327: Her Majesty’s Spymaster by Stephen Budiansky

by Gerard

327.12420092: Budiansky, Stephen. Her Majesty’s Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage. New York: Plume, 2006. 215 pp. ISBN 0-452-28744-2.

Part of the dumping ground of the 300s is 327–International relations. Espionage gets its own subsection: 327.12. I can see how it fits, though, given that espionage, if done properly, is the use of social connections and information for security and intelligence purposes.

The cast of players in Stephen Budiansky’s Her Majesty’s Spymaster is immense. Not War and Peace immense, but lengthy just the same. In his slim, 215-page treatise on European espionage in Elizabethan England, there are 96 people to learn about and keep track of. They all had some part to play in palace intrigue of the 16th century.

Sir Francis Walsingham became the Principal Secretary of Elizabeth I’s Privy Council–a body of aristocratic gentlemen who advised the Queen and settled affairs of the realm–in 1573. For the next seventeen years, he would keep detailed notes, letters, books, and even libraries full of information on every person who came in and out of London, every notable person in Europe who had a beef with the Queen, and every known associate of every enemy he ever had. He was the J. Edgar Hoover of England.

He twice exposed plots by Mary Queen of Scots to depose Elizabeth and ascend to the throne. He helped England crush the Spanish Armada. He had well-placed agents throughout Europe to help break and re-break complex ciphers used in secret imperial messages. All this in an era when electronic media was limited the pamphleteers that littered the cities. His methods are still used by intelligence gathering agencies to this day (I think the codes are little more complex, though).

Budiansky’s history is as riveting as it can get, although I did have to reread some sections to make I didn’t miss anything. If you’re a Elizabeth fanatic, then this is a must-read.