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  • Plots and Plotters in the Reign of Elizabeth I
  • Pauline Croft
Plots and Plotters in the Reign of Elizabeth I. By Francis Edwards, S.J. (Dublin: Four Courts Press. Distributed in the United States by ISBS, Portland, Oregon. 2002. Pp. 296. $50.00.)

Francis Edwards was archivist of the English Jesuit province and later director of the central archives of the Society. He has written extensively on Elizabethan politics, and this book deals with eleven plots, or rumored plots, which occurred between 1571 and 1601. These, he argues, were all manipulated, or invented [End Page 321] outright, by William Cecil Lord Burghley and his son Sir Robert Cecil, successively the leading ministers of Elizabeth I. They were "the only contrivers with sufficient daring, intelligence and influence" to do so. "Their imprint lies on all the plots." They "behaved with complete ruthlessness and an astonishing degree of success," using the plots to eliminate all their opponents. In the obscure and frequently ludicrous Squier plot of 1597-98, which admittedly "teems with absurdities," the younger Cecil nevertheless made his "first truly independent excursion into the dark realm of plot management." Finally in 1605 with the Gunpower plot (not treated here), Cecil "produced a masterpiece...a contrivance flawless enough to deceive for centuries." The aim was the most extreme repression of Roman Catholics in England, smearing them by association with treachery. After 1605, "the papists came increasingly to occupy the position of the Jews in Nazi Germany." In the course of their deceptions the Cecils succeeded in "losing" large numbers of volumes of the privy council registers, organizing the poisoning of Ferdinando fifth earl of Derby, and forging (along with Sir Francis Walsingham) any documents that might come in useful. Both Cecils aimed at an absolute monopoly of power: anyone who "attempted to exercise independent political judgment was destined for removal" (pp. 13-14, 17, 27, 129, 253-258, 282-283).

It would be tedious to enter into detailed argument here. Father Edwards ignores a large quantity of modern scholarship which does not support his picture of the Cecils, and does not discuss numerous scrupulous studies which show that the Roman Catholic minority could, in many circumstances and places, live largely unmolested by the English authorities. It is simply untrue—and surely offensive to Jewish people all too aware of the reality of Nazism—to see the flexible regime of James VI and I as equivalent to a Holocaust. On the contrary, with the exercise of only a token amount of discretion, Roman Catholics flourished at court and in the counties. Queen Anne of Denmark was one of them: so was the Earl of Northampton, a leading privy councillor. In 1611 the king, on the advice of Robert Cecil himself, allowed the central group of Roman Catholic families linked to the Gunpowder plotters—the Treshams, Throckmortons, Brudenells, and Tuftons—to buy hereditary baronetcies from the Crown, a move intended to re-integrate them into the county elites from which their relatives' disastrous extremism had excluded them.

The overstatement of the argument is regrettable since it is perfectly true that the plots have been treated over-simplistically by Protestant historians. Father Edwards is right to point to "the seamy side of Elizabethan history" and to contest "the over-optimistic view" (pp. 13-14). His earlier researches on the 1571 Ridolfi Plot have produced good evidence for suspecting that the Genoese banker Ridolfi was a double agent for the Elizabethan privy council. Even at the time, the Duke of Alba thought Philip II was very naive to trust him. Similarly, Father Edwards is on excellent ground in seeing the Lopez plot of 1594 as largely an invention, whipped up by the Earl of Essex as a factional ploy to out-manoeuvre the Cecils, who thought there was little evidence against Dr. Lopez, the queen's crypto-Jewish physician. The implications of this interpretation, [End Page 322] however, are not explored: to depict the Cecils as outwitted by an even more antipapist and ruthlessly ambitious politician hardly supports the author's argument. Many of the lesser "plots" belong, as Father Edwards indicates, to the realms of fantasy, criminality, and mental illness rather than sedition...


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