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The world’s first great spy

Special to The Times

Her Majesty’s Spymaster

Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth

of Modern Espionage

Stephen Budiansky

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Viking: 236 pp., $24.95

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AS England’s first spymaster and an assiduously loyal public servant, Sir Francis Walsingham was devoted to keeping Elizabeth I in power by any means necessary, be it spreading misinformation, paying informants and spying on enemies and traitors, real and perceived.

Their job duties might have differed considerably, but like President Bush’s advisor Karl Rove is today, Walsingham was a powerful and controversial character -- admired, feared, detested -- and politically shrewd.

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In “Her Majesty’s Spymaster,” author Stephen Budiansky explores the birth of modern espionage by way of Walsingham, whose tactics were as successful as they were questionable. His intricately planned methods for dealing with traitors and obtaining state secrets would prove influential for centuries to come.

His official title was “principle secretary” to the queen, but his activities were hardly mundane: espionage, code breaking, running double agents. Neither the job’s duties nor its powers were defined in law or tradition; instead, they were shaped by the personality and influence of the men who held them.

Walsingham’s boundless capacity for hard work and his loyalty to the queen gave him free rein and considerable power. His virtues, Budiansky writes, were numerous: He was “wise and industrious” and never let a stray word slip.

Budiansky quotes a prominent historian of the time, William Camden, who described Walsingham as “a most subtle searcher of hidden secrets, who knew excellently well how to win men’s minds unto him, and to apply them to his own uses.”

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Does this bring to mind a certain masterful, discreet White House policy advisor, dubbed “the Architect” by Bush? In this time of war, terrorism and administration leaks, CIA-related and otherwise, it’s hard not to relate Tudor-era struggles over faith and empire to contemporary goings-on.

Thanks to Walsingham’s mentor William Cecil -- who entered parliament at age 23, became principal secretary to Edward VI by age 30 and later served Elizabeth I -- Walsingham rose quickly through the ranks of government: serving in parliament, as Elizabeth’s ambassador to France and finally as principal secretary and privy councilor.

His particular skills were well-suited to the needs of his country at the time. “If there were a land in need of men adept in the black arts of espionage, betrayal, and subversion, it was England,” which was “faction-ridden, ungovernable, outnumbered, hands-tied,” Budiansky writes.

He characterizes the Elizabethan government as “half-medieval-half-modern, half-amateur-half professional,” meaning that everything was in flux, a bit chaotic and rather exciting. Defining alliances and enemies became overwhelmingly key to the success of England.

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In dealing with Spain and France, the ever vigilant Walsingham once wrote, “I think it less danger to fear too much than too little.” His expressions of fear and suspicion seem resonant in the context of our political times, as does his insistence that all bets were off in dealing with national enemies.

Walsingham, a zealous Protestant, would develop a reputation as a persecutor of Catholics. He believed that “there could be no true peace with Catholic countries, now or ever, and it was time for revolution in policy.”

One of the most compelling dramas in this account involved Elizabeth’s cousin and rival Mary, Queen of Scots, a Catholic. The author describes Scotland of the late 16th century as “tiny but a nightmare, Protestant in the lowlands but still Catholic in the highlands, heavily under the sway of France.” Among Walsingham’s foremost tasks was keeping an eye on Queen Mary’s efforts, encouraged by both France and Spain, to dethrone Elizabeth.

Budiansky contrasts the rival queens: “Mary was no intellectual, no grand strategist. Elizabeth read Latin and Greek; Mary did embroidery. But, like many who were adventurous even to the point of self-destruction, she had charisma and an ability to attract and inspire.” Elizabeth oversaw Mary’s execution for treason in 1587. Walsingham died three years later, at 58, undoubtedly with a clear conscience about whatever he had done to protect Elizabeth’s rule.

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As portrayed by Budiansky, Walsingham was a man who preferred subtle and patient methods in his espionage but who would resort to cruder methods when necessary. Like all great villains, Walsingham comes across as undeniably charismatic, admirable for his ingenuity and resilience -- not to mention his devotion to Elizabeth at any cost.

What would the royal protector make of Karl Rove? One can only imagine.

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Carmela Ciuraru, editor of six anthologies of poetry, including “Motherhood: Poems About Mothers,” is a regular contributor to Book Review.

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