Walsingham’s Plumber

Patrick Collinson

  • Under the Molehill: An Elizabethan Spy Story by John Bossy
    Yale, 189 pp, £18.95, May 2001, ISBN 0 300 08400 5

‘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.

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