Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Spy Wednesday

Everyone has heard of Good Friday. Most people have heard of Maundy Thursday. But how many have heard of Spy Wednesday? In medieval Ireland, today, the Wednesday before Easter Day, was called Spy Wednesday. It is named after incident in the Bible where Judas makes his bargain with the Sanhedrin to betray Christ.

For this and no other reason today I’m concentrating on espionage. In the 1960s homosexuality and spying was almost never out of the press, and tv, films and books were full of spies – James Bond, The Avengers, The Man from UNCLE. The Cambridge spy circle of Burgess, Philby and Maclean shocked the UK. What shocked the UK even more occurred in the 1980s when the “Fourth Man” was revealed as Anthony Blunt, the Keeper of the Queen’s Picture collection.

For as long as there’s been civilisation there’s been spies. Each generation finds a new rival to spy on. Way back in Tudor times it was Catholic versus Protestant. One Elizabethan spy was another Anthony – Anthony Bacon.

Anthony Bacon began his espionage career at the age of 21 providing intelligence reports from Paris to Queen Elizabeth I’s spy-master Sir Francis Walsingham. Elizabeth used Bacon as her unofficial contact with King Henri IV of Navarre, who was leader of the French Protestants, called Huguenots, during the Wars of Religion. France was a Catholic country, and Henri was the heir to the French throne.

Although welcomed at Navarre’s court, Bacon earned enemies such as the wife of Navarre’s chief counsellor. The reason? Well, apparently, it wasn’t the done thing for a woman to wear her wig in church, which the counsellor’s wife wanted to. Bacon refused to support her, though why she needed his support isn’t clear. Not only that, but he turned down the woman’s offer of her daughter’s hand in marriage.

It was at about this time that Bacon was accused of having sex with his page boys. This carried the death penalty if Bacon was found guilty. His page-boys made no secret to the fact amongst themselves, though one former servant claimed Bacon bribed the boys into keeping quiet by giving them with “sweatmeats”. Sounds more like they were little “thank you” gifts to me, certainly not much of a bribe. As it happened King Henri of Navarre interceded on Bacon’s behalf and the death sentence was never passed. All of this was kept secret from the spy-masters back in England.

Despite several requests from Queen Elizabeth to return home Anthony Bacon remained in France. When he did eventually return home in 1592 after more than 12 years Bacon’s reluctance to return earlier meant he was not well received. Even his own mother criticised him.

Hoping to benefit financially and politically from his spy connections Bacon found himself left with the unpaid job of co-ordinating England’s enormous European intelligence network and contacts for the Earl of Essex. Bacon would spend the rest of his life in debt and virtually living off Essex’s friendship with his former principal informer and lover Tom Lawson.

When Essex was convicted of high treason in 1601 Bacon disappeared from the records, except for one. On 17th May 1601 Anthony Bacon was buried in London.

Until recently Anthony Bacon had existed in the shadow of his more famous (and undeniably much more interesting) younger brother Francis. The first biography of him was written in 1975 by Daphne du Maurier, and even then it was a shared biography with his brother. It was this biography that revealed Anthony Bacon’s intimate involvement with his page-boys. A lot of documents about him, including some from his trial, have disappeared. Most of what we know of him comes from the writings of people who knew him. Perhaps as a diligent spy Anthony Bacon destroyed anything that would lead a paper trail straight to him.

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