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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 360-361

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Book Review

Under the Molehill:
An Elizabethan Spy Story

Under the Molehill: An Elizabethan Spy Story. By John Bossy. (New Haven: Yale University Press. 2001. Pp. xiii, 189. $25.00 hardback.)

"In 1956, he [Leo Hicks, S.J.] found a student looking for a research topic, who proved willing to investigate the larger subject [relations between France and English Catholics]..." (p. 19). Father Hicks may have initially ignited Professor Bossy's interest in the field, but the disciple subsequently embarked on a different interpretation. Bossy's controversial investigation of Robert Parsons or Persons ("The Heart of Robert Persons" in The Reckoned Expense, ed. Thomas M. McCoog, S.J. [Woodbridge, 1996]) with its suggestion that the Jesuit knew of, and possibly encouraged, plots to assassinate Elizabeth would have scandalized Father Hicks. Unlike his Jesuit mentor, Bossy considers the plots and conspiracies that plagued Elizabethan England in the 1580's as serious threats and not simply "dirty tricks" by the government to destroy Catholicism (p. 18). However, Hicks and Bossy do seem to agree that support for the French marriage "was generally incompatible with recusancy and an admiration for Jesuits" (p. 85), a position that I find untenable because so many English Catholic nobles who favored the alliance also sponsored the Jesuit mission (see my "The English Jesuit Mission and the French Match, 1579-1581," Catholic Historical Review, 87 [April, 2001], 185-213). [End Page 360]

Bossy's previous monograph, Giordano Bruno and the Embassy Affair (New Haven, 1991), won the Wolfson History Prize and the Gold Dagger Award for Non-Fiction from the Crime Writers' Association, most likely an unprecedented double recognition. In his new monograph Bossy returns to the same world, the French Embassy at Salisbury Court, London, a dark, shadow-filled world populated with characters more frequently encountered in the novels of John Le Carré and film noir than in historical monographs.

Recently historians have noted the significance of the collapse of the proposed marital treaty between France and England in the early 1580's. Without France, Elizabeth faced the resurgent Catholicism of Spain and the Papacy alone. Politically there was realignment at court as courtiers and politicians, conscious of the issue of succession, formed new alliances and coalitions. Sir Francis Walsingham kept his eye on many whose allegiance was doubted. Some Catholic supporters of the marriage, now convinced that no remedy for their plight was possible as long as Elizabeth reigned, turned their attention to her legitimate, imprisoned heir, Mary, Queen of Scots. Unsure of France's role in intrigues between Spain, the Guises, and Scotland vis-à-vis an invasion aimed at Elizabeth's overthrow and the re-establishment of Catholicism with her cousin Mary on the throne, Walsingham sought an informant within the French embassy. Sometime in the spring of 1583, he obtained the services of a mole. With the information obtained, Walsingham exposed the Throckmorton Plot and preserved England "from an invasion, and possibly from a civil war" (p. 149). Equally important, any chance that Elizabeth and Mary would reach an accommodation vanished.

Through a labyrinth of aliases, cryptic messages, and red herrings, Professor Bossy established the identity of the mole: Claude de Courcelles, secretary of the French ambassador Michel de Castelnau and, ironically, a zealous Catholic. The argument of Under the Molehill, like its predecessor, is not easy to follow. Through the analysis of handwriting, circumstance, allusion, and coded language, Bossy constructs his case. He may not convince every reader. Regardless of whether one accepts the conclusion, Professor Bossy has performed an important service for Elizabethan diplomatic and religious history. Once we accept the reality of plots, then we must ask how the government discovered them. Who were the leaks and the moles? Apparently the Elizabethan government was not as dependent on renegade Catholics as confessional historiography reported. Perhaps we need to rehabilitate some traditional villains such as Charles Paget, onetime associate but later opponent of Parsons, whom the Jesuit blamed for the failure of the invasion schemes. Professor Bossy has opened up the dark...


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