Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents – BBC 2


I’m rather confused as to why the BBC seems to think that Elizabethan England was an isolated Protestant nation at a time when most of Europe was Catholic. Er, what??  Many parts of Germany and Switzerland were largely Protestant, as were large parts of the Netherlands (trying to free themselves from Spanish rule), as were the Scandinavian countries and Swedish-ruled Finland, and Latvia and Estonia.  Even areas which are now mainly Catholic again had large Protestant populations at the time, notably France and Hungary.  Oh, and not to mention Scotland!   Maybe the BBC’ve been spending too much time thinking about the year-end ATP world rankings and the situation in Catalunya, and got a bit too focused on Spain 🙂 .

I’m not sure whether or not this was deliberately timed to coincide with Gunpowder, but there’s been a fair bit of overlap … much of it involving Father John Gerrard, the guy whom our temp history teacher in the second year was obsessed with!   However, this three-part series is a “docu-drama”, not a drama series – and it’s one of the good ones, which doesn’t patronise viewers by assuming that they’re totally ignorant and need everything explaining, or doing too much dressing up and prancing around!

It’s all familiar stuff – the first episode was largely about Mary Queen of Scots – but it’s an unusual take on things, and it’s fascinating to sit back and think about just what an extensive spy network Elizabeth and Cecil had. It’s a unique period in terms of both intelligence and plotting because of the overlap between the fear of the monarch being overthrown by a rival candidate for the throne – the fear which all the Tudors had, and which the Yorkists and the Lancastrians to some extent had before them – and the new age of religious division, religious terrorism and the fear of attack by Catholic enemies.  When you think about it, that dual threat really faded away through much of the 17th century, with Spain in decline and everyone tied up with the Thirty Years War and then Louis XIV’s wars, but then came back with the Jacobites … although never to the same extent as it did in Elizabeth’s time

So there was a personal threat, to the person of the monarch, and also the threat to the nation. I’m a great admirer of Elizabeth I, but I also feel great sympathy for her when I think how much she had to cope with.  Henry VII lived in constant fear of being overthrown, but in his time it was hardly likely that the country was going to be invaded.  And Henry VIII had all his issues over the succession, but, with Spain and France and the Holy Roman Empire focused on Italy, it was hardly likely that he was going to face invasion either.  I don’t think either of them could ever have had the fear of assassination that Elizabeth did.  James I probably did, obviously especially with the Gunpowder Plot, but the fear of external intervention was fading by then, with Philip II dead and then the start of the Thirty Years War.  But it was all going on in Elizabeth’s time.  No wonder she felt the need to maintain such an extensive spy network.

And it was all so personal, as well! She was so close to Walsingham and even more so to the Cecils – and the BBC also went into the interesting sub-plot of the rivalry between Robert Cecil (the younger Cecil, son of William) and the Earl of Essex.  Essex always gets on my nerves.  He evidently got on Cecil’s as well

And all this was going on behind the scenes of the Elizabethan Golden Age. The likes of Vladimir Vladimorovich Putin and The Real Donald Trump have got absolutely nothing on Elizabeth I when it comes to spying, secret agents, propaganda and image!   It’s increasingly feeling as if we’re right back in Elizabethan or Jacobean times, with religious terrorism the scourge of the present times and now words like “treason” and “sedition” coming out of Madrid.  The programme’s meant to be about the development of one of the world’s secret services (although Venice and various other places had been well into spy networks long before Elizabethan times), but it’s just making me admire my heroine Elizabeth I even more 🙂 . Take that, Europe!!  Take that, division at home!!  She survived it all, and will always be remembered as Gloriana, the Queen of the Golden Age.  When you think about everything that was going on behind the scenes, that didn’t half take some doing 🙂 .

3 thoughts on “Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents – BBC 2

  1. Chris Deeley

    Jewish banks also had quite effective “spy networks” for collecting relevant information. There was one fellow (I forget his name) at the Royal Exchange who made huge bond-trading profits by being the first to know of Wellington’s victory at Waterloo.


      • Chris Deeley

        The Royal Exchange fellow was Nathan Mayer Rothschild, but I have since been told by Brian Cathcart (in his excellent book “The News of Waterloo”) that the Rothschild story is a myth – put about by some anti-Jewish people in France. History seems to abound with apocryphal stories of that type.


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