Thursday, December 27, 2007

Her Majesty's Spymaster

Stephen Budiansky's Her Majesty's Spymaster

I just finished reading Stephen Budiansky's Her Majesty's Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage. This is a biography of Francis Walsingham's official functions as a government functionary under Elizabeth I, first as an ambassador to France during the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, and then as Principal Secretary--which developed into head of the emerging English intelligence service. I suspect that Budiansky's focus on Walsingham's official duties is partly because they are so interesting, and partly because we have so little information about the personal lives of even fairly prominent officials of the time.

I reviewed Elizabeth: The Golden Age a while back, and of course, my wife have recently been given an HBO Films released British miniseries, Elizabeth I, starting Helen Mirren (as Elizabeth I) and Jeremy Irons (as the Earl of Leicester). Unfortunately, both of them are really too old to play these persons when the film starts in 1579. I'm sorry, I should be more forgiving, but Helen Mirren is clearly far too old to be the 45 year old queen.

Unlike Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Elizabeth I is not shy about portraying the savagery of the age. From what I have read, Walsingham was prepared to use torture to obtain information necessary to uncover plots against Elizabeth. He found it distasteful--but he was prepared to do bad things to bad people to protect his nation from civil war, the imposition of a foreign religion with a pretty bloody recent history, and fanatics prepared to get themselves killed in the process. (Any parallels to current events are, of course, completely obvious.)

The movie does manage to convey Walsingham's discomfort with the use of torture in a relatively subtle and careful way. There is nothing so gross or ahistorical as a speech against torture, but the actor playing Walsingham manages to convey quite a bit with a few words and an expression during the torture scene.

The depiction of the drawing and quartering of the people involved in the Babington Plot is far more graphic than most people will want to see. The camera doesn't linger, but you see men's intestines being slowing pulled out of them while they groan in pain. The depiction of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots--including the need for multiple ax strokes--is also far more graphic than it needed to be--except, perhaps, to remind you of the savagery of the punishments meted out in those days. And England wasn't particularly severe in this regard.

Elizabeth: The Golden Age is practically hagiography compared to Elizabeth I, which shows Elizabeth's well-known temper, and her willingness, when pressed, to use extraordinary savagery to keep Catholic extremists in check. (I have read that one of those executed in the Babington Plot was kept alive and conscious for three hours while the executioner worked his way around his internal organs, squeezing them.)

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