Book Review: The Queen’s Agent by John Cooper

This marvellous book, The Queen’s Agent, by John Cooper, while ostensibly a biography of one of the hardest working men in Elizabethan government, Sir Francis Walsingham, is also a tale about espionage and counter-espionage, war, religious conflict, suspicion, betrayal, stupidity and cleverness, during the reign of Elizabeth the First.

Coming to the throne amidst religious, international and other turmoil, Elizabeth, as a single woman, was perceived by many as an easy target for unscrupulous deals – at their peril, as it happened. But while Elizabeth presented a relatively calm face to various threats – real and imagined – as well as marriage proposals and grumblings from the Commons and the Privy Council, working furiously behind the scenes to ensure stability and the removal of any danger, was Walsingham, Lord Burghley and a host of secret agents. These were recruited and posted across England and Europe – most of whom Walsingham personally chose for the skills and connections they possessed and which he could use for the benefit of queen and country.

Cooper’s biography allows access to a man who is sometimes, in a dash of over enthusiasm as it turns out, credited as being the father of MI5 and MI6. Reading the book, however, doesn’t make it seem the exaggeration Cooper professes it to be, as Walsingham, with varying degrees of success, ran agents, double-agents, invented and broke ciphers, used invisible inkThe Queen's Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth I, colluded with adversaries, and was not above converting enemy spies – either through gentle but deadly coercion and bribes or torture.

A staunch Protestant, Walsingham was able to reconcile the brutality he sometimes resorted to with his beliefs as he saw Catholicism as a stain on the country and, indeed, the world, which must be wiped out at any cost.

Playing various roles throughout his career, we learn that while a young man he escaped England during Mary’s reign and resided briefly in Padua and then in Basel, both times being exposed and responding to the kind of Protestantism he later endorsed. A diplomat, he was multi-lingual, clever, extraordinarily hard-working and, as is often the way with people who are workaholics, prone to illness. But it’s as Elizabeth’s Secretary of State and “spymaster” that he’s probably best remembered.

That’s partly because there isn’t a great deal known about his personal life as papers that might have given us insight were destroyed and it’s to Cooper’s credit that in the telling of Walsingham’s career and professional relationships, we are given sense of the man. Upright, uptight and not always faultless, he was a conspiracy theorist par excellence – I couldn’t help but think that he and Fox Mulder or Carrie from Homeland would have got along famously J. Connected by family to other well-known names and personalities of the period, his one daughter, Frances, married first Philip Sidney and later, the charming but doomed Earl of Essex. He lived long enough to see that union made, but not, fortunately, the end it met.

Involved in many an effort to find a suitable husband for his liege, Walsingham was also behind efforts to dissuade her from less than popular matches – such as with the Duke of Anjou. What I didn’t know about was Walsingham’s keen involvement in England’s explorations of the New World, his interest in expanding west and establishing colonies there. An entire chapter is dedicated to the often futile attempts to establish colonies on what would become American soil and while Walsingham doesn’t feature strongly here, his mark is evident.

Working side by side with Lord Burghley (William Cecil), with whom he often disagreed with, Walsingham always tried to put his monarch and country first. Responsible for uncovering many treasonous plots against Elizabeth, including Mary, Queen of Scott’s collusion in the most well-known of all, the Babington plot, he fell in and out of favour with the Queen. Unlike his peer, Burghley, Walsingham did not garner riches for his diligence and determination to root out all popery and assassination attempts; to protect Britannia. On the contrary, when he died, he had little materially to leave his second and beloved wife, Ursula, as not only did he take on the debt of his dead son-in-law, Philip Sidney, but also he often used his own monies to ensure the flow of information and thus the knowledge network he built was maintained.

Preferring to dress in black, dour of face and loyal in faith, and to her majesty, though he often bemoaned her sex and the foibles and idiosyncratic  behaviours he felt came with it, Walsingham cuts a mysterious figure.

Cooper, with all the revelations and wonderful information he provides, still maintains this sense of secrecy, adding a particular frisson to the book. I loved this about it – quotes from Walsingham’s letters and first hand reports about the Secretary of State conceal as much as they reveal and though Cooper offers analyses of the psychology of the man, he also allows our imaginations and interpretations room to manoeuvre.

Wonderfully written, Cooper conveys the period and the threats that were faced, all the while balancing them against the benefit of hindsight and another version of historical reality. Impeccably researched and eruditely presented, this book is a must for history buffs and those who love to know more about the machinations behind the throne of one of the most colourful monarchs in English history.

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Book Review: Shadow of Night, Deborah Harkness

I’d been looking forward to reading the sequel to Harkness’ debut novel, A Discovery of Witches, the wonderfully titled, Shadow of Night, for a while. The first book was a surprisingly elegant and original addition to the plethora of “supernatural” books causing a glut in the marketplace and it ended with a marvellous cliff-hanger and the promise of time-travel to one of my favourite historical periods, Elizabethan England. What was not to anticipate?

But, when I first started reading Shadow of Night, I thought there must be some mistake – for while Diana Bishop and Matthew Clairmont do tumble into the 1500s and meet up with such historical luminaries as Christopher Marlowe, Walter Raleigh, Shakespeare, Queen Lizzie the First and others, the first 100 or so pages did not live up to the expectations created in DoW. I found them clumsy, over reliant on dialogue between said historical “greats” and structured so as not to make too much sense in terms of plot and character development.

While Matthew is quickly settled into his old life among his artistic and mostly aristocratic familiars, the “School of Night,” Diana is literally a fish out of water and flounders around trying to negotiate between her scholarship and academically developed understanding of the past, of history, and living in the period. All well and good, right? But while Harkness takes advantage of Diana’s adjustments, using them to explore and explain the early Renaissance to the uninitiated reader, because so much of this “settling in” occurs in the form of conversation, it’s both incredibly disjointed, and becomes a barrage of new information that was difficult to follow. Not so much because of the history or the time in which the action is set, but due to the fact it appeared to steer so far from the main plot. For some reason, the first hundred pages appear to be all over the place and while I thought I knew why Diana and Matthew had taken the plunge into the past (to find Diana a witch-tutor and to discover more about the manuscript Ashmole 782), their motivations seem to become lost in a mire of clever banter, odd characters popping in an out of the house (that also take the plot in strange directions and don’t really serve the main story eg. the old witch), both from the past and imagined, and mis-directions. I don’t know whether it was me, or if the first part of the book is hard to follow, but I almost didn’t continue. Even the characters of Diana and Matthew, of whom I’d grown very fond, appeared to change into something that made them almost unrecognisable and worse, shallow.

Fortunately, once Diana and Matthew leave England and journey to France, the book improves and the plot appears to slowly reveal itself to be coherent and quite exciting. On the trail of the witch teacher and the unbelievably elusive Ashmole 782, they encounter danger, become embroiled in supernatural and real world politics, and discover aspects about each other that surprise, frighten and delight and all against the backdrop of Elizabethan England, Prague and France.

Some parts of the book are stronger than others and it still feels like a great deal of time is wasted running hither and thither, but once she hits her stride, Harkness does a terrific job of bringing the period to life through smells, sights, sounds as well as the food and clothing, never mind her descriptions of the streets and general geography of the places Diana and Matthew inhabit. From the second half of the book onwards, I also really enjoyed the witchcraft elements of the tale – the way power is divided, drawn upon and shared and how Diana (finally) begins to understand what she is and how to wield her abilities is imaginative and entertaining.

At one stage, I thought I was going to leave the series with this book but a strong finish has ensured that I’m keen to know what happens to this powerful pair who threaten to unravel, or at least challenge, the laws that have governed human and supernatural relations for centuries.

Overall, a good read, but be patient and do persevere if, like me, you find the first hundred or so pages indulgent and thus a struggle, because it’s ultimately worth it.

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