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.
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Walsingham had done exactly the same thing in tapping into the communications of Mary Queen of Scots and her supporters. Rather than trying to figure out whom she was communicating with and how to intercept her mail and read it, he set up a communication channel that she thought was her own. But it was actually being run by one of his agents. He figured out a way to pick up communications right at their source.Skip to next paragraph
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Q: James Bond movies teach us that sex is a big part of espionage. How about in the 16th century?
A: Walsingham was certainly an assiduous collector of information on people. He kept huge files, and he knew all the important people down to the counties and the justices of the peace. But while Walsingham was certainly unscrupulous, willing to lie and betray confidences, he was really a religious Puritan, a zealous Protestant. I suspect he would have had religious scruples about espionage of that nature.
Q: Did he see a conflict between the strict morality of his religion and the deceit at the heart of spycraft?
A: He saw the interests of the Protestant cause as equal to that of England and Queen Elizabeth. That's how he squared his conscience on that score.
Q: How has espionage evolved the most over the past five centuries?
A: It isn't the things we might obviously think of, like communications technology. It's more the way intelligence has become a bureaucracy since World War II. The kinds of things that went on in the Elizabethan era were very much a matter of personal relationships and rivalries. There were glimmers of things beginning – the idea of the rule of law, permanent bureaucracy, and officials answerable to the law; allegiance to precedent and procedure rather than personal loyalty – but it was hardly established the way it is now. Still, it was really right on the cusp of the transition to the modern era.
Q: Is it possible that an Edward Snowden of that time would have exposed what was really going on?
A: In terms of a high-minded, public-spirited person saying "This is terrible, and I will expose it": Not a chance. It was a world ruled much more by personal power and allegiances, which people didn't question.
Q: If a citizen was up to something, would it be more likely that the government would know about it in the Elizabethan era or in modern times?
A: The natural reaction would be to say that it's now with the capabilities of an intelligence organization like the NSA, which has tens of thousands of employees and electronic means. But I'm not so sure that's the case.
Communication was much more difficult in Elizabethan England, travel was much more difficult, and publishing anything was more difficult. I think it was much easier for the government then to keep track of you if you were doing something the government wanted to know about.
Q: What do you think we can learn from the espionage of 500 years ago?
A: For all the technology, gizmos and gadgets, the basic principles of how to exploit human nature haven't changed. People have an urge to have somebody to confine in and the urge to boast. There's corruptibility of humans for money and prestige.
You see Walsingham exploit these things quite brilliantly. He knew that, fundamentally, intelligence is about playing on people's trust and weakness, their hopes and desires and insecurities. They're elemental to us all, and they're the essence of spycraft.