Keith Thomas reviews a new book that shows that political esotericism was afoot long before the CIA and NSA. Here’s a portion to entice further exploration:
Alford vividly evokes this murky world of codes, ciphers, invisible ink, intercepted letters, aliases, disguises, forgeries and instructions to burn after reading. The Catholic plotter Gilbert Gifford was “the most notable double treble villain that ever lived”, thought one contemporary; 400 years before John Le Carré, Walsingham had him publicly denounced as a traitor in order to provide cover for his activities as a double agent. The most spectacular sting involved obtaining the evidence necessary to convict Mary Queen of Scots by persuading her to employ a supposedly secret method of corresponding with the French ambassador; Walsingham’s spies obligingly carried her letters for her, in cylinders concealed in beer barrels, making copies en route, and even adding a forged postscript to one of them, inviting the recipient to divulge the names of his fellow-conspirators.