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Kate Maltby is on the board of the Bright Blue
think tank
and edits the Bright Blue magazine. She is researching a PhD on the
intellectual life of Elizabeth I, at University College London. Follow Kate on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-06-20 at 05.35.07It’s been a long day in the office for
London’s most-hated politician. The French ambassador’s in a fury: it’s just
come out that Her Majesty’s Secret Service used a key diplomatic summit the
previous year to intercept all communications between his team, blowing the
French negotiating position on what was, fundamentally, a trade agreement
between allies. The country is in the grip of a fevered paranoia, fuelled by new
claims in the noisome London press that the largest state espionage apparatus anyone’s
ever known is reading absolutely everyone’s mail.

In attempt to cheer himself up, the
politician opens up the file in which he keeps the nuttiest petitions he’s ever
received from constituents.


Here’s the first thing that catches his
eye:

Then
at 30 years old God moved me to write and complain to my sovereign lady Queen Elizabeth,
and to all the lords of her majesty’s honourable Privy Council, and to many
others… so that within this 7 years I have sent 200 letters, wherein I have not
only complained of all the abuses and violent oppressions and sodomitical sins
overflowing over this land…”

Because, as smart ConHome readers will have
guessed, it’s 1593, not 2013. The politician is William Cecil, the spy
apparatus is his inheritance from the greatest spy master of all time, Francis
Walsingham, who had died of overwork three years earlier. And for all the
pressures on his time, Cecil was bombarded by letters from concerned citizens who,
as Tom Hollander’s “Call-Me-Simon” Junior Minister tells a constituent in
Armando Iannucci’s In The Loop, found
him “a magnet for people
who are slightly mentally dispossessed… and also very sensible people like
yourself”.

I find it impossible to read this letter,
from unhinged army-veteran William Reynolds, without thinking of Hollander’s
interlocutor in that scene, Steve Coogan’s “f***ing Zen” Paul, especially because,
for William Reynolds as with Paul, the thing that really convinced him that the
state was out to get him was “the strife between my mother and her neighbour
for a hedge of roses”. As is so often the case today, sometimes the only way to
resolve Mum’s dispute over a neighbour’s hedge was to write to the PM. It was
probably the PM’s fault, after all.

But the real reason this crazed
letter-writer fascinates me, especially when I read the latest disclosures
about PRISM or GCHQ
bugging the G8
, is that he’s a model for our own time: a man who can blame
his own barking insanity on a very real culture of state surveillance. The best
authority on his life, Katherine Duncan-Jones, is quite convinced he’s “a
paranoid schizophrenic… with florid symptoms”.  Deliciously, after the incident with his
mother’s hedge, he becomes convinced that Queen Elizabeth herself is reading
his thoughts, having started by merely reading his letters, and “caused me and
my doings to be watched and marked ever since I was a very young child, even
from my rising up to my lying down”. And because she’s reading his thoughts,
Elizabeth knows she’s at the centre of all his sexual fantasies – in fact, he
tells Cecil, she’s probably using her mind-control spies to implant those very
same sexual images in his brain. I wish I could share the archive’s details
with you, readers, but ConHome would probably end up blocked by your porn
filters. As we say in academic circles, he’s a nutter.

Since Edward Snowden’s PRISM revelations,
it’s been widely acknowledged that spying on one’s enemies is nothing new – and
Walsingham’s got his fair share of credit
from modern fans.
The eminently sensible Nick Herbert, noting the state’s
duty to ensure security as well liberty, declared in the Commons that the
Spanish Armada was “averted
as much by the pen of Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, as
by the Royal Navy.”
Anyone who reads Stephen Alford’s eloquent yet
scholarly book, The Watchers, will
learn exactly why Herbert’s right. The BBC even promotes the current “Tudor
Court” season with a picture-spread of Francis Walsingham titled, rather incongruously
for a desk-bound Puritan, “The
Sixteenth Century Bond”.

But no one’s yet said that for the Tudors,
as for us, the necessity of living with national surveillance really brought
out the tin-foil hat brigade. And it made the unstable much more dangerous than
they were before. We know that William Reynolds, sex-crazed letter-writer,
wasn’t actually being watched, at least not until he started following up his
letters with attempts to burst into the presence of the Queen in public. Imagined
persecution leads to real “resistance” – just see the apologia left on video by recent Islamist murderers. But Reynolds believed
it possible because, as an ex-soldier, he knew that Walsingham’s men did open
letters up and down the country, breaking enemy ciphers and ingeniously creating
their own. Reynolds knew the government flooded London with their own
propaganda, supposedly written by independent thinkers but well known to be
state-directed: no wonder he complained to Cecil that the publication of
Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis was a
personally-targeted government attempt to drive him mad with sexual
frustration.

The UK and US governments probably do have
access to all my email, but I’m happy to trust they’re not that interested in
playing around with my all too petty love life. I’m aware that now, as in 1593,
there are religious fundamentalists who’d kill just to cause chaos, and while
I’m hardly a fan of big government, I accept that the first duty of the state
is to protect its citizens from precisely that threat. What worries me more is
the culture of instability that public knowledge of espionage creates. As
Alford notes in The Watchers: “the
heightened vigilance of Elizabeth’s advisers was in fact potentially corrosive
of the security they craved. A danger to any state is the powerful and often
circular logic of conspiracy.” State suspects citizen, citizen suspects state.
Let’s not allow PRISM to drive us mad. Or we’ll all end up writing sex-letters
to Buckingham Palace.

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