Saturday, November 04, 2006

Book Review : Elizabeth's Spy Master : Francis Walsingham and the Secret War that Saved England by Robert Hutchinson (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2006)

The life of Walsingham, and of his network of spies in the reign of Elizabeth, should be fundamentally interesting. The subject matter excites. Walsingham, Elizabeth's "Moor" for his dark looks, is a shadowy character, his fundamentalist Protestantism at odds with his ruthlessness as a spymaster. Yet this was a time when Elizabeth's Protestant ascendancy was at threat from enemies without and within - and Walsingham was the primary bulwark against this threat.

So why does this book so singularly fail to excite? For one thing, its material is pooly arranged. It has been editted, rearranged, but badly: the structure has no form. Probably a straightforward chronological narrative would have sufficed. But the information here has no coherent organisational principle that I could discern. Its inconsistency irritated as well - context was added seemingly at random, but often excluded when needed, and sometimes this context was wrong (an argosy is a ship which takes its name from Ragusa which is the former name for Dubrovnik, not the port in Sicily - see

For another thing, it lacks substance. By the nature of Walsingham's business detail is difficult to come by. Spies don't advertise themselves and document their activities. Yet Walsingham was, compared even to Burleigh, an avid documenter. This is never used to make Walsingham anything other than a shadowy one-dimensional character.

Then there's the prose style, which is flat at best and incoherent at worst. It has no grace, no elan. All one gets is a matter-of-fact repetition of detail, free of any serious attempt at embellishment.

And finally, there is an overwhelming sense that the whole exercise has been padded out to please the publisher. Never trust books with well-spaced footnotes in full-size text, especially when they run to 50 pages in a book of only 300 pages of text. To this one can add the 17 pages of pen-portraits of all the spys in Walsingham's network, most of it summarising information already given in the main text. For example

"Boucher, Friar. Provided information about English Catholics in Paris". That's it - he hardly leaps off the page!

This book only succeeds in giving a most superficial picture of Walsingham and of his spy-network's activities. He was a hero in the defence of England from tyrrany, and he deserves better.

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