86 of 87 people found the following review helpful
on 28 October 2011
The Queen's Agent provides a wealth of drama and detail surrounding the person, and the life and times of Francis Walsingham. One quickly develops a confidence in Cooper's breadth of knowledge of the era as he skillfully weaves the factors that help us understand Walsingham's difficult decisions as secretary to Elizabeth I. Cooper is not an apologist for one side, but helps the reader understand both Roman Catholic and Protestant hopes and anxieties. He helps us see the fragility of the kingdom and what was at stake. I was hooked when I heard the abridged version read on BBC 4, the full book was more than I'd hoped for. The style is engaging and entertaining. I highly commend it!
24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
Queen Elizabeth I remains a figure of fascination for many; and it is always interesting to read more of the men (and women) who made up her court, and who contributed to her long reign. Francis Walsingham has always been seen as a man of some mystery; a man of intrigue, spies, ciphers and skullduggery generally. So it is most interesting to see a book which deals with Elizabeth's court from the perspective of Walsingham's involvement.
The lengthy and important political career that Walsingham had prior to 1577, when the growing threat of a revival in Catholicism and missionary priests threw internal security, and Walsingham's role in same, into the spotlight, was a revelation to me. It helps to explain Walsingham's later career (which is more popularly known, even if somewhat vaguely, by most), and his conviction and loyalties to his religion and his monarch. Having been present in Paris during the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572, it is not difficult to see how Walsingham could translate the concept of such religious and political threats over to his own country. In this marvellous book, we also get to read of the lives of some of the conspirators; how it was that they appeared to turn against their country and their queen; and how Walsingham and Burghley built the mechanisms to deal with these menaces.
There are interesting and very enlightening chapters in the book also on relations with France, the Babington plot to free Mary Queen of Scots, and Elizabethan attempts to govern Ireland, as well as the dreams of the growing "English Empire".
While there are notes for source material used in the book, it's a shame that there is no bibliography as such; it would have been good to have more suggestions for reading, and source material cited in book form so that I could have looked for more reading and information. But that's the only quibble I have with this book; the writing is totally engaging, the story compelling and the material beautifully presented. Totally recommended for anyone who has an interest in Elizabethan times, political and espionage development in English Tudor history, or just an interest in Walsingham and his times - enough of a fascination in itself to justify devouring the book.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 18 June 2012
This book is a thoroughly engaging yet scholarly depiction of the Elizabethan spymaster and overall genius (judging by the contents of this book!), who as Elizabeth I's Personal Secretary, was at the forefront of the key political and tumultous events of Elizabeth's reign; ranging from the political strife in Ireland; the events which followed the assassination of the Prince of Orange in 1580; the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots; and the threat of the Armada.
The book divulges that Elizabeth's reign was never secure from the threat of harm which predominantly emanated from Catholic hostility abroad, namely, from French and Spanish interests, with the Huguenot massacre threatening to spill over into England and with Philip II eagerly awaiting any opportunity to manipulate and exploit domestic discontents at home.
Cooper presents a lively portrait of Francis, who with the constant threat looming on the continent, utilised his own spymasters abroad in the Spanish and French embassies, and even on occasion, utilised contacts as far as Italy and the Ottoman Empire to help protect Queen and Country from the continuing threats of invasion.
The despatches show that Walsingham played a key role in exposing a number of homegrown plots to overthrow the Queen, notably, Saville, Parry, Antony Babington and Nicholas Throckmorton.
He was also at the forefront of events concerning Mary, Queen of Scots, and along with his famous decipherer Thomas Phelippes, was able to secure the evidence needed to effect her downfall.
The work is on a balance, a sympathetic portrait of Francis Walsingham, which displays his evident ability and religious convictions stemming from a genuine commitment to his faith. However in a sense, we feel that he was not always fully appreciated by his mistresss as perhaps Cecil was, and was frequently indebted due to having to recompense other servants of the Crown for his purposes at his own expense.
The details surrounding the creation and activities of Seething Lane, effectively the first state intelligence gathering department in the country (though as Cooper describes, not neccessarily the sixteenth century equivalent to MI6), his many family connections, and his support for colonial exploration to rival the Spanish is fascinating; however, less savoury, is the historical exploration of the treatment of the Irish by the hands of the Elizabethan Government.
The only criticisms I would level however, is that at times throughout the book, some confusion is caused by jumping to and fro certain key periods which results in some duplication and repetition.
However, all in all, this is a fascinating portrayal of a remarkable man, devoted to Queen and country who perhaps was never fully appreciated and somewhat shades in comparison, to an extent with Lord Burghley, who appears to have been better documented in the past. Notwithstanding; highly recommended.
27 of 28 people found the following review helpful
on 15 November 2011
The Queen's Agent brings the character of Walsingham alive and enables one to appreciate the concerns and problems of someone living through the tumultuous years of Elizabeth's reign. I enjoyed very much the combination of drama, fine-story-telling, and history (both fascinating details and informative and engaging descriptions of the broader currents and issues of the day). It is easy to recommend this book.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 15 November 2012
This book is a really good read. Given that biographies generally get more difficult to write the further you go back in time - the sources just get less and less - and that the subject was involved in espionage - so deliberately hid things, the author has done well to produce such a well-rounded portrait of her subject.
There are gaps, where we simply don't know things, but the author does well to point these out and offer suggestions.
The style is eminently readable, and well-paced, and it gives a good feel for the times, and what it was like to work in the court of Elizabeth.
If you are interested in this period of history, then this book is a must.
43 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on 1 October 2011
This book is meticulously researched and written in a style that is both scholarly and readable. Specific details make the people and the events described vividly real. A great read. Very enjoyable.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 25 August 2013
This was a Kindle Daily Deal offer and when I purchased it I'm not sure if I knew what I'd let myself in for. It's a long book (though the last 30% is taken up in acknowledgments, the index and some good pictures), highly researched but not difficult to read.
Walsingham was involved in a good many things: espionage, Ireland, the Armada and America. So you get quite a variety of issues. The parallels with Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell are interesting. The perceived threat of Roman Catholicism looms large, though you can understand Duffy's thesis that had it not been for the deaths of Mary Tudor (without issue) and Cardinal Pole, England might have remained a relatively contented Roman Catholic country, albeit with a dissident Puritan minority, who would doubtless have continued to fare little better than their co-religionists in France. This was, of course, an age of great and brutal religious intolerance, and, as another reviewer had commented, the author seems to write with a commendable lack of bias. He uses the phrase "partisan historians" but this description could never be applied to him.
The Irish episodes are baleful as ever, providing a counter-balance to the behaviour of the Spanish in the Netherlands. I was also interested in the way the English were encouraged to colonise Ireland. In this context, the pertinent observation that this was "a chance to assert (the Queen's) sovereignty at a time when domestic political tensions were running high" still rings a bell today. There is also some interesting history on attempts to exploit and colonise north America. Elizabeth herself comes across as mercurial, emotional and unpredictable, as well as indecisive on occasion, but basically shrewd and probably a good brake on the ambitions of some of her more maverick advisers.
Remember that this is a scholarly work by an academic, not a fun one. But it is certainly not tedious or unduly heavy.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This begins like a novel with Walsingham, the English ambassador in Paris, risking his life by harbouring a Huguenot in a vain attempt to save him from the St Barthelomew's Day Massacre in 1572. This appalling event was critical in convincing Walsingham of the absolute necessity of preventing a Catholic invasion of England.
Although destined to play second fiddle to Lord Cecil, Walsingham filled a major role as Principal Secretary to Elizabeth, heavily involved in foreign policy, negotiating the thorny paths of her phony marriage plans, promoting early abortive attempts to extend English influence by founding colonies in North America, but most of all organising a network of secret agents to glean evidence of plots amongst Catholics at home and abroad.
Cooper provides a somewhat repetitive but fascinating analysis of how English Catholics who mostly just wanted to be free to worship "in the old way" were hardened into plotting against Elizabeth by the influence of priests who set up seminaries abroad and ventured into England, at great risk and personal cost, to spread the word. It was a vicious circle in which repressive laws, an inevitable result of foiled rebellions and plots, only made the English Catholics feel more persecuted and rebellious. Cooper debates whether Walsingham was guilty of "entrapment" by infiltrating Catholic families with agents who encouraged them to intrigue against the Queen.
Some events, such as the Throckmorton plot, are not easy to follow since they are presented in a rather fragmented way, and the whole structure of the book is a little disjointed, so that the abrupt switch from Walsingham's reliance on ciphers and code breakers to troubles in Ireland and attempts to found a colony at Roanoke feels like reading two fresh books in which he scarcely figures.
Yet, a sense of Walsingham the man comes through clearly: puritanical but not fanatical, loyal and industrious, stymied by the queen's periods of indecision. While giving her lavish presents, he was reduced to debt partly through being obliged to pay for some of his security work himself, not to mention the indignity of having an ungrateful queen throw a slipper in his face. His occasional bursts of written frustration to others seem almost modern in tone, and very human.
A few clear maps would have been useful, say of the ill-fated colony on Roanoke Island, the ports ravaged by Drake in the Spanish Empire, or even the route taken by the Armada. A timeline and list of main characters for easy reference would also assist the general reader. The illustrations are interesting, but need a full page each to do them justice.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
This is a very good portrait of Walsingham the man as well as the political agent. Cooper is an academic and negotiates his way with ease through the religious and political complexities of the sixteenth century. His writing style is cool and fluent, and he relishes the drama of his story without ever losing his sense of direction or moderation.
There have been a number of books fairly recently focusing on Walsingham, the religious wars of the sixteenth century, Elizabethan `spycraft', and the various plots around Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots. This is far warmer on the subject of Walsingham the man than, for example, Sir Francis Walsingham: A Courtier in an Age of Terror as well as being more accessible in style. It also covers much of the same ground as The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I, again with a tighter focus on Walsingham rather than his agents.
If you want something that gives a sense of the personality of Walsingham as well as his deeds, and which recaps the historical, social and political background to the big events such as the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, this is an accessible and very enjoyable read.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 18 July 2013
An excellently researched and highly readable book about Francis Walsingham, the Queens SIS, MI 5 and GCHQ all rolled into one! He was clearly adept at agent running and "turning" enemy agents to plant false information. This book has it all, intrigue, love, betrayal and more. If this were fiction, no one would believe it! I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It should appeal to historians, those with a love of Elizabethan history, espionage and intelligence. A book appealing across many different areas.