Under the Molehill: An Elizabethan Spy Story 
by John Bossy.
Yale, 189 pp., £18.95, May 2001, 0 300 08400 5
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‘Incidentally, they know you know they know you know the code.’ Peter Ustinov’s Cold War satire Romanoff and Juliet (1956) could have been about Salisbury Court, the London home in the early 1580s of the French Ambassador to the Court of Elizabeth I, Michel de Castelnau, seigneur de Mauvissière, an establishment described by John Bossy as ‘zany, convivial and leak-ridden’. Bossy asks us to take our places at the dinner table at Salisbury Court in November 1583, ‘as in a late novel by Henry James’: ‘who had done what, who knew who had done what, and who knew who knew who had done what.’ Suspicion hung over the scene like a November fog, already a problem in Elizabethan London. (Those making a film of this book will want to know that.) The conspirator Francis Throckmorton was on the rack in the Tower, and Elizabeth, to the alarm of her ministers, would have tortured de Castelnau too, if she had had the power to do so, or at least have sent him packing, which is what she did to Mendoza, the Spanish Ambassador. For what was at stake was her throne. This was part of the overture to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots (1587) and the Spanish Armada (1588).

Was de Castelnau one of us or one of them? In the dangerous, knife-edge politics of the time, was France more than half a friend or more than half an enemy? Where did de Castelnau stand in relation to his master, Henri III, or to his own servants? He had been using the diplomatic bag, which passed from Paris through Salisbury Court to Sheffield, where Mary was in detention, if not to encourage then not necessarily to discourage the kinds of plot in which Throckmorton had been mixed up; and somebody on his payroll had shared this useful information with the English Secretary of State, Sir Francis Walsingham. Some of the correspondence between Walsingham and his informant in the Embassy concerned pots of marmalade, a rare delicacy in Elizabethan London. But did the marmalade stand for something less innocent? Several letters written to William Sancroft, facing deprivation as Archbishop of Canterbury in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution of 1688, had to do with ‘wash balls’. Did Sancroft really need so much soap? How much ‘Cotignac d’Orléans’ (a quince jelly) did Walsingham’s household consume? The question is in all probability irrelevant, except that in such a hall of mirrors no questions are irrelevant.

Another line in Romanoff and Juliet has a bearing on this review. Beulah, the wife of the American Ambassador to Concordia, says: ‘Isn’t that interesting! I just adore history. It’s so old.’ To which her husband responds: ‘I wish there was some place to sit.’ The oldness of history was not what attracted Bossy to the subject, however. Rather, it was the stimulus history gave to a powerful and essentially philosophical mind. In a series of ambitious books and essays, he discussed English Catholicism from the mid-16th to the mid-19th century, Christianity in Western Europe in the later Middle Ages, and the ‘spirit’ of the Counter-Reformation, a way of looking at that piece of the past pioneered by Bossy’s teacher, H.O. Evennett. (I think Bossy might have said of Evennett’s book on the Counter-Reformation something like what Virginia Woolf said about Middlemarch: the first English novel written for grown-ups.) More recently, the old Bossy reappeared in his Birkbeck Lectures, delivered in Cambridge, where St Charles Borromeo’s version of Catholicism was contrasted with something called ‘the moral tradition’, which was made to embrace activities and attitudes as various as blood feuds in Corsica and an inordinate love of organ music in Vienna. And then there was Emile Durkheim on the elementary forms of religious life, the subject of Bossy’s inaugural lecture at the University of York.

Whatever drew Bossy to these subjects was not their oldness: he is not an antiquarian. Rather, his ingenious explorations established him as one of the most cerebrally motivated and engaged of all historians of the early modern period. Only Sir Keith Thomas competes with the brilliance of his work. If we are talking about formations, it is the Society of Jesus (Bossy) versus Barry Grammar School (Thomas). Like the brightest if not necessarily the best of the immediately preceding generation, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Bossy has not infrequently found out that he has been wrong. But who cares? The mistakes have been exposed, sometimes by himself, the argument has moved on, and he has kept us awake and alert, unlike most of his peers.

In recent years Bossy has undergone a process of reversion, however. In our dreams we may encounter, disturbingly, old flames of many years ago, or other reminders of the persons we once were. Bossy’s original work, back in the 1950s, was on the French connection: the cross-Channel traffic not in drugs but in Catholicism, and it is to that first love that he has returned, first in Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair (1991) and now in Under the Molehill, which is, in part, a series of second thoughts about the earlier book: a good example of how rewarding it can be for a historian to decide that he was wrong, or not quite right.

It would be a pity if only students interested in Elizabethan politics, or in international relations in the 1580s, were to encounter this book. While for those attracted to it by a fascination with spy stories it will involve a steep learning curve. For Bossy makes this ‘Elizabethan Spy Story’ the vehicle for a powerful statement of what historians should be doing, which can be read as a repudiation of what he himself was up to, for many years. Bossy now thinks that it’s the historian’s job to establish exactly what happened: who did what. Whatever Braudel may have said to the contrary, events, individuals, facts do matter.

When he wrote Bruno, Bossy was in full, reactionary retreat not only from history as a form of philosophical discourse but from the idea (best exemplified in the work of Hayden White) that as a story, or something contrived, history is not all that different from stories which make no claim to ‘truth’. ‘Dear reader,’ he wrote in a typically self-conscious style (and here I paraphrase), the story I am about to tell differs from Hamlet in that it is true. He went on: ‘I am a historian, not a writer of fiction, and have written the book in the conviction that the duty of a historian is to tell true stories about the past.’ Well, Cicero had said that two thousand years earlier (‘it is sufficient that the man should not be a liar’), and I think Cicero was only quoting Aristotle. At about the same time, Bossy reviewed Natalie Zemon Davis’s Fiction in the Archives, and somewhat mischievously. People in 16th-century France, he thought, were perfectly capable of distinguishing between fact and fiction: which was to brush aside Davis’s Hayden White-ish point that events and circumstances that may well have been true, in the sense that they had happened, had been turned into stories, an essentially fictive enterprise.

In Under the Molehill the case is subtly altered. Following John Holloway and W.B. Gallie, Bossy now concedes that ‘history is a species of the genus story’. That is to say, it consists of sequences of events. But he has not turned Post-Modern. The events still matter more than the storyteller. E.H. Carr’s suggestion that it was necessary to study the historian before you begin to study the facts is here called ‘dreary’. ‘Carr’s facts were more interesting than Carr, and mine are more interesting than me.’ That may be true of the story told in Under the Molehill. It’s not so clear it was true of Bossy in mid-career, as the author of The English Catholic Community, 1570-1850 and Christianity in the West, let alone of Carr on Lenin’s Russia, which we now read to find out about Carr, not about Russia. However, Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times insisted that facts were all that were wanted in life, and these, as Bossy points out, were also the values of people involved in espionage. ‘Nobody pays good money for pieces of discourse.’ This has been ‘one of the pleasures of writing about secret intelligence’.

Bruno consisted of a sensational claim about a sensational man: that Giordano Bruno, the radical philosopher whose profession was heterodoxy, and who was burned at Rome in 1600 in the Campo dei Fiori, where a statue was erected to his memory by anticlericals in 1900, was one and the same as the shadowy spy, Henry Fagot. In that first book, Bossy was reasonably certain about the identification. Summing up the evidence, which had to do with the language, handwriting and dating of certain documents, he wrote: ‘I really think that this is quite enough.’ But his critics thought otherwise, and by the time an Italian edition of the book appeared in 1992, Bossy was prepared to recant, to the limited extent of saying that he could no longer be certain about the matter. By 2001 he feels bound to write: ‘I made some claims about facts which have turned out to be unwarranted. It was not the case, as I said, that the identification which formed the basis of the book was an addition to knowledge whose correctness could not be doubted. I thought so at the time, but have turned out to be mistaken.’

Bossy is not saying that Fagot was not Bruno, simply that he has failed to prove that he was. Only strong suspicions remain. And that matters. Whether or not ‘Fagot’ (if such a person existed, under that name) was of any importance, Bruno certainly was, and Bossy had written, in 1991: ‘My fact, being true, partakes of the absolute, even of the sacred.’ I would insist that there is nothing much wrong with the faculty of conjecture, which the Elizabethan historian William Camden had stoutly defended, writing that to reject all conjecture was to banish ‘a great part of liberal learning and humane knowledge’. But for Bossy to confess, as he now does, that some of his conjectures about the Bruno-Fagot case were ‘wildly mistaken’, makes a series of offences against the sacredness of fact. Yet the appendix to this book, ‘A Note on the Date of Fagot’s Letter’, constitutes a very advanced master-class in the exacting science of determining the facts of the case (so far as any mortal can), from deep within the archives, arguing from the hands of scribes and the endorsements of documents of critical importance.

Henry Fagot was a spy. The anti-hero of this new book was, on Bossy’s terms, a mole. The difference is that while a spy is an opportunistic outsider, looking, as it were, through the keyhole, the mole is an insider, someone with a permanent and confidential position in a political establishment, who uses his privileged access to documents and other sources of information to convey their contents to a potentially hostile interest, and who does this systematically and over a period of time. Some time after Walsingham’s death, his colleague Robert Beale recalled that he had engaged ‘some’ of the secretaries in the French Embassy to betray the secrets of French and Scottish ‘dealings’, which was to say, the convolution at the heart of mid-Elizabethan politics: the question of Mary Queen of Scots. So Walsingham had his mole, or moles, in Salisbury Court, and Bossy’s first task has been to establish who he, or they, might have been.

It is an exercise resembling the progressive dismantling of a set of Russian dolls. Prince Alexander Labanoff, in his 19th-century edition of Mary’s letters and papers, a work of scholarship which can stand the test of time, identified the mole as the secretary of the Embassy, Chérelles, an identification followed and apparently confirmed by Conyers Read in his monumental three-volume study of Walsingham (1925-27). Following a lead given by the Jesuit historian Leo Hicks, the young Bossy identified ‘Chérelles’ with Jean Arnault, whom he now knows to have been a very well-connected member of the upper echelons of French society, ‘related to almost everybody’. Bossy clears Arnault of all charges against him. He was an honourable man, if more politique than dévot. ‘It is a pleasure to have been able to vindicate him.’

The next candidate to be considered was Arnault’s successor as secretary to the Ambassador, Nicolas Leclerc, seigneur de Courcelles, perhaps not so strong a runner since we know him to have been a Catholic zealot. But who can say? Bossy calls him ‘a kind of oddball’. With this ‘knotted-up, melancholy, possibly megalomaniac but certainly Catholic Frenchman we cannot be sure’. Note, however, on these characterisations, how far we have departed from the ‘facts’.

Finally, a letter from one of Walsingham’s agents, Walter Williams, thought to have been written to Mary but shown by Bossy to have been sent to Elizabeth, led him to the true quarry, a much more obscure character and a longstanding member of the French émigré community in London, Laurent Feron, a mere clerk rather than secretary (which meant a keeper of secrets). Although all options remain in principle open, Bossy is inclined to believe that Feron was the only mole in this molehill, and that the contact between Feron and Walsingham had been made by Fagot, some time in June 1583, the exact date depending on the known movements of Fagot, if he was Bruno, or not, if not.

What Feron in due course supplied included evidence of the so-called Throckmorton conspiracy. The papers found in Francis Throckmorton’s possession when he was arrested included what came to be known as ‘the paper of havens’, an account of harbours located conveniently close to the estates of Catholic gentlemen which might be used by an invading force. For invasion was now in the air, if, so to say, more Dieppe 1942 than Normandy 1944 (or 1588). This came as ‘a terrific shock’, and even more for the Queen than for her councillors. Contrary to the political character we always attribute to her, Elizabeth was now incapable of taking a coolly dispassionate view of the situation. It was Elizabeth who wanted to squeeze de Castelnau until the pips squeaked, Walsingham who understood the necessity of keeping the French Ambassador and the monarch he served from falling entirely into the hands of Spain and the Catholic fanaticism which was about to tear France apart.

There followed a very curious sequence of events: a Watergate-style raid on Salisbury Court with Feron in the role of the ‘plumber’ and Walsingham playing the part of Nixon, but with the intention of finding evidence of de Castelnau’s relative innocence, Elizabeth desiring the opposite and blaming Feron for not delivering what she expected of him; and a trial of Throckmorton which almost failed, since the Privy Council, clearly acting on their own, contrived to exclude all evidence which might have implicated the French Ambassador.

And that is really the end of Bossy’s story, although it leaves a number of loose ends, or codas. Throckmorton was executed. De Castelnau was eventually finished, destroyed on both fronts, England and France, by the inconsistencies of his activities. He was succeeded as Ambassador by Guillaume de l’Aubépine, baron de Châteauneuf, a much less ambivalent player. Cold war warmed into hot, and Mary Queen of Scots came closer to the scaffold as Walsingham found new means to bring her there: the deciphering skills of Thomas Phellippes and the new treason we call the Babington Plot.

Among various bit-players in this tragi-comedy, not all of them mentioned here, was Dr William Parry, ‘a puzzle to generations of historians’, who in February 1585, while actually a Member of Parliament, was very rapidly convicted of the treason of conspiring to assassinate the Queen and hurried to the scaffold. Bossy thinks he has solved the puzzle, and it is not a pleasant solution for anyone who takes an optimistic view of human nature in general, or of Elizabeth Tudor in particular. Parry was certainly a Catholic convert, and equally certainly had taken a vow, in Rome, to carry out the assassination. But he was also, almost certainly, a double agent, whom Elizabeth had found very useful, particularly in her own campaign against de Castelnau. Someone now found it expedient to throw poor Parry to the wolves, and Bossy thinks that that someone was Elizabeth. It was a way of getting the Council off her back, speeding de Castelnau on his way, and perhaps, for the time being, taking the heat off Mary Queen of Scots. This was a judicial murder, ‘and a grave discredit to whoever was responsible for it’.

Does any of this matter? If we accept the sacrosanctity of facts, then presumably it must. But in Bruno Bossy seems to have been saying, in a passage difficult to decipher, that some facts are more important than others, ‘true’ facts rather than ‘real’ facts, even to endorse Carr’s celebrated distinction between mere facts and historical facts. Certainly, Under the Molehill teaches some lessons of very great importance for students of Elizabethan history. I will summarise them as follows: the plots which run as a ground bass under this story were not the inventions of agents provocateurs, as Catholic historians have so often argued, but real, which is not to say that Walsingham was not capable of turning these realities to good account. He would, wouldn’t he?

On the other hand, the idea that Walsingham was the spider at the centre of the large web of a highly organised precursor of MI5 is mistaken, as false to the period as the notion of a ministry of ‘propaganda’, promoting the idealised image of Elizabeth I. There were no ‘offices’ in 16th-century England, or almost none, only households. The intelligence which Walsingham (and others) gathered was gathered from their households, by their servants and clients, and often funded from their own pockets. The line between public and private was blurred, not drawn where we draw it. So it remains a nice paradox that Bossy, for all his fascination with the intelligence business, is very sceptical about its scale and professionality. The scepticism has shown, for example, in his reaction to Charles Nicholl’s intriguing account in The Reckoning of what Christopher Marlowe may have been up to in the years and months preceding his violent death.

Under the Molehill strengthens the impression gained by other historians (myself included) that often there appeared to be not one but two governments in Elizabethan England: the Queen, and the Privy Council, which may have met in her household but not in her presence, and which both controlled, so far as it could, what she should and should not be told, and acted in many respects autonomously, much as what we call ‘the government’ does today. Laurent Feron was working, as it were, for both these governments. What is startling about Bossy’s story, and a piece of real revisionism, is that in the affair of the French Embassy, it was her councillors, and especially Walsingham, who urged caution and restraint, the Queen who rounded on the unfortunate Ambassador and his royal master in a manner which Bossy calls Thatcheresque.

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