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Book review: Her Majesty’s Spymaster by Stephen Budiansky

From the moment I started reading this book, I was captivated. Budiansky has such an accessible style of writing and while he relies very heavily on the definitive biography of Walsingham for this book, the three-volume work by Conyers Read, Mr Secretary Walsingham, his style makes his retelling of Walsingham’s life exciting and, despite some of the grisly content, entertaining as well. StartingHer Majesty's Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage with the St Bartholomew Day massacres in Paris (strictly speaking, the book commences on the two days before with the attempted assassination of Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of France who was shot in broad daylight and only bending to tie a shoelace saved his life in this instance), we follow Walsingham’s career and the little that is known of his personal life.

Sir Francis Walsingham is often credited by many contemporary commentators and modern historians with inventing espionage as we understand it. Budiansky is no exception. He knows his subject and the era that birthed him and it’s easy to mistake a light hand and easy style with superficial research – yet, as a principle source, Conyers’ work is sound, and Budiansky is eminently readable and for those who know nothing about the intrigues of the era and Walsingham’s role or simply want reminding, this book is a terrific introduction.

Budiansky inflects his prose with wit, empathy, understanding and humorous insights, weaving records of the era with substantiated opinion. The effect of this is a non-fiction book that reads like a terrific spy-cum-historical novel. As a consequence, we learn about all the major plots that Walsingham directly foiled from the Ridolphi plot to the Throckmorton and Babington ones, but from the inside out.  But these were just vindication for Walsingham’s fierce collection of information and insistence that this was essential to protecting Elizabeth’s fledgling Protestant realm. They were also incidental in his larger schemes, which were to prove once and for all that Mary, Queen of Scots was a ‘she-devil’ plotting Elizabeth’s destruction and his quest to find evidence of the Spanish intention to invade England.  Walsingham left no stone unturned, trusted no-one (except perhaps his first son-in-law, Sir Philip Sidney), and while not popular with the queen or many of her counselors (he fell out with them all during his lifetime), there were those who respected and appreciated the personal and other sacrifices his unflinching belief in his duty and his impeccable record in carrying in it out, as Sir Francis Drake’s letter to him after the Armada was defeated attests. That Walsingham endorsed torture and double-dealing might sit uncomfortably with modern readers, but in his mind and heart, it was all done for the protection of the realm and was thus essential. He has no patience for those who didn’t understand that. The fact he succeeded in proving Mary was a traitor and helped foil the Spanish Armada in 1588, have become questionable legacies because of the way he achieved these goals.

Nonetheless, history has accorded Walsingham the importance he deserves and Budiansky’s entertaining and easy to read book allows the reader to appreciate why. Couldn’t put this down. But again, it is more an introduction and original retelling of known facts as opposed to shedding new light on a mysterious and compelling historical figure.

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