who at a crucial moment stole the French ambassador's correspondence and passed it to the agents of Queen Elizabeth.

I came to this soon after reading the story of Alexander Wilson, and it is salutary to reflect on how much intelligence-gathering had changed across the centuries. What we can see of the Elizabethan world is based very much on the transmission of written records; the nascent bureaucracy of the state required hard copies, as it were. Obviously the whispered conversations do not survive, but Bossy feels pretty confident that by putting all the pieces together - and allowing for various mis-dating of key documents over time - he is able to give us a picture of what was happening in and around the French embassy in London in the 1580s, and who it was that exposed the ambassador's secrets.

Having said that, this is a book where the trees are more important than the forest, and I'd have liked a few more signposts along the way to remind us of why the story is important. It's all there, but one has to dig for it a bit, and I think the book needs to be taken as a close sequel to Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair, which I read a very long time ago. You can get it here.
Tags: bookblog 2019, tudor history

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