Monday, August 31, 2009

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF ROBERT HUTCHINSON'S ELIZABETH'S SPY MASTER

Much of this book reads with the pace of a well-written novel.

But it suffers from Hutchinson’s excessive use of quoted passages, a practice I regard as pernicious, one often used to pad the size of books.

Hutchinson’s book suffers, too, from his own motives in writing it.

“By right, he should rank with Horatio Nelson, the Duke of Wellington, and even Sir Winston Churchill as one of the great patriotic defenders, against all-comers, of this island state, its monarchs, governments, beliefs and creeds.”

I cannot agree. Here we have a man who said more than once that he could not be effective without torture, one who used the worst forms of torture extensively. He was also a man who plotted the downfall of great figures, including Mary Queen of Scots, with elaborate and devious schemes much in the style of what we would today term “entrapment.”

I am more in agreement when Hutchinson writes of “the numbing fear of that sudden Gestapo-like knock at the door from Walsingham’s questing pursuivants.”

Walsingham was an extraordinarily intelligent man and very talented at what he did. Those who are familiar with Elizabeth I know she did not suffer fools gladly and had a group of advisors and servants of extraordinary ability, so Walsingham’s skills are as we would expect.

But Walsingham was, like so many Puritans, a true fanatic, relentless in his pursuits, reminding the modern reader in many respects of dark figures in the Cold War or of the immortal and horrible, Inspector Javert.

Hutchinson’s greatest fault is overstating the importance of Walsingham’s contribution, crediting him, among other things, with England’s success against Spain’s Great Armada. This, it seems to me, is both a misreading of history and a dangerous error for people’s understanding of parallel situations in today’s world, the War on Terror having many similarities with the Elizabethan crusade against a re-establishment of Catholicism.

Elizabeth’s period has been a favourite of mine for years, and I believe strongly that it is a serious misreading of history to say that Walsingham’s intelligence was crucial to victory over the Great Armada. The Armada project was doomed from the start for the simple reason that Philip II of Spain did not have the resources to carry it off.

Philip was spending his treasure in every direction – fighting Turks in the Mediterranean, fighting a war in the Netherlands, running his inquisitions, and many other vast expenses - a treasure that was under constant attack by magnificent rascals like Sir Francis Drake, and he simply never had enough resources to succeed with the Armada. The Pope failed to deliver any significant resources, offering only talk and a fairly modest reward – modest in relation to the size of the project – payable upon the actual invasion of England.

The key to the invasion was landing the forces of the ferocious Duke of Alva from the Netherlands on the coast of England. Philip never had the beginning of enough ships for the secure passage of 30,000 heavily armed troops. The Armada’s main naval force, launched from Spain, was to meet up with Alva’s men on small boats launched from the coast of the Netherlands, an impossible task, especially given England’s naval forces, daring tactics, and superior naval technology, both in fast and manoeuvrable ships and in more accurate cannon.

Indeed, first class intelligence – intelligence of the purely information-gathering and analysis kind, as opposed to the intelligence of dark operations – would have concluded that.

It is creepily interesting to read of Walsingham’s career and exploits – interesting, that is, removed as we are by centuries of progress in human freedoms.

You will see here, in the events of more than four centuries ago, the kind of thinking and fear and paranoia we have experienced again in recent years under Bush’s War on Terror, although I think it safe to say that the intensity of fear and hatred was greater in Walsingham’s day.

Definitely worth reading, so long as readers are aware of its limits.

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