- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 13, 2005


By Stephen Budiansky

Viking, $24.95, 256 pages


Francis Walsingham has been dead for 405 years, yet if he walked into the political wars of Washington in the 21st century, he would probably feel at home. This is a book which might be relished by President Bush’s chief strategist, Karl Rove, currently at the center of the political slash and parry over the proliferating repercussions of an intelligence leak.

Distributing disinformation was part of the game of smoke and mirrors that Walsingham pioneered as the first spymaster of England and it has been practised through the centuries by those who followed in his footsteps. Walsingham was accountable to Queen Elizabeth I, a woman whose intellectual brilliance was matched by an unpredictable temperament and an explosive temper. She once threw a slipper at Walsingham’s head. She might also have sent him to the tower where he could have lost his head. Yet Walsingham was one of her closest advisers, a member of a tiny circle of loyalists who not only protected the queen, but were ruthless in dealing with her enemies.

In this succinct, fascinating portrayal of a man credited with writing the book on the dark art of espionage, historian Stephen Budiansky draws an ironic if oblique parallel between the tactics of modern times and those of the middle ages in which disinformation, double agents and double dealing flowered and bloomed.

The reader is left with the impression that Walsingham, who orchestrated the execution of Mary, Queeen of Scots, fenced verbally with Catherine de Medici and played the politics of war and peace with the leaders of France and Spain, would have hardly raised an eyebrow over current political brouhahas. He would have understood the limitations faced by intelligence chiefs, and appreciated the pitfalls confronting spymasters like Richard Helms, a Central Intelligence Agency director who weathered the crisis of Watergate and William Colby who battled a public investigation.

Walsingham operated in an era more personally perilous since he was subject to the risk of royal rage that exploded when Elizabeth was overcome by misgivings about what her spymaster considered the overdue execution of the Scottish queen whom he called “the bosom serpent.” He also had to ignore his own religious scruples. As a Protestant Puritan in religiously divided 16th century

England, Walsingham had to finesse his personal feelings about the possibility of the queen’s marriage to a French Catholic by explaining he had “left his passions behind” in the interests of the royal will.

Although he was probably aware that Elizabeth, another skilled dissimulator, had no intention of marrying the duke she called her “little frog,” Walsingham had to play the game. According to the author, one of Walsingham’s great strengths was simply that he “knew how to shut up.” It is difficult to imagine the Elizabethan spymaster falling victim to the temptation of leaks unless, of course, they were calculated.

Unlike the queen who used her position on occasion to be as indiscreet as she chose, Walsingham was not only “dexterous in finding a secret” but “close in keeping it.” The spymaster “saw every man and none saw him” and it was his first maxim that “knowledge is never too dear” although the cost of obtaining clandestine information at times put him at odds with a notoriously miserly monarch. Mr. Budiansky suggests that it was a tribute to the political shrewdness of Elizabeth, the ultimate in survivors as a woman and as a ruler, that she surrounded herself not with the entrenched nobility but with the “sharp, educated gentry” who were commoners or whom she had created peers.

An example of that new breed was William Cecil, grandson of a yeoman farmer, a scholar who entered Parliament at 23, survived the religious savagery imposed by the Catholic Queen Mary Tudor, and became the man behind her successor, Elizabeth. He probably understood her better than anyone else did, and in acknowledgment, she called him “My Spirit.” It was Cecil who singled out Walsingham, encouraged his parliamentary career and became his mentor. Walsingham rose fast in Elizabeth’s favor, becoming her “principal secretary.” The two men were rivals yet in a world devoid of trust, they retained a lifetime respect for each other.

Elizabeth nicknamed Walsingham “the Moor” because of his dark complexion and pointed beard and teased him about his Puritanism and references to the importance of God in his life. In a flamboyant court Walsingham was conspicuous for his somber clothing and his restraint. He operated in the shadows and with shadows, using a succession of double agents to track and manipulate the hopelessly indiscreet Mary, Queen of Scots until evidence offered a level of treachery that was a compelling argument for Elizabeth’s signature on the death warrant of the Scottish monarch.

Walsingham’s last and greatest espionage project was the war between England and Spain. Early in 1585, three years before the Armada, he prepared a pamphlet entitled “Plan for the Annoying of the King of Spain.” It proposed sending warships to demolish the Spanish fishing fleet in retaliation for attacks ordered by King Philip of Spain on English shipping. And long before the Spanish Armada set sail for its disastrous assault on England in 1588, Elizabeth’s spymaster was benefiting from “a tidal wave” of diplomatic leaks about Philip’s plans. He lived to see Elizabeth triumph over Spain. But the stress of Walsingham’s life took a heavy toll on his health, and he was dead at the age of 58.

It was said of him that he was so observant that he would “wait on men’s souls with his eyes” and he fulfilled all of the requirements of a once and future spymaster. Perhaps the epitaph that would have pleased him most came from King Philip of Spain when he received a letter telling him of “much sorrow” in England at Walsingham’s death. Philip wrote in the margin of the message, “There yes! But it is good news here.”

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy Newspapers and The Baltimore Sun.

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