Friday, June 21, 2024

Our Man in Fotheringhay—Spycraft: Tricks and Tools of the Dangerous Trade from Elizabeth I to the Restoration"

From Literary Review, June 2024:

In the 17th century, the Uffizi offered its visitors a rather more diverse range of exhibits than it does now, among them weapons made by some distant precursor of Q Branch. The Scottish traveller James Fraser on a visit to Florence in the 1650s recorded what he saw: ‘A rarity, five pistol barrels joined together to be put in your hat, which is discharged at once as you salute your enemy & bid him farewell … another pistol with eighteen barrels in it to be shot desperately and scatter through a room as you enter.’

It is not possible to go very far in the divided Europe of the early modern period without coming across some instance of the many kinds of covert activity that are chronicled in this genial and immensely readable work. The spirit of the age is captured in an extraordinary line in the poem ‘Character of an Ambassador’ by the Dutch polymath and diplomat Constantijn Huygens, which says that ambassadors are ‘honourable spies’. An unexpected page in Nadine Akkerman and Pete Langman’s book is devoted to invisible inks in the family papers of a Lancashire Catholic squire. The authors also turn their attention to the texts and objects that left Fotheringhay Castle covertly, despite the best efforts of the jailers of Mary, Queen of Scots. One such, a miniature gold and enamel triptych, is the pride of my college’s collection (you can see it in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, where it is on loan). The noblewoman Anne Vaux, who smuggled it out of the castle, features in Spycraft as the victim of an audacious and perfectly executed sting by the lieutenant of the Tower of London, where her friend Henry Garnett, a Jesuit priest, was imprisoned. They corresponded in invisible inks on papers wrapped round a (hint!) pair of spectacles or pieces of ‘bisket bread’, little realising that all their communications were being intercepted, the invisible inks being made legible and every letter (including seals, handwriting and invisible messages) being replaced by a counterfeit made by the master forger Arthur Gregory. 

The authors naturally examine the fight to the death between Mary and Elizabeth I’s spymaster Francis Walsingham, ‘one of the most famous cipher-driven episodes in history’. The first round of their bout, involving the incriminating ‘casket letters’, was already in the past. The final struggle drew in Walsingham’s double agent Gilbert Gifford (who made sure that his master saw Mary’s letters before her ally the French ambassador did), Walsingham’s decipherer Thomas Phelippes, and Mary’s cipher secretaries Gilbert Curle and Claude Nau. Phelippes, thanks to an earlier search of the queen’s rooms, had the cipher key in his possession. He had only to decipher Mary’s letters at top speed and bide his time. On the packet containing the final incriminating letter he drew a gallows to indicate the likely fate of his rival cryptographers....