Nolanus Nullanus

Charles Nicholl

  • Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair by John Bossy
    Yale, 294 pp, £16.95, September 1991, ISBN 0 300 04993 5
  • The Elizabethan Secret Service by Alison Plowden
    Harvester Wheatsheaf, 158 pp, £30.00, September 1991, ISBN 0 7108 1152 7
  • The Lord of Uraniborg: A Biography of Tycho Brahe by Victor Thoren
    Cambridge, 523 pp, £40.00, May 1991, ISBN 0 521 35158 8

The files of the Elizabethan intelligence service are a rich and oddly neglected source: rich in historical detail, in the surprising appearance of famous names, in the whole tawdry but fascinating psychology of the spying game. There is in them a curious sense of déjà vu. Under the directorship of Sir Francis Walsingham, the security services featured much the same cast of moles, buggers, double agents and dirty tricksters that has entertained us in more recent spy ‘scandals’. The technology has improved – in Walsingham’s day, the fastest intelligence could travel was the speed of a horse – and the targets have different names, but the methods and motives of the secret world have not really changed.

The material is rich but difficult. All the usual problems of interpreting historical evidence are multiplied by the elements of deceit, disinformation and provocation which are the stock-in-trade of espionage. Everything is ambivalent: everything, in the jargon, can be ‘turned’. The evidence remains maddeningly provisional, and so does any theory you construct from it.

In Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair, John Bossy opens up a startling new angle on certain secret operations of the mid-1580s. If he is right, he has blown an extraordinarily effective cover, which had everyone fooled at the time and has survived intact for four centuries. Some of the links in his story are speculative, but this is a remarkable investigation. Bossy handles the evidence with all the microscopic ingenuity of a forensic scientist picking over the scene of a crime. The events he describes took place in London, with a brief postscript in Paris. The embassy of the title is the French Embassy, located at Salisbury Court between Fleet Street and the river. (A contemporary map places it on the north side of the court, but rather typically Bossy argues it was on the opposite side.) Various politicians, authors and malcontents play a part, but the story centres on two men. One is the controversial Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno, who arrived in England in the spring of 1583. The other is an altogether shadowy figure named Henry Fagot or Faggot.

Jordanus Brunus Nolanus – ‘that Italian didapper with a name longer than his body’, as one Englishman described him – was a small, dark, intense man from Nola in the Kingdom of Naples. He had abandoned his calling as a Dominican friar and had recently been living in Paris, where he published works on the art of memory and other occult subjects. In England he embarked on an intense course of self-publicity. He disputed at Oxford, held philosophical soirées with Sir Philip Sidney and Fulke Greville, and published a series of arcane Italian ‘dialogues’ with titles like The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast and The Heroical Furies. What exactly he was evangelising is hard to define: it was certainly a religion that owed more to Renaissance magic than to Catholicism or Protestantism, and which therefore earned him suspicion as a heretic. Throughout his stay in England Bruno was lodged at the French Embassy. The finest of his dialogues, La Cena de le Ceneri (‘The Ash Wednesday Supper’), was dedicated to his host and protector, Michel de Castelnau, Sieur de la Mauvissière. He stayed just two years in England, and returned to France with Castelnau in the autumn of 1585. His presence reverberated on, not least in Marlowe’s Dr Faustus and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, both of which contain traces of Bruno’s occultist ‘mission’ in England.

The other protagonist of the story, Henry Fagot, must at least have known Bruno quite well. He too was an habitué of the French Embassy, in which he served for a while as priest and confessor. He was also a spy for Sir Francis Walsingham, supplying him with a steady stream of intelligence from within the Catholic enclave of the Embassy. His letters and reports, written in French, remain among the State Papers at the Public Record Office. The earliest belongs to the end of April 1583. Some of his information came from a suborned secretary, Jean Arnault, and some came direct from the confessions he heard as embassy priest. His intelligence continues for a couple of years and then, like so many of these shadow players, he disappears abruptly from the record.

Fagot’s reports contain the usual dark tittle-tattle of the Elizabethan informer. Some of it – the plot involving the Spanish merchant, Pedro de Zubiar, for instance – was probably invented: the kind of plausible political innuendo that so often passed for information in this snoop-ridden society. But in one case, in the summer of 1583, Fagot’s intelligence led Walsingham to something important. In one of his first reports, Fagot alluded to a certain ‘Sieur Frocquemorton’, whom he describes as a chief agent (facteur) for the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots. He reported his ‘secret resorts’ to the Embassy, and his ‘private conferences, at seasons suspicious’ with Ambassador Castelnau. This gentleman was the Catholic conspirator, Francis Throckmorton. Acting on Fagot’s tip-off, Walsingham put Throckmorton under surveillance and, in November 1583, arrested him. Papers found in his lodgings at Paul’s Wharf, and confessions extracted on the rack, provided the government with detailed knowledge of a proposed Catholic invasion, and of various well-placed English Catholics ready to assist the enterprise. This was a coup for Walsingham: as an accreditation of his secret service, which had only recently received its first official funding; and as a cautionary example of the aggressive intentions of Spain and the Counter-Reformation. The revelation of the so-called ‘Throckmorton plot’ was a gift for the hawks of the Elizabethan Cold War, among which none was more hawkish than Walsingham himself.

Other names who flit through Fagot’s reports are the malcontent Henry Howard, Earl of Northampton, and a young squire named Anthony Babington, who would later become the protagonist of the Babington plot, through which Walsingham at last achieved the entrapment and execution of Mary Stuart. The shady Fagot is thus close to certain key operations of the mid-1580s, and plays no small part in Walsingham’s subversion of Catholic designs on England.

John Bossy’s reading of this episode is implicit from the start of his book, and is openly announced half-way through, so I don’t think I am selling any secrets. It is that the philosopher, Bruno, and the priest-spy, Fagot, were one and the same, and that all the time Bruno was performing his highly public antics as a controversialist he was also moonlighting as Walsingham’s informer at the Embassy.

The circumstantial foundation for this is strong. The chronology is exact: Fagot’s first bulletins coincide with Bruno’s arrival at the Embassy, and his last with Bruno’s departure to France. Bossy convincingly shows that although Fagot wrote in French he was not (as he has been assumed) a Frenchman – he commits small errors of diction which no Frenchman would make, but which would certainly be possible for a Francophone Italian like Bruno. The idea that Bruno officiated as a priest at the Embassy seems to contradict certain statements he later made (that he had never attended mass in England, and that he had no specific position in Castelnau’s house), but as these statements were made to the Catholic Inquisition in Venice, the denial would be reasonable enough.

Bossy also plays the theory back into Bruno’s published work, particularly the cryptic autobiographical elements of the Cena de le Ceneri. He proposes new dates for some of the episodes in the Cena and intercalates them with episodes relating to Fagot. (This involves some complex calculations hinging on the Gregorian calendar reforms, adopted on the Continent but not yet in England.) He also finds a ‘classic Freudian slip’ in the first edition of the Cena, where the dedication describes Castelnau as ‘Secretario’ of the French privy council. This title was erroneous for Castelnau, but appropriate for Sir Francis Walsingham (‘Mr Secretary’), who was Bruno’s true master at this time.

The major difficulty with the identification is documentary. The letters written by Fagot are not in a script used in any of the acknowledged specimens of Bruno’s autograph. It is true that Bruno’s handwriting varies somewhat according to circumstance. It is also true that there are no examples of his use of ‘secretary hand’, which is the script used in most of Fagot’s correspondence, so a direct comparison cannot be made. But this remains a problem. Bossy acknowledges it, but deals with it in a rather cavalier way. He gives us little more than a bald assertion that the documents are not in the same hand, but they are by the same hand. Considering the pains he has taken with other aspects of his theory, it is perhaps surprising that he did not enlist any graphological analysis of the Fagot script to back him up on this crucial point.

There are also some curious spin-offs from Bossy’s identification. Among the most fervent admirers of Bruno was the young Earl of Northumberland, the so-called ‘Wizard Earl’, who was an important patron of poets and scientists in the 1590s. Bruno texts formerly owned by him still survive: his copy of the Eroici Furori is full of marginal comments. Northumberland’s admiration sits ironically with the idea that Bruno was the spy who fingered Francis Throckmorton, since this led directly to the arrest of Northumberland’s father and his death in the Tower two years later. I mention this not as a challenge to Bossy’s theory (it is entirely possible that Northumberland was ignorant of Bruno’s role in the affair) but to suggest the ways in which a new theory like this ripples out into other areas, other lives. Historians have to contend with the future as well as the past, and Bossy’s findings will need to be tested against further questions and consequences.

Meanwhile, for sheer panache at least, they are hard to resist, and so the elusive figure of Bruno undergoes another profound re-evaluation. But this is a rather different kind. It is not a question of Bruno’s message, or his correct place in the history of Western philosophy, but about the very tone and temper of his personality. It is an allegation that he used his position as an intimate of Castelnau’s to spy on him and his friends; that he betrayed the secrets of the confessional; and that, in at least one case, his information led a man to the rackhouse and the gallows. This must, says Bossy, ‘gravely damage Bruno’s reputation from now on’. It introduces a dimension of deception and charade – the ‘undertone of black farce’ that Bossy discerns in this whole episode – into his public cavortings as a magician and evangelist. In Bruno’s defence, one might say that the activities of the spy were less specialised, less marginalised, than they are now: put simply, a lot of people did it. There were no media, there was no information technology, no recognised public realm: there were only people, and what they could tell you about other people.

If Bossy’s study is a triumph of close historical focus, Alison Plowden’s The Elizabethan Secret Service is an achievement in the opposite direction. She covers the history of the service over a period of about thirty-five years, touching on covert operations in Scotland, France, Spain and the Low Countries, as well as in England. She does so in six brief, almost chatty chapters, devoting the last to the Gunpowder Plot, which is not chronologically Elizabethan at all (though in spirit, as a partly manufactured conspiracy, it is a legacy of Walsingham tradecraft).

There is considerable skill in this streamlining, and the result is very readable, but it is inevitably reliant on secondary sources. Much of her book deals with the Walsinghan era, which began with the unravelling of the Ridolfi plot in the early 1570s and ended with his death in 1590, and too often this reads like a rehash of Conyers Read’s three-volume biography, Mr Secretary Walsingham. This work, first published nearly seventy years ago, is still definitive, but must be seen as an easy route to take into this material. She tends to incorporate Read’s over-pragmatic view of his hero, his acceptance of Walsingham’s more ruthless expediencies as regrettable but necessary. She knows the period intimately, but seems at times a little naive about the dirtier aspects of the Elizabethan police state.

This is an accessible and often stylish account, but it breaks no new ground. The book’s slimline appeal is partly achieved by dispensing with any annotation of sources. This is unhelpful. On one of the most fascinating of Elizabethan spies, Christopher Marlowe, she provides just five lines, including one error of dating, and one statement that belongs to legend rather than fact.

The Lord of Uraniborg sounds like some Gothic fantasy computer-game, but is in fact a long and meticulous biography of the Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe. He was almost exactly contemporary with Bruno. Both were champions of the new-fangled theory of heliocentricity advanced by Copernicus, but their responses to it were very different. While Bruno propagandised Copernicanism as part of his ‘magical religion’, Brahe retired to his private observatory on the island of Hven and entered into a protracted spell of planetary observation and number-crunching. His opinion of Bruno was summed up in a contemptuous pun: Nolanus nullanus. Brahe’s observations of the ‘New Star’ of 1572 and the comet of 1577 formed the basis of the Tychonic system, which ‘presented the 17th century with a version of Copernicanism that it could entertain without violence to common sense or theological fiat’.

Victor Thoren’s biography is exhaustive and highly technical. He gives a fascinating account of the building and equipping of Uraniborg, Brahe’s observatory-laboratory on Hven. Brahe himself, a fearsome figure with drooping moustaches and a face scarred from a teenage duel, is a world apart from the volatile Neapolitan Bruno, but there is in both a prodigious intellectual will-power that leaves one rather humbled. It was a curious act of will-power that led to Brahe’s death in October 1601. According to his friend, Kepler, to whom he bequeathed his observations of Mars, he was at dinner with Count Rozmberk and having ‘less concern for the state of his health than for etiquette’ he ‘held his urine longer than he was accustomed to doing’. He died ten days later, probably from uremia caused by an inflamed prostate. Bruno had died more dramatically the previous year, burned at the stake by the Inquisition in the Campo dei Fiori in Rome: a complex martyr and perhaps a former English spy.