Imagining and Detecting Conspiracy, 1571-1605

King Lear is a play about a succession crisis in a world where legitimacy has been debased, and thus a metaphor for the politics of Shakespeare’s age. Lear has no son, but three daughters. Where daughters succeed to landed estates, the law is that of partible inheritance: the kingdom must somehow be divided. But Lear refuses the advice of his noble councillors, and by that refusal becomes a tyrant. His decisions are morally and legally invalidated. We’ve entered a twilight world that’s nasty, brutish and short. Then, legitimacy is doubly debased when the main plot meshes with the sub-plot: where we see the struggle for lineage and succession in the house of Gloucester, where Edgar, the legitimate son, and Edmund, the bastard, vie for honour and inheritance in a fratricidal conflict that mirrors the battle for power in the state.

Shakespeare was well acquainted with such issues, since the reign of the unmarried, childless Elizabeth had been at one level a succession crisis from beginning to end. Neither was the accession of James VI (of Scotland) and I (of England) to be the easy transition that many historians seem to think it was. Leanda de Lisle’s forthcoming book, After Elizabeth, will show exactly how precarious the elision was, and how the Gunpowder Plot was a culmination of complex manoeuvres beginning when dissatisfied Catholics as much as Protestants flocked to the service of the 2nd Earl of Essex in the late 1590s, because he was flexible in his opinions and they believed his political ambitions would incite the overturning of the Elizabethan Religious Settlement. That Settlement (or lack of it) touched as raw a nerve as the succession question, because the English Reformation had created a deeply divided nation. In reality, it had settled little or nothing, not least because in a country with the landowning nobility as secular-minded as in England, nothing could be concluded without a final dynastic accord. It wasn’t just a case of Protestants against Catholics; it was far more nuanced than this. Catholic loyalists took up the cudgels against the hated Jesuits more vigorously than against Anglican conformists. Within so-called Anglicanism there was a struggle for the mind and soul of the Church: between Calvinists and episcopalians, and between moderates and ‘divine right’ theorists, that lasted over forty years. Throughout this phase, the conformists increasingly denounced the puritans, the presbyterians denounced the separatists, chiefly the Brownists and Barrowists, and it wouldn’t be long before almost everyone denounced the Arminians, soon better known as the Laudians.

The point I want to capture first is that in the British Isles as known to Shakespeare, legitimacy was debased most heinously on one particular day. I refer to the most critical event of the era: the execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587. This, we should never allow ourselves to forget, was utterly traumatic because it wasn’t just a regicide, it was the first regicide in British history empowered by the state. Mary, an anointed Queen of Scots, was executed on the authority of a warrant signed by her cousin, an anointed Queen of England, which was underpinned by an Act of Parliament. This wasn’t a murder at dead of night by some cut-throat assassin in the deepest recesses of a castle, the solution that Elizabeth had really wanted when pushed to the limit. It was regicide according to law; its theatre was the public stage. Its rationale was, of course, that Mary was a traitor for her role in the Babington plot against Elizabeth. So far, perhaps, so good, except that Mary wasn’t English, she wasn’t a subject of Elizabeth, and by the ius gentium (the ‘law of nations’) she had every right to take whatever steps were needed to secure her liberty after 19 years in prison. If Elizabeth happened to get killed in the process, that was morally questionable but permissible by international, if not by English law.

I shan’t attempt to persuade you on that specific point. Mary did dictate the letter to Babington, which was intercepted by Thomas Phelippes, who was working for Walsingham, then spymaster to William Cecil, Elizabeth’s chief minister. Cecil, far from being the conservative bureaucrat of early and mid-twentieth century Tudor history, was a stalker. He was a messianic Protestant with a covert plan of attack to destabilize Mary and depose her from her throne in Scotland, then exclude her from the English succession by fair means or foul, this even before she’d returned home to Scotland after the death of her first husband Francis II, King of France.

As I suggested in my biography of Mary, Cecil was Mary’s nemesis, not Elizabeth. He conspired against her more than she ever did against him or his Queen. In the final denouement, Phelippes messed it up. He was a showy CIA type, too clever for his own good. He couldn’t resist adding a postscript to Mary’s ciphered letter to Babington asking for the names of his accomplices. And when Babington opened the letter, he smelt a rat and burnt it. And when he did that, Walsingham had lost the evidence against Mary, which meant he had to cheat. Phelippes, a master forger, replicated the letter Babington had burnt, which was shown to Mary’s secretaries, who panicked when shown the facsimile and confessed all. And it was their confessions that were used as the evidence against Mary at her trial in the Great Hall at Fotheringhay. This is why Mary demanded to see the evidence. She knew there was foul play. The encounter went like this:

MARY: I knew not Babington. I never received any letters from him, nor wrote any to him. I never plotted the destruction of the Queen. If you want to prove it, then produce my letters signed with my own hand.
COUNSEL FOR THE PROSECUTION: But we have evidence of letters between you and Babington.
MARY: If so, why do you not produce them? I have the right to demand to see the originals and the copies side by side. It is quite possible that my ciphers have been tampered with by my enemies. I cannot reply to this accusation without full knowledge. Until then, I must content myself with affirming solemnly that I not guilty of the crimes imputed to me…

No one, I think, has digested the significance of Mary’s choice of words. Because she went down in history as a femme fatale, smeared by her opponents with allegations of lurid, sexual crimes, the assumption was that she’d lied through her teeth. In reality, the passage I’ve just quoted is an impromptu legal argument, a motion challenging the sufficiency in law of the indictment against her. Thomas More had done this sort of thing at his trial fifty years earlier, and no one accused him of being a liar.

I’ve just said that Mary was never the femme fatale envisaged by English propaganda. Cecil’s systematic efforts to steal her story and destroy her reputation by accusing her of adultery and conspiracy to murder her second husband, Lord Darnley, involved him in skulduggery of the highest order. ‘History will judge’ is one of Tony Blair’s favourite slogans. And Cecil knew that too. He even doctored the archives, laying down a paper trail so that lazy historians would afterwards pronounce a verdict of history consistent with his anti-Marian propaganda. History is written by the winners, and by the time Mary escaped across the Solway Firth to England, she was already a spectacular loser.

And yet, her policy of rebuilding the Scottish monarchy and reconciling the feuds of the noble factions, pursued against all the odds, had almost worked. Mary had been so effective for the first four years of her personal rule in Scotland that she’d won the loyalty and admiration of the most grudging of sceptics. Contrary to John Knox’s legendary put-down, she knew how to rule from the head as well as the heart. This made her a great deal more popular in England than Cecil or the rest of Elizabeth’s advisers ever dared to admit, because she accomplished what Elizabeth never managed. She married and settled the succession in her country. That’s why she posed such a threat; why she had to be hunted down, imprisoned and executed. It was, of course, to be her son James who would succeed the unmarried Elizabeth, uniting the British crowns. That was thinkable only because James had been brought up as a Protestant and had signed his concordat with the Cecils. Under those conditions, his future was assured, and he too had no further time for his mother.

It’s almost casually said that Elizabeth and Mary were rival Queens. It’s the version of history we think we know, but that’s because it’s the myth layered into our Protestant-Whig tradition. Things certainly ended up as rivalry, but until Mary’s desperate decision to commit to the Babington plot to win her freedom, the rivalry between the two women had been patchy and intermittent. The distinction is between politics and ideology. Elizabeth had always sought to dominate her cousin’s international diplomacy. In particular, she sought a veto over whom Mary might choose to marry. Mary made sure she didn’t succeed, and the sparks predictably flew.

But the ideological battle lay elsewhere: religion is the crux. Elizabeth was a Protestant, but never Protestant enough for Cecil. Both Mary and Elizabeth fully understood the dangers of a religious civil war. They kept religion and politics apart: they were politiques, unlike Cecil, whose mission was to ally with the Scots-Protestant nobles to extirpate Catholicism root and branch from the whole of the British Isles. Whereas Elizabeth always put hereditary right ahead of religion when debating the succession, for Cecil it was the other way round. On the most explosive issue of the day, therefore, Elizabeth and Mary were as one. It sounds surreal, but for all but the last of the twenty-five years or so that Cecil was busily subverting Mary or lobbying for her execution, Elizabeth was shielding her cousin from his attacks. Elizabeth and Mary were – as it might whimsically be said – fully paid-up members of the women monarchs’ trade union. Both were staunch defenders of the ideal of monarchy, of the ‘divinity’ that ‘hedges’ a king. The ideological conflict was between Elizabeth and Cecil. No wonder Mary branded him a closet republican.

I often wonder how many people know that Elizabeth refused to execute Mary for as long as this, or that when she finally yielded, it was because Cecil had lied to her, telling her that the Spanish Armada had landed in Wales with the innuendo that Catholic assassins were at that moment on their way to Windsor Castle or Whitehall. Even then, Elizabeth changed her mind. She had second thoughts, and when the execution warrant was sent to Fotheringhay, it was because Cecil and his allies on the Privy Council had colluded and undertaken to execute Mary without Elizabeth’s knowledge or consent, telling her only afterwards, when ‘the execution were done…’ A covering letter to the Earls of Shrewsbury and Kent, who were to preside over the event at Fotheringhay, a letter to which Walsingham added his signature from his sick bed, justified this subterfuge as ‘for [the Queen’s] special service tending to the safety of her royal person and universal quietness of her whole realm’.

So the question arises, who was conspiring against whom? For thirty years, Cecil’s mantra was the ‘safety’ of Elizabeth and the ‘preservation of the [Protestant] state’. And yet, when the queen’s chief minister was cheating and lying to his own Queen or colluding with the Scots or the French ambassador to bring about Mary’s destruction and exclusion from the English succession, who then is engaged in a conspiracy? Elizabeth, unlike Cecil, always regarded Mary as her lawful heir apparent. Mary was a proper Queen, a great-granddaughter of Henry VII. Mary’s claim, although on the female side, was stronger still if you were a Catholic. The Protestants had to overlook Elizabeth’s illegitimacy. Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, whom he’d married while his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was still alive. The Catholics revelled in Anne’s nickname of ‘the concubine’. It was especially awkward for the Protestants that Henry VIII, when he’d wearied of Anne and executed her on trumped-up charges of adultery and incest, got Parliament to confirm Elizabeth’s bastardy in a clause that was never repealed. In 1570, in the famous bull Regnans in Excelsis, the Pope had declared Elizabeth to be a bastard and a heretic.

Elizabeth always refused to identify her successor by name, because she had a superstitious fear that to name anyone would somehow expedite her own death. But until the late-1570s and perhaps later still, she saw Mary as the lawful claimant on the grounds of hereditary right, whereas Cecil advocated first the claim of the Protestant Catherine Grey under Henry VIII’s legally dubious will, and then after her death and that of Mary Grey her sister, he pushed the claim of Henry Hastings, Earl of Huntingdon, known as the Puritan Earl, a descendant of the Duke of Clarence, brother of Edward IV.

Elizabeth used to joke that Cecil was more exercised about her ‘safety’ than she was herself. The language of ‘safety’ and the ‘security of the state’, when used by those in power, is all too close to the idioms we hear today when politicians talk about global terrorism. One of Cecil’s most enduring beliefs was that Mary was the agent and the intended beneficiary of an international Catholic conspiracy to kill Elizabeth. He’d first made this claim in 1559 while Mary was Queen of France, when her Guise uncles had emblazoned her heraldic regalia with the arms of England as well as those of Scotland and France. Political scientists now talk about the language of securitisation – they mean the idioms of homeland security, Guantanamo Bay, Belmarsh prison and indefinite house arrest. There are, of course, genuine terrorists, genuine plots and conspiracies. Citizens must protect themselves – this was exactly Cecil’s point, since in his world-view Protestants alone were citizens. He’d worked up in embryo a theory of Protestant citizenship: Protestants alone were represented in Parliament, which was to become the chief legislative and representative body of his republic of salvation. Parliament reconstructed along these lines was to be the institution that, if Elizabeth unexpectedly died, would judge the claims of competing candidates for the succession and elect a new monarch on the basis of Protestant rules.

You may already be asking how this can be cross-referenced back to Shakespeare and King Lear. I’ll begin by considering briefly Shakespeare’s sources for the play. First on the list is Holinshed’s account of Lear’s reign in the 1587 edition of the Chronicles based, in turn, on the medieval chronicles of Geoffrey of Monmouth and Matthew of Westminster. Shakespeare follows Holinshed quite closely, apart from the end of the story. This is because, in Holinshed’s version, the story has a happy ending. This would have been ideally suited to the plot structure of a classical tragedy. Racine himself could scarcely have found a more morally satisfying climax. There is no final catastrophe: the abused king flees to France, there to be received in state by his youngest daughter Cordelia and her husband, the King of France. Lear is honoured, an invading army is assembled, and Lear, Cordelia and her husband take ship and, on landing in Britain, defeat their enemies in battle. The Dukes of Cornwall and Albany are slain, whereupon Lear is restored to his throne, which he rules for another two years before dying, forty years after he first began to reign.

But Holinshed offers a stripped-down plot. The colour comes from elsewhere. We know that Shakespeare drew on Samuel Harsnett’s A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures, published in 1605, for his depiction of true and false insanity and the characterisation of ‘Poor Tom’. It’s Shakespeare’s most compelling source, but not everyone knows that it’s really a scorifying Protestant attack on Catholic exorcism and the casting out of devils. The book is addressed to the ‘seduced Catholics’ of England, and its full title is A Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures to withdraw the hearts of his Majesty’s subjects from their Allegiance, and from the truth of the Christian Religion professed in England under the pretence of casting out devils. Here, all the punch is in the words ‘to withdraw the hearts of his Majesty’s subjects’ – meaning James VI and I – ‘from their allegiance’. When I picked up this book, I was astonished to discover it was actually begun in Elizabeth’s reign, and chapter 2 is an historical account of Catholic plots and conspiracies from the beginning of her reign. The story begins in 1559 with Mary Queen of Scots and her heraldic arms, and ends with the Babington plot. No one who read this book could miss the point. Plots and conspiracies were introduced into England by Mary, then fomented by her party and later the Jesuits. The details needn’t trouble us: the key point is that we’ve been taken straight back to dynastic politics and the succession question.

A third quarry well known to Shakespeare is, of course, The Tragedy of Gorboduc, written by Thomas Norton and Thomas Sackville in 1561 and first performed before Elizabeth at the Inner Temple. The Queen was not amused, for this was a starkly political play, part of a concerted push by Cecil and his Protestant allies in the 1560s to persuade Elizabeth to marry and settle the succession. In fact, Gorboduc – like the tragedy of Gonzaga in Hamlet – was a determined bid to ‘prick the conscience of the king’. A new edition was printed in 1590, where the argument is clearly set out:

Gorboduc, King of Britain, divided his realm in his lifetime to his sons, Ferrex and Porrex. The sons fell to division and dissension. The younger killed the elder. The mother that more dearly loved the elder, for revenge killed the younger. The people moved with the cruelty of the fact, rose in rebellion and slew both father and mother. The nobility assembled, and most terribly destroyed the rebels. And afterwards for want of issue of the Prince, whereby the succession of the crown became uncertain, they fell to Civil War, in which both they and many of their issues were slain, and the land for a long time almost desolate and miserably wasted.

In the 1590 edition, Gorboduc is given an updated spin. It’s printed back-to-back with a new tract, The Serpent of Division, wherein is contained the true Historie or Mappe of Rome’s Overthrow, governed by Avarice, Envy and Pride, the decay of Empires be they never so sure. The story tells of the dissolution of the First Triumvirate in that crucial phase immediately before the final collapse of the Roman Republic, the result (says our historian) of privy conspiracy, corruption and moral weakness. Julius Caesar takes the part of a martial hero in the tract, but his heroism is largely a foil to show how the conquest of Britain was the result of envy and division between its ruler King Cassibelan and Androgenes, Duke of Cornwall. The punch line is that discord and debate, leading to envy, mutinies and revolts in the minds of the nobles is the cause of the destruction and dissolution of kingdoms. It’s a line still closely correlated to the succession issue, but no longer to the fate of Mary, Queen of Scots, who by this time was three-years dead. No longer is she the active threat, but after her execution the agenda turns to the mutinies, revolts and civil wars that emanate from moral breakdown and the debasement of legitimacy.

The fourth and last source Shakespeare would have known was the quasi-historical tract A Conference about the next succession to the Crown of England by the Jesuit, Robert Persons. First published at Antwerp in 1595 and mischievously dedicated to Essex to cause him maximum embarrassment for his patronage of dissident Catholics, the tract deftly positioned itself as the rational logical response to Mary’s execution and caused a minor sensation by adopting an entirely neutral and objective tone, assessing the rival claims to the throne after Elizabeth’s death and concluding that there was no obvious favourite. This isn’t the place to discuss the work at length. The fascination of the piece is that with the rightful Catholic heir, the Queen of Scots, dead and her son, James, a Protestant, the Jesuit argument had shifted out of the lexicon of primogeniture and into a republican idiom. It was now Persons, and not Cecil, who was talking about an elective kingship in which citizens and properly constituted Parliaments would have their say.

Persons abandoned the principles of hereditary right in order to ram home his points. Historical precedents were the currency of historical argument, and when talking of King Edward of Britain, the eldest son of King Alfred, Persons noted that Edward died leaving two legitimate sons. One was named Edmund and the other Eldred, but Edward had a third, illegitimate son named Adelstan. ‘But yet’, says Persons, ‘for that this man [i.e. Adelstan the bastard] was esteemed to be of more valour than the other, he was preferred to the crown, before the two other Princes legitimate, for so testifieth Polydore [meaning Polydore Vergil] …’ Adelstan was chosen King by the people and crowned ‘according to the old custom’. Moreover, according to John Stow, as Persons continued, rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of quoting one of the standard luminaries and a founder member of the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries, ‘he was a Prince of worthy memory, valiant and wise in all his acts, and brought this land into one perfect Monarchy, for he expelled utterly the Danes.’ ‘Thus much Stowe’, as Persons gloated, recorded ‘of the success of choosing the king bastard to reign. To whose acts might be added that he conquered Scotland and brought Constantine their king to do him homage…’

Persons drew on the adage that a boy conceived in sexual vigour was more likely to become a military hero than a legitimate son. Sexual virility gave birth to military prowess. It’s tempting to think Shakespeare recalled this passage when imagining the relationship of Edmund and Edgar in King Lear, but irrespective of this, Persons’ tract on the succession took political England by storm. As Peter Lake has recently noted, when James VI of Scotland defended monarchy and primogeniture and attacked republicanism and elective monarchy in The Trewe Law of Free Monarchies in 1598-9, his targets weren’t just Buchanan and the Calvinist resistance theorists, they were far more topically and immediately Persons and the Jesuits.

Here Shakespeare meets Mary Queen of Scots, because Lake shows us that those who read Persons were immediately drawn to his argument that the Marian regicide could lead to only one outcome: the renewal of the Wars of the Roses. Those writers who owned or read Persons were drawn into medieval English history, and Lake is convinced that Shakespeare started the history plays for a similar reason. In the 1590s, the succession issue was the hottest political topic, and it was thrown into a doubly confused and morally ambiguous state by Mary’s execution. If you cut off the head of a queen, and one who is the lawful successor by hereditary right and do it in the name of religion, what then?

Lake has linked his enquiry to what he calls the ‘Catholic counterfactuals’ of Elizabeth’s reign. Here his concern is to highlight those moments when a variety of marriages and dynastic shifts threatened, if not to overturn the Elizabethan regime, then fundamentally to realign it. Cecil was all too well aware this could happen. He knew the Elizabethan Settlement wasn’t working. A majority of the people were not yet Protestants. The Settlement had barely scratched the surface, especially in the north of England. Cecil set out his thoughts in a devastating memo, written in 1565, shortly before Mary rejected Elizabeth’s advice to marry the Earl of Leicester and married Lord Darnley instead.

Cecil noted that a majority of Elizabeth’s subjects – he spoke repeatedly of ‘the people of England’ – favoured Mary. The ‘people of England’, he said, would flock to a Queen who, unlike their own Queen, was prepared to marry and have children. The sixteenth century was an age of gender stereotypes. By marrying, Mary would do what Cecil and every other male councillor and head of household wanted a female monarch to do. She would put a man at the head of the royal family. She would recreate a truly regal monarchy, and prove (said Cecil) that it would be her heirs, and not Elizabeth’s, who would finally unite the thrones of England and Scotland.

The ‘people of England’, Cecil continued, whether Protestants or Catholics, would be so won over by this, they would be ‘drawn away from their allegiance’ to Elizabeth and transfer it to Mary. That’s why she had to be excluded and removed; why he used the language of securitization – the ‘safety’ of the Queen and ‘security of the [Protestant state] – to point up the threat, arrogating power to the Protestant conciliar regime over which he presided. Cecil knew that for Catholic plots and conspiracies to be sufficiently kept at bay, the regime needed constant vigilance and intelligence.

The most obvious opportunities for change – Lake’s turning points that didn’t turn – were the projected matches between Mary and the Duke of Norfolk, Elizabeth and the Duke of Anjou, and the accession of James I. As to the plots and conspiracies (as enumerated not least in 1605 by Harsnett in The Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures), they are the Ridolfi plot, itself linked to the plan to marry Mary to the Duke of Norfolk; the Throckmorton plot; the Parry plot; and the Babington plot. After Mary’s death, there was the so-called ‘Lopez plot’ to poison Elizabeth by her Jewish-Portuguese doctor; the Earl of Essex’s plot to depose Elizabeth and engineer the premature accession of James followed by Essex’s unsuccessful revolt of 1601; and after James’s accession, there were the Bye and Main Plots, followed by the Gunpowder Plot.

By my title ‘Imagining and Detecting Conspiracy’ I meant to think more conceptually about plots and conspiracies, because the whole point about the Elizabethan and early Jacobean instances is that we tend ONLY TO KNOW ABOUT THEM from the slanted viewpoint of the Cecils, and rarely more objectively. There are a few exceptions, but my general point stands. Very few historians go back to the archives and dig deeply enough to get to the end and the bottom of the story. The easy way out is to use the versions of events set out in broadsides and pamphlets ex post facto. And this is also Peter Lake’s point. These public positioning exercises, usually written by the Cecils or their clients, provide the justifications, the vindications and the explanations on the part of the regime that were provoked by these turning points that didn’t turn. All reflect the contemporary concern with, and anxiety about, issues of the succession, conspiracy, debased legitimacy, evil counsel, and tyranny. They are the flip side of literature and drama, not least since they are highly overdrawn and often quasi-fictional. At the very least, they rely on rhetoric and spin to clinch their points, while the evidence is presented in highly biased and selective ways.

I would go so far as to say, even now, I fully understand only two of the plots in the period I’ve selected: the Babington plot which I’ve already touched on, and the Lopez plot. I got some way with the plot to marry Mary to the Duke of Norfolk in my biography, and the so-called Ridolfi plot, Parry plot, and Throckmorton plot are the subjects of exciting recent work by Geoffrey Parker and John Bossy.

Let’s take the Lopez plot. The charges levelled at his trial in 1594 were that Lopez had conspired with the king of Spain to poison Elizabeth. He was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. But something isn’t right. Lopez wasn’t executed when he should have been. The Queen stopped the execution the day before it was due to take place. Lopez was in limbo in the Tower for months. Why the dilemma? Did the Queen believe Lopez was innocent? Or was she losing her touch? Whom did she believe, Lopez or his accusers?

Straight away we’re back with William Cecil. By the 1590s he’s better known as Lord Burghley – he’s lost his old radical streak. He doesn’t need it any more, because the Queen of Scots is dead. He’s the elder statesman now: his former allies in the Privy Council are dead. The balance of power is shifting. William wants his son, Robert Cecil, to inherit his position as chief minister.

Since Mary’s execution in 1587, England had been at war with Spain. Philip II was the enemy. The war was fought in northern France, the Netherlands, and at sea. In 1588, Philip sent the Armada. It was a lucky escape for Elizabeth. A counter-Armada sent by the English to Portugal and the Azores in 1589 was a disaster. The war effort was costly and unpopular. Privately, Burghley wanted peace. And he was well on the way to persuading the Queen.

Burghley’s leading opponent, the advocate of an aggressive all-out war, was Robert Devereux, the 2nd Earl of Essex. He aims to unseat Burghley and displace his son, Robert, from the succession as chief minister. Essex postures as the leader of the Protestant cause in Europe. He’s headstrong and ambitious. He expects others to follow where he leads. He rejects Burghley’s peace policy. He sees himself as a great military hero, and depicts Burghley and Cecil as bureaucrats and time-servers. Essex has been appointed to the Privy Council, but his career is in the doldrums. He needs to bring off a coup.

So he detects a plot. It’s as simple as that. The Lopez Plot is entirely Essex’s discovery. He employs two counter-intelligence agents who used to work for Walsingham – one of them is our old friend Thomas Phelippes, the man who forged the replica of Mary’s ciphered letter to Babington. These spies are out of work and need a job. They use an agent provocateur to infiltrate the Portuguese-Jewish community in London. Essex has the posts intercepted and arrests a few suspects. At first his agents intend to ‘plant’ or ‘project’ evidence of a plot, so that Essex can rush to Elizabeth and claim the credit for ‘discovering’ it. It’s a common technique in the Machiavellian world of intelligence.

But Essex’s agents hit the jackpot. They uncover a ring of genuine Portuguese-Jewish spies working for Philip II. The problem is, the trail goes straight back to Burghley. Because three years before, in 1591, a Portuguese-Jewish double agent called Manuel de Andrada was arrested at the port of Rye. Andrada was a double agent who claimed to serve Don Antonio, the pretender to the throne of Portugal, but was really working for Philip II. Andrada’s brief was to open secret peace negotiations with England to end the war. He was also supposed to eliminate Don Antonio, who was living in exile at Windsor, either by assassination or by kidnapping.

Philip II had used force to claim the throne of Portugal in 1580. He’d united the Iberian Peninsula under Spanish rule. He wanted rid of Don Antonio, but he also wanted peace with England – at least a temporary peace, so that he could reconquer the Netherlands and help his Catholic allies in France to win the war against Henry of Navarre and the Protestants. Burghley also wanted peace. He believed Don Antonio’s presence in England to be a major embarrassment after the failure of the 1589 expedition to Portugal.

So, when Andrada was captured at Rye, he immediately wrote to Burghley. He pleaded be questioned only by him or his agents. Andrada offered to become a triple agent and to serve Elizabeth as well. Burghley was interested. He began secret discussions with Andrada. He used two agents – his own servant Thomas Mills, and Dr Lopez. At this stage, Burghley trusted Lopez completely.

Dr Lopez was a Portuguese-Jewish doctor who’d settled in England in 1559. He became a member of the College of Physicians, and was chosen to read the anatomy lecture. He declined, but his practice grew despite charges of unprofessional conduct. He was a physician to Walsingham, and later to the Earl of Leicester. In a scurrilous attack, Lopez was credited with skill in poisoning and illegal abortions. Later, he briefly treated the Earl of Essex for shingles and suspected syphilis, but they didn’t get on. In 1586, Lopez was appointed chief physician to the Elizabeth. She liked him and granted him a valuable perquisite: a monopoly for importing aniseed and other herbs essential to the London apothecaries.

Walsingham had also trusted Lopez. He’d used him as Burghley did later as an official translator for documents in Portuguese. Lopez was privy to many secrets of state. suddenly he was ‘detected’ by Essex and Burghley was in deep trouble. Had Lopez all along been a double agent?

What Andrada hadn’t told Burghley was that he’d talked to Don Christaforo de Moro, Philip II’s secretary of state in Madrid. He’d told de Moro that Lopez was willing to act as a spy for Spain. He’d praised Lopez to the skies and suggested that Philip employ him. He’d asked that Lopez’s daughter be given ‘one of the old jewels’ from Philip’s caskets. When Lopez had met Andrada at Rye in 1591 as Burghley’s translator, Andrada gave Lopez this jewel. It was later said that Lopez spent the next two years negotiating with Spanish agents for a payment of 50,000 crowns in return for poisoning the Queen.

So Essex rode to see Elizabeth at Hampton Court in January 1594. He denounced Lopez as a traitor. He’d by now caught two of Lopez’s alleged co-conspirators, Esteban Ferrera da Gama and Manuel Luis Tinoco, who were also Portuguese Jews and double agents. Essex said he’d found incriminating letters. But surprise, surprise, nothing was in Lopez’s handwriting. Essex persisted, arresting Lopez himself.

Burghley and Robert Cecil ridiculed the allegations. Burghley wrote to Robert: ‘in Lopez’s folly, I see no point of treason intended to the queen but a readiness to make some gain to the hurt of the King of Spain’.

The Queen sided with the Cecils. She called Essex ‘a rash and temerarious youth’. She said she knew Lopez’ innocence ‘well enough’. Essex retired to his chamber and sulked for two days. But he finally got more evidence. Elizabeth was forced to open a full investigation, and Burghley was forced to change tack.

The accused were first questioned at Essex’s house in the Strand. Burghley made sure he and Robert Cecil were present when Lopez was questioned. Later, the prisoners were taken to the Tower of London. They were repeatedly interrogated. Tinoco and da Gama were tortured and confessed. Their evidence was damning. Almost certainly Lopez wasn’t tortured, but was threatened with the rack. Finally he too confessed.

Lopez signed his confession. On the very same day, special commissioners were appointed for his trial, and he was indicted at Guildhall two days later. The next day he was tried for treason, and within a few hours convicted by a jury of London citizens. He pleaded ‘not guilty’. When cross-examined, he admitted ‘that he had indeed spoken of this matter and promised it, but all forsooth to cozen [trick] the king of Spain…’ He denied any intention to poison the Queen, and claimed he’d only confessed to save himself from torture. He was sentenced to death, but was taken back to the Tower pending the trials of da Gama and Tinoco. They were tried and convicted some weeks later.

Then, something extraordinary happened. Elizabeth personally intervened. She sent Sir Michael Blunt, the lieutenant of the Tower, a royal warrant ordering him to ignore the execution warrants for Lopez, however many were sent. It’s clear that Elizabeth refused to allow Lopez to be executed. Why?

This is the bit no one has been able to answer, because they all seemed to think the records of Lopez’s trial were lost. It said so in a footnote in 1893, so I nipped off to the National Archives and found the file in 20 minutes. The trial records, kept in the special series known as the ‘Bag of Secrets’, show repeated adjournments of the special commission so that its jurisdiction didn’t lapse while Elizabeth was still considering the case. Then, the jurisdiction of the commission did lapse, and its members were formally discharged. Elizabeth hadn’t decided to release Lopez, but she wasn’t going to execute him either.

Six weeks later, unbeknown to her, two new writs issued out of the Court of Queen’s Bench: one ordering the records of the special commission to be produced, and another commanding the lieutenant of the Tower to bring Lopez, da Gama and Tinoco into the Queen’s Bench at Westminster hall on the following Friday. When they appeared, the court asked them if they’d anything to say why sentence should not be put into execution, whereupon they each said that they’d nothing else to say beyond what they’d already said before. So they were sentenced all over again to make it legal, and then delivered to the safe custody of the Marshal of the Queen’s Bench.

The point is simple. By ordering the Marshal to take the prisoners to the Queen’s Bench prison in Southwark, they were now out of the jurisdiction of the lieutenant of the Tower, and so a warrant for their execution could no longer be blocked on the grounds of the Queen’s special reprieve. Moreover, the judges of Queen’s Bench ordered Lopez and the other prisoners to be taken from Southwark early the next morning, and from there led to London Bridge and delivered to the sheriffs of London, who were take them to Tyburn to be hung, drawn and quartered.

So Dr Lopez was executed, but Elizabeth NEVER SIGNED a death warrant. She was completely bypassed. The case was taken over by the Court of Queen’s Bench, the superior criminal court in England. Chief Justice Popham – surprise, surprise, Burghley’s man – arranged it all. He managed it by sending out the new writs ordering the production of the first trial records, and commanding lieutenant of the Tower to bring Lopez and the others into Westminster Hall.

When you dig down to the bottom of the muck heap, it was William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who orchestrated Lopez’ execution – he was covering his tracks to disguise his close links to the now-suspect Portuguese double-agent Andrada and protect himself from a possible further investigation and intelligence coup by Essex. Dead men tell no tales. Lopez had to die in case he unwittingly told someone something that would enable Essex to latch onto Burghley’s peace feelers to an enemy power. In fact, the documents are there to prove that Lopez was brought into Queen’s Bench for his second ‘trial’ on Burghley’s initiative. A Privy Council letter sent on Burghley’s instructions ordered Lord Keeper Puckering and Lord Buckhurst (another of Burghley’s men) – both were on the special commission at Guildhall – to ‘consult’ the judges as to the best way to execute the sentence against Lopez , and to take such measures as were necessary ‘for the freeing of the lieutenant of the Tower from his restraint’. The lieutenant was to explain to the Lord Keeper and Buckhurst exactly what he’d been told not do by the Queen, and then to confer with Burghley and Robert Cecil so that the royal warrant of restraint could be bypassed without any legal infringement.

By the time Elizabeth knew that Lopez was dead, it was too late to make a fuss. And Lopez wasn’t Mary Queen of Scots – not important enough for her to haul Burghley and her councillors over the coals for disobeying her warrant of restraint. She had been bypassed none the less. Burghley had conspired to execute Lopez. From his point of view, the Portuguese physician knew too much. Moreover, thanks to the clandestine second trial, Lopez’s execution was legal.

There followed the ex post facto justifications. These gave a completely different, far more sinister account of these proceedings, because of course, as we now know, there had been no plot to poison the Queen. Lopez had only imagined one in his conversations with Andrada to cozen 50,000 crowns from Philip II. Elizabeth had thought it was all a great joke, because she knew it wasn’t true. Lopez had said he would kill the Queen by putting poison in her bedtime syrup. But it was a standing joke with Elizabeth that she loathed syrup and never touched it. By saying he would poison her syrup, Lopez was saying he would never kill her – the same way Thomas Cromwell used to joke that he’d do something in time for the ‘Greek Kalends’ when he knew he’d never do it and didn’t intend to.

The Lopez plot wasn’t a real plot, and for that reason it was never a turning point which – to use Lake’s phrase – didn’t turn. The final irony is the regime couldn’t agree with itself on the ex post facto justifications. This time there were two rival versions: one by William Waad, acting for Burghley and Robert Cecil, and the other by Francis Bacon, acting for the Earl of Essex. To compare the two versions and tease out the lies, smears and discrepancies would be to see Tudor spin operating almost at the same degree of intensity as it was in the case of Mary Queen of Scots and the famous Casket Letters.

I return to my earlier point. In this morass in which nothing is ever quite what it seems, and the stories of real-life plots and conspiracies are never as we were always told they were, who was conspiring against whom? The deeper the modern scholar digs into the Elizabethan State Papers, the more it is the Cecils – not the Catholics or the ‘puritans’ – who are under the lens. Plots and conspiracies can be real, but they can also be in the mind of the beholder. Not to recognize that fact is to say that you would agree the authorized version of the history of the 2003 war in Iraq is the one written by Alistair Campbell or Donald Rumsfeld. They have their points of view, but what you see depends on where you sit. That is the reason I gave 1571 as my start date. In that year or possibly at the beginning of 1572, there appeared a quite different model of Elizabethan politics than the one we’re used to. It was presented in an anonymous tract in two parts entitled A Treatise of Treasons against Queen Elizabeth. Part one is a defence of Mary Queen of Scots in answer to the anti-Marian diatribe Salutem in Christo that was a follow-up to the leaked version of the sexed-up dossier against Mary and the phoney Scots texts of the Casket Letters. There is nothing remarkable about it except that from this and other independent evidence we learn that Salutem in Christo was all along written by William Cecil.

Part two is far more interesting. It seeks to detect ‘sundry deep and hidden treasons of long time practised and daily contrived against the honour, dignity, safety and state [NOTE those words] of Queen Elizabeth, her royalty, her crown and the blood royal of England’, These plots, conspiracies and treasons are the work of ‘a few base and ungrateful persons that have been called to credit by [Elizabeth]’. The purpose of the tract is to ‘remove the plausible visors wherewith they cover their conjurations. It layeth open also the dangerous state that the said Queen and Realm doth stand in if those Confederates and their Conspiracies be not prevented in time.’

The author’s perspective is that Elizabeth’s monarchy has been usurped by a ‘Machiavellian’ clique, a narrow faction of close-knit messianic Protestants led by William Cecil and his brother-in-law, Nicholas Bacon. The authorship of the Treatise of Treasons is still debated, but its information could only have emanated from the aristocratic and religiously conservative, loyalist, but not necessarily Roman Catholic, circle of Mary’s English friends and supporters in the aftermath of the failed attempt in 1569 to marry her to the Duke of Norfolk. This is the circle of Henry Howard, the future Jacobean Earl of Northampton, John Lesley, Bishop of Ross, and their friends. The immediate purpose of the Treatise was to defend Mary and Norfolk from the charges of conspiracy and treason against them. It was most likely compiled in Louvain, linked to the wider circle of English exiles in the Netherlands. The leitmotif is that ‘two Catalines’ – they are not actually named, but enough is said to identify them as Cecil and Bacon – had turned Elizabeth into a puppet Queen. William Cecil was less the Queen’s chief minister than the Queen’s puppeteer: he and his clique pulled the strings to Elizabeth’s shame and dishonour. Cecil and his allies are viewed as closet republicans. When they have finally done away with Mary and killed her, they will turn on Elizabeth, leading her on to her destruction:

And then shall she leave her crown in question, the religion in debate, her people divided for both, and her realm answerable for infinite injuries to all nations adjoining – the smart whereof, YOU my lords the nobility and YOUR successions, shall chiefly feel – without hearty friend abroad to succour or defend it.

Here we have exactly the same vocabulary of the succession, conspiracy, debased legitimacy, evil counsel and tyranny, but turned the other way round. And it’s a point of view. Maybe it’s a viewpoint Shakespeare shared, because the one striking thing I’ve learned about him is that the lack of empathy for the certainties of classical tragedy, the gritty scepticism, moral cynicism, even nihilism of Shakespeare in King Lear, has a truly coherent logic when you look at plots and conspiracies from the other end of the telescope. It also makes a lot more sense when you interrogate the historical evidence with the question, who here is detecting, and who is imaging conspiracies?

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