Spy vs. Spy: 16th-Century Style
Thanks to human nature, the essence of espionage hasn't changed much in 500 years. Historian Stephen Budiansky compares spying in the 16th-century with modern-day tactics.
With a name like Edward Snowden, the world's most famous fugitive sounds like he just arrived from 16th-century England. And he'd actually have fit in pretty well back then. Just like our own, the Elizabethan era bore the burden of spies and spymasters, double agents and devious plots, code-breakers and eavesdroppers.Skip to next paragraph
'Topsy' author Michael Daly discusses the unfortunate life story of a famous elephant
National Book Critics Circle select 'Americanah,' 'Five Days at Memorial' as winners
Jane Lynch will co-write a children's book on bullying
Helen Oyeyemi takes on a new fairy tale in 'Boy, Snow, Bird'
North Korean dictators: also successful children's book authors?
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Behind much of the skullduggery was Queen Elizabeth I's secretary, a man named Francis Walsingham. His job: Help run the country, fend off threats and protect his boss from being assassinated or overthrown. Walsingham, who went about his business with ruthless and often-deadly vigor, has been the subject of at least five major books in the last decade, including 2005's Her Majesty's Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage by Stephen Budiansky.
I asked Budiansky, a historian who's written books about topics from dogs to code-breaking, about the dark world of Elizabethan espionage and its links to today.
Q: Why did England need spies?
A: England faced a very fluid, very dangerous and incredibly complex situation with threats from France, Scotland, the pope, and possibly Spain. Here was a country that was outnumbered by its much more powerful continental European rivals. There were factions and on-and-off alliances with France, the Netherlands, and Spain. The leader, the queen, was in quite a bit of personal danger. The pope had basically issued an edict sanctioning her assassination by a Catholic because she was an apostate to the true faith as he saw it.
Walsingham was a very modern man, and strikingly ahead of his time in understanding the nature of intelligence and its great importance in protecting the nation and keeping one's rivals off balance. One of his sayings was that "knowledge is never too dear." It was a great force multiplier to be one step ahead of a potential rival or to know that a country that had been friendly was planning to shift.
In fact, Walsingham was able to successfully foil a series of coup and assassination plots.
Q: What kinds of tools did they have back then to spy on people?
A: For all of the changes in technology over 500 years, the basics of intelligence are strikingly similar between Walsingham's time and ours. You can find almost any method of intelligence being practiced by Walsingham and his agents in the Elizabethan era: Running double agents, spreading disinformation, black propaganda, code-breaking, intercepting communications.
Q: Were the spies good at the 16th-century equivalent of wiretapping?
A: I was really struck by one of the recent revelations is that the British counterpart of the NSA had set up an Internet cafe at a G8 meeting and was picking off the communications from various foreign countries.