Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham,

and the Birth of Modern Espionage

By Stephen Budiansky

Viking. 235 pp. $24.95

At her trial in 1586, the doomed Mary Queen of Scots challenged her chief accuser, Sir Francis Walsingham, to show the court the documents that proved she had been plotting to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I from her prison cell. If such evidence existed, why had it not been produced? "I have a right to demand to see the originals and the copies side by side," Mary said. "It is quite possible that my ciphers have been tampered with by my enemies. I cannot reply to this accusation without full knowledge. Until then, I must content myself with affirming solemnly that I am not guilty of the crimes imputed to me."

Mary, however, had badly underestimated Walsingham, master of Elizabeth's intelligence service. Not only had he intercepted and copied every one of Mary's letters to and from the alleged conspirators, which were in due course produced as evidence. He also presented the court with "facsimiles" of key incriminating documents. All her correspondence to and fro had been secretly monitored for months. His agents had made copies of any letters that might subsequently be used in evidence against her, then resealed the originals and allowed them to pass on to their destination. The surreptitious copies were so faithful that when they were produced during interrogation, Mary's servants -- who had carefully destroyed the incriminating originals -- broke down and confessed all.

Too late, Mary protested that it was "an easy matter to counterfeit the ciphers and characters of others" and she was "afraid this was done by Walsingham" to ensure her conviction. Walsingham was unabashed. He had only done what was necessary to protect the English queen and ensure the safety of her person and the realm. The court was persuaded of Mary's guilt, sentence was duly passed and she was executed the following February.

In Her Majesty's Spymaster, Stephen Budiansky retells the story of how "intelligencers" working for Queen Elizabeth's senior ministers ensnared enemies of the state. He justifies going over this well-trodden territory on the grounds that Walsingham originated the idea of a network of secret agents reporting to a single controller. In our own surveillance-obsessed era, it is of interest to discover the roots of modern spy networks.

In fact, the Elizabethan state as a whole was obsessed with collecting intelligence -- every possible sort of information that might give the statesman power over English men and women. Elizabeth's subjects lived in what was effectively a police state, their every move monitored for any sign of political or religious dissent. Lords Burleigh and Walsingham, the Earls of Leicester and Essex, all vied with one another for the most efficient information-gathering team of agents. Sir Francis Bacon and his brother Anthony were among the many men-about-court who were recruited as spies by one faction or another.

The days when heads of intelligence services like Walsingham could behave in the unscrupulous way that brought about Mary's downfall are long gone. Today neither the CIA nor MI5 would have the political confidence or executive independence to act with that kind of panache, on the assumption that intercepting privileged correspondence, counterfeiting evidence and interfering with witnesses were all permissible to protect the interests of the head of state. However heinous are today's crimes (9/11 or the London bombings), the search for perpetrators has to be conducted scrupulously, following due process and according suspects their full civil rights. Perhaps the contrast between now and then explains why modern readers are intrigued by historical accounts about Elizabeth I's spymasters. The stories are reminiscent of cold-war spy thrillers -- we're diverted and entertained by the chess-game moves, as agents and counter-agents trap unsuspecting victims.

Budiansky does his best to convince the reader that this really is a world still relevant to us today. He tells the tale of Walsingham and his spies with all the bravura of a historical novelist. His accounts of events and personalities associated with Elizabethan espionage are full of suspense and melodrama. In the end, though, Her Majesty's Spymaster is no truer to the murky political world of Elizabethan England than the movie "Shakespeare in Love" was to the historical reality of Shakespeare's life. All doublet and hose and swashbuckling machismo, written in a breathless, archaic style reminiscent of historians of 50 years ago, Budiansky's book panders unashamedly to our fondness for nostalgia.

As an academic who specializes in the Tudor period, I find it hard to take Her Majesty's Spymaster seriously as history, but it is written in a racy, popular style that may capture the imagination of the general reader. Those who find comfort in the idea that Elizabethan England was a place of starched ruffs, conspiracy and romance may well enjoy the book's rehearsal of familiar themes. After all, in spite of its corniness and inaccuracy, and a good deal of caviling and head-shaking from Shakespeare scholars, "Shakespeare in Love" went on to become a worldwide box-office success. *

Lisa Jardine is director of the Arts and Humanities Research Council Centre for Editing Lives and Letters, and Centenary Professor of Renaissance Studies, at Queen Mary, University of London.