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.

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