The Queen’s Agent (a book review)

The Queen's Agent
And you thought CCTV was bad…

Recently, we here at MojoFiction tuned into ESPN’s Mike and Mike on the radio. They had Mike Lupica on the line and they were discussing his new book. The first thing Mike Lupica said about his book was “It was so much fun to write that character,” referring to the protagonist. In our opinion (which you should never listen to), that should be every writer’s point of view. They start with a character they find interesting, someone whose journey they want to chronicle. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to translate that point of view into non-fiction, which brings us to today’s review of the book “The Queen’s Agent.”

Subtitled “Sir Francis Walsingham and the Rise of Espionage in Elizabethan England, “The Queen’s Agent” follows the exploits of Queen Elizabeth I’s principal secretary, Francis Walsingham, during the Elizabeth’s reign in England during the latter half of the 1500s

The reign of Queen Elizabeth I, beginning in 1558, was fraught with political upheavals and rebellions. She was surrounded by plots and under constant threat from the European powerhouses of France and Spain, and, notably, the Catholic Church and the Pope. Many of the plots against her centered around the fight between Protestantism and Catholicism. Elizabeth, a Protestant, had deposed Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic, who before her had deposed Lady Jane Grey. Each change to the throne brought with it a rending of the Church in England. Elizabeth established control, but she could not stop wars of religion and persecution in her own country, and sometimes she helped to facilitate it. For her defense, Elizabeth surrounded herself with protestant allies. One of these was Francis Walsingham, a devoted Protestant and staunch defender of the Queen. In his position as principal secretary, Walsingham developed a network of agents and informers in England and the courts of France and Spain and used them to fight against threats both homegrown and overseas.

Though the author goes to great lengths to state that the book is not specifically about religious conflict, The Queen’s Agent is nevertheless a fascinating look at the perils of the state enforcing religious beliefs and, maybe more importantly, religious practices, on its own people. Almost every attack or threat of attack on the queen and England that the author recounts are directly rooted in the Catholic church’s attempts to regain a foothold on Protestant England, whether through direct and open rebellion, or more elaborate plots, such as trying to free Mary, Queen of Scots, from her ongoing house arrest. The crown’s response, under the direction of Walsingham and the Queen’s privy council escalates in brutality (especially in Ireland). These actions were mirrored in France and Spain as well, though often with Catholicism holding the upper hand. And when the heads of state in England and Europe aren’t directly responsible, the people in the streets have no problem picking up the slack and tearing each other apart.

If this subject matter interests you at all, you should find this book to be an enjoyable read. The author moves through events at a pretty good clip. It’s never boring, but it also never lacks for detail. You receive an in-depth picture of the times and the players.

However, the book is not without its faults. The author, John Cooper, once taught history at Oxford, and his story reads like a master-class you take after completing his course. He rattles off names and dates like you are already familiar with them and can fill on some of the gaps yourself. The events, while technically presented in a linear fashion, flip back and forth through time on every page, leading, at least to this reader, to quite a bit of confusion early on. The author might be discussing a particular plot against the queen, then bring up a new player in the plot. Suddenly he’s jumping several years into the future to talk further about the new player and what else they were involved in down the road, introducing us to those plots and even more new characters. Then the author jumps back to the original matter at hand as if none of that extra information deluge ever happened. The first few times he did this we couldn’t understand what story we were supposed to be following and who was actually important to it and we had to go back re-read.

The other problem is Sir Francis Walsingham himself. Even non-fiction needs to give a reader some kind of a through-line to latch on to. Given the title and the way the book begins, it’s easy to assume it’s Francis Walsingham. But he doesn’t figure into the stories nearly as much as you might expect, and there isn’t a lot of information about him in particular (granted, because much is lost to history). There are some writings of his that the author is able to present to us and quote, and that gives the reader some insight. But the story is not nearly as much about the man as we had hoped.

Still, it’s a very intriguing book.

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