Her Majesty’s Spymaster, by Stephen Budiansky


Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage

I have to say, this is probably the finest biography written in this decade I have ever read. It definitely falls into the casual biography category, but it’s a very good one. There isn’t a plot, really, except to tell Francis Walsingham’s life as interestingly as possible. There is a lot of detail, and a lot of overview, in this book. It sounds like a contradiction, but when you are talking about a person most non-history-buffs have never heard of, well, the interesting pieces aren’t very interesting unless you know what is going on. As much as I love the 16th century… there are a lot of people who don’t, and this has just enough background information to keep you grounded without interfering with the fascinating side of history.

Sir Francis Walsingham was born under King Henry VIII, left during (King Henry’s oldest daughter) Mary’s reign, and returned after Elizabeth ascended to the throne. He became ambassador to France, member of the Privy council, and eventually became, as the title suggests, Mr. Secretary, the queen’s internal affairs coordinator and head of her spy organization. He was involved in a lot of things, most famously the various Mary Queen of Scots affairs (too numerous for this short biography to get into them all), and the Spanish Armada. His most interesting job, in my opinion, was as ambassador to France during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Stephen Budiansky does such a fabulous job of encapsulating the best of the details while overveiwing the basic situation, I had to add a few quotes.

“… yet all were agreed, Catholic and Protestant alike, that the King’s official version of events was nonsense. There had never been any Protestant conspiracy to seize the throne. What there had been was the craftiness and ruthlessness of the Queen Mother, Catherine De Medicis, who had long been viewed as the real power behind the throne of her weak son. Of course, she had long been whispered to have gone about poisoning her rivals too, but, then, they always said that about Italians. (pg. 18)”

I also liked all the context given to the events that Walsingham had to deal with. So few writers mention what happened to cause the events that our main characters have to handle. Mary Queen of Scots, for example, a case that Walsingham had to take care of for many years, did not arrive to England an innocent refugee of circumstance.

(NOTE: Mary’s first husband died, then she married Lord Darnley, who,
“like Mary, he was a grandchild of Margaret Tudor, Henry VIII’s sister; the marriage infuriated Elizabeth. She needn’t have worried. Darnley… was easily manipulated by a group of resentful Scottish lords – there was always a group of resentful Scottish lords—into believing that Mary’s secretary, an Italian singer named David Rizzo, was bedding her, and so led a band that … stabbed the Italian to death before her. Pg 64) That in mind…

“It was perfectly fitting, in retrospect, that the events that would cascade toward the sundering of Europe along irrevocable lines of religion, that would force even the most reluctant to identify the cause of England with that of the Protestant faith and her enemies with Catholicism, that would define the personal nemesis whom Francis Walsingham would pursue through most of the two decades to come, began with an explosion.

A literal explosion: the astonishing blast of gunpowder that awakened the good citizens of Edinburgh at two in the morning on the 10th of February 1567 reduced to rubble a house known as Kirk o’Field that stood by the city walls.

It was a magnificent but in the end slightly wasted effort, for the intended target of the blast, the increasingly irksome second husband of Mary Queen of Scots, Lord Darnley, had apparently become alarmed by the noise of those coming to light the charge and had managed to clamber out a window and through a gate into the garden by the time the gunpowder went off. The assassins had, in the end, been forced to dispatch Darnley, rather anti-climatically, by strangling him. (Pg 62)”

There are a few pieces of revisionism in Budiansky’s work. Most of them are put forth as a matter of opinion, admittedly disputed by some scholars. A few, like the implication that Elizabeth I was not really a virgin queen, are not, and should be noted as such.

A highly recommended work, especially given the number of historical documents quoted herein. Few authors in the last twenty years have been humble enough to include original sources in any form in their books, particularly from a time period known for the complexity of its sentences. Francis Walsingham was a fascinating character, and I enjoyed getting to know more about him.


Five Short Sci-Fi Stories by H. Beam Piper

These five stories are from a collection of H. Beam Piper’s work compiled at Librivox.org.

The Answer
Two scientists, one from the former USSR and one from the former USA, are working together toward an anti-matter explosion. Some years before, a strange explosion wiped out the home town of the American scientist. He remains haunted by the last memory of wife. The ensuing battle between the USSR and America left both countries a wasteland; now, the two leading scientist are working toward a new form of energy in peaceful cooperation.

The fact is, the USSR denied firing the first shot. They accuse the US of firing it to provoke a war.

The Question: Who fired the first shot?
The Answer: ?

Temple Trouble
The premise for this story is time travel – not to the future or the past, but horizontal travel. Piper plays on the idea of parallel universes that can be visited. Various companies travel through time to other more primitive time lines to mine ores and various other minerals. These companies have a non-intervention law similar to Star Trek’s Prime Directive. They are not to pollute the time line with artifacts from other times.

The Trans-Temporal Mining Corporation routinely sets up a religion with regular temple worship in time lines as a cover for mining operations. What happens when an alternative religion begins steal converts and urges a king to wipe out the Trans-Temporal Mining Corporations cover? Temple Trouble….

Flight From Tomorrow
When a madman takes control of an entire civilization, he creates a few enemies. Enemies that want a coup. In an effort to flee the coup, Hradzka planned to use a prototype time travel machine to flee to the past. From there, he could build an army and return to conquer the present. That is if the prototype works as planned.

Sadly, Hradzka discovers that his Flight From Tomorrow is short-lived. Landing in the U.S. in the 1950’s instead of the 5,000’s, he was in for a rude awakening. He genetic makeup wasn’t quite the same as humans from 9,000 years earlier. Any other simple difference between the man of the future and the one of the past might have been overlooked as just a passing oddity except that this couldn’t be overlooked.

This difference made all the difference in the world….

Police Operation
When wild young kids joyride between parallel universes, things are ugly enough. But when said kids die and leave nasty presents behind, it is time for the Paratime Police to straighten things up. Somehow, the police need to discretely capture a Venusian nighthound before the locals find it. This is NOT your standard Police Operation.

When I reviewed The Cosmic Computer, I suspected several things about H. Beam Piper’s philosophies. Unfortunately, since the elements were only implicitly implied, I couldn’t pin them down for certainty. Now, I can. In just a few words, a sentence or two, Piper declares himself to be anti-God and anti-morality. Still, it took me a couple of readings to be sure I really understood what the sentence was saying. I don’t think that the statements will be problematic.

Graveyard of Dreams

Graveyard of Dreams is the original short story upon which The Cosmic Computer was based. Mostly, if you have already read The Cosmic Computer, this is interesting just to read the differences and to compare the stories.

All told, an enjoyable series of stories. Have fun reading.

Hamlet by Shakespeare

I know, I know: the minute a person writes the word “Shakespeare”, a flood of preconceived notions floods your mind, right? Try reading this review as though you know nothing about the writer of the play, or the plot. Please. This is a very confusing plot, and you will need all your mental energy to figure out what is going on.

The personalities in this play cannot make up their minds as to their characters or as to their side of the story, so if this summary seems devoid of logic behind the motives of the characters, that is why. The basic plot goes something like this: a spirit, claiming to be our hero’s father, shows up and tells our hero that his father was murdered. Our hero (the rightful heir to the throne our villain holds) is told that the murderer is his uncle, our villain, who married our hero’s mother a month after his father’s death. Our hero believes the spirit, and swears to abide by its instructions. Then he acts mad/crazy. The villain and his minions try various methods to ascertain the cause of our hero’s insanity (is he in love? mourning? plotting? The villain eventually decides it is the latter). Once our hero starts killing people, the spirit shows up again to remind our hero about what he has been asked to do and inquire as to why the murderer isn’t dead yet. The villain tries to have our hero assassinated or exiled or both, but our hero escapes, signs the death warrant for two more people, and comes back to his land to find our heroine has committed suicide. This is now four months since the beginning of the play, and our hero still does not have a plan for the revenge the spirit asked him for.

{SPOILER WARNING} One of the minions asks our hero to a mock duel, and he agrees. The duel is a set-up by the villain and minions to make our hero’s death (by poison) look like an accident. The plan works: our hero is poisoned. Soon after, he poisons one of the king’s minions. Then the villain poisons his wife, our hero’s mother. The wife dies, the minion soon after. Our hero poisons the villain, who dies immediately. Our hero stays alive long enough to keep his sidekick from getting poisoned, then dies. Ambassadors arrive to announce that the two extra people our hero wanted killed are dead. Our hero’s father’s enemy’s son becomes king in our hero’s place. The end. {END OF SPOILERS}

The good parts of this play are the famous lines, just because they are famous and its nice to recognize them and put them in context. Also, adultery is condemned, loyalty is spoken of highly (though it leads to death for at least two people), and honoring one’s parents is considered a positive trait. Oh, and virtue is considered important for women, even if few in the play have it. Most significantly, this play is full of references to Elizabethan culture. Dueling, for example, was officially illegal in many European countries. Yet it was also considered the proper way for a young man to recoup his honor after an insult. Thus, like in the play, duels had to be fought under some other pretense. Technically legal versions of dueling led to the art of fencing, which is popular to this day (albeit in much safer form than originally intended). There are many such references to historical events/mannerisms in Hamlet, making it a relatively interesting study of English culture in the early 1600s, even if it is set in Holland. Finally, its Shakespeare, and everybody who reads extensively is bound to come up against some reference to Shakespeare, and once done with this play one can say one has read Shakespeare and be done with it.

Which brings us to what is wrong with this play: good and evil are both destroyed by the end, suicide is not condemned (our hero and his sidekick consider it, our heroine commits suicide, and the priest who tries to rebuke this is strongly put down), murder is not condemned (our hero kills one person in cold blood, then makes himself judge and jury for two old friends and has them murdered, all portrayed positively), the dead are treated with contempt (unless they come back as spirits), innocence leads to insanity for at least one character if not four, ghosts/spirits are portrayed as giving good advice (if our hero had done what the spirit asked in the beginning of the play, seven people would still be alive), and, lots of explicitly crude dialogue. Also, none of the parents in the play (at least the living ones) are portrayed honorably. The mother figure is weak and lustful, the two fathers are intruding, foolish, and corrupt. In fact, the son who is king by the end would not even have become king if he had not disobeyed his father (at least twice) and gone into our hero’s country with his army.

In summary, I discourage reading this particular play of Shakespeare’s to younger children or sensitive teens. Because of its status as a classic, it would be a fine read for an older student who wants to kill two birds with one stone (understand Shakespearian culture and read a Shakespearian play). It would also make for an interesting addition to a home-study unit on Chronicles: many kings of Judea in that Biblical book either undergo or cause events similar to Hamlet’s. If you like Shakespeare, you will probably enjoy this play; if you don’t enjoy Shakespeare, you will probably not like this play.

The Troubadour’s Song, by David Boyle

I am of two minds about this book; on one hand, it is a great introduction to some basic revisionist ideas about medieval history (not details, just basic ideas), at least in the first ten chapters. On the other hand, the worldview of the author is so skewed and his evidence for the events so paltry, that to say it’s a good introduction to English history is like saying Rosie O’Donnell’s TV shows make for a good overview of American history. Unfortunately, neither view is very complementary, so I can’t suggest you read it to find out for yourself.

PLOT: An overview of Richard (I) Plantagenet’s life, particularly a myth that grew up around him, and the effects of his life/myth on history in general until the French Revolution. I use “overview” only in the most tentative of senses. Have you ever tried to engage a history buff in non-history-related-talk, only to have these little blurbs of historical fact keep interrupting the conversation? Imagine having a whole book written in that encapsulating style. Its not even a coherently concise timeline as a series of fun facts about the crusades and European royalty. I should note, for non-history-buffs, that Richard Plantagenet, is also known as Richard I, but more commonly simply “King Richard”, the long-awaited captive king of Robin Hood fame. Regardless of Robin Hood, Richard I was a real person, and his brother (famously “Prince John”, but also a king) signed the Magna Carta. Just a bit of REAL background, so everyone knows what time we are dealing with here.

NEGATIVES: First of all, this is labeled as non-fiction, and at least half of the book is devoted to “proving” a myth using five different songs written under four different names, with the assumption that the authors were one and the same. Mr. Boyle has apparently heard of a little thing that the historical community likes to call “research.” The myth in question involves Richard I’s captivity in Austria. The story goes that Richard’s faithful minstrel, named Blondel, wandered about the continent, singing half of a song that he and the king composed together. When he heard the song completed by a lonely voice in a high tower, he knew he had found Richard, and dashed off to get a rescuing party. The traditional myth was supposed to demonstrate the power of loyalty to one’s king; the author asserts that this story is proof Richard was homosexual, and the story thus becomes so ugly I can’t even begin to say how wrong I think it is. Other negative aspects include several severe misrepresentation of facts in history, too many to mention, but the overall trends should be noted. First, anyone who is shown as a positive force in this time period of history is associated with lust of some form (the author, thankfully, is into recounting little quirky tidbits, and does not go into detail. About anything, period. I found this rather frustrating at first, because I love history; by the middle I had never been so thankful in my life). Second, anyone in else who was Christian is portrayed negatively. Third, anyone who resisted Christianity is applauded. Four, anyone who had any friends of the same gender at some point in their lives are hereunto considered openly homosexual, and those who did not have friends of the same gender are considered either secretly so, or, repressed. These are common features of historical revisionism, unfortunately, and while most people find revisionism offensive, I think it is important that we be aware of the motives and worldviews of revisionist historians.

OVERALL WORLDVIEW: (this section designed to replace the usual “positives”, the aforementioned being so severely limited) Music as the ultimate expression of truth and human goodness is a constant theme in the book. This would be fine, except that most of the twisting of historical fact that occurs in “Troubadour’s Song” is in support a very unbiblical worldview. It’s a bit confusing, and I didn’t even figure out where all the pieces of philosophy were going until about chapter ten, so try to stay with me. Music is the ultimate expression of good of which humans are capable; true genius facilitates music; homosexuality facilitates the workings of genius (this is expressed repeatedly by having everyone who did anything remotely positive in this time period associated with lustful actions in some way; even popes are not exempt); intolerance, especially of lust and Jews (don’t ask, it just gets worse) inhibits genius and music and progress in general; Christianity facilitates intolerance (this part doesn’t really show up until after chapter ten, but I skimmed the remaining half of the book, and it is very ugly). Also, although this is not stated clearly, I have enough Medieval knowledge to add to these, that historical “facts” are determined by what point you are trying to make.

NOT RECOMMENDED, though I would be interested to see a show of hands in the commentary section; have you ever been surprised by revisionism in a historical work that you thought was otherwise good history? Or does the movement seem to be poisoning whatever historical time period its trying to rework?