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. 

Elizabeths I's secretary was Francis Walsingham. His responsibility was to help run the country and keep his queen safe. He was way ahead of his time in terms of gathering and using intelligence.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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