It has been a while since I have reviewed a book on this blog. But for me 'The Watchers' by Stephen Alford has been one of the most riveting books I have read this year. Not only does Alford throw open a window on the murky world of Elizabethan espionage, but also introduces us to one particular spy who has fascinated me: the man who changed the Robin Hood legend forever.
Stephen Alford takes us back to the reign of Elizabeth I. This is a Tudor period celebrated for its glorious achievement but what is often forgotten is that it was also a time of intense national insecurity. The new Protestant queen was regarded by the Catholic powers of Europe as a bastard and heretic. Pope Pius V tried to depose her and King Philip of Spain attempted an invasion. What also added to the country's anxiety was the fact that the Virgin Queen refused to name a successor. So the stability of the country depended entirely on Elizabeth's survival. The stakes could not have been higher.
To give us an insight into how fraught the times were, Alford's first chapter creates a doomsday scenario that haunted Elizabeth's advisors in which she is assassinated and England is faced with a full-scale invasion by the Spanish:
"Hidden behind the doors of her privy chamber, Elizabeth was mortally sick, in a deep fever, unable even to talk to her secretary. In the presence of her ladies, chaplains and most intimate advisers, she died very early in the morning.”
But Alford then returns us back to the shady chronological path as England is faced with the dilemma of bands of martyr-priests and pamphlets being smuggled in from the continent, the continual popish plots and Mary, Elizabeth's Catholic cousin, scheming over the Scottish border.
It was left to Elizabeth's enigmatic Secretary of State, Francis Walsingham, to counter these threats. He sanctioned the use of torture against Catholic priests and employed 'watchers' to track suspected conspirators - particularly those exiled on the continent.
Alford sheds light on secret files that vividly detail the exploits of Walsingham's agents in this new discipline of 'spyery'. We witness the chilling but compelling world of the dark arts - from the encoded letters in casks of ale, to the use of cyphers, aliases, forgeries, double agents, espionage and cryptography.
But what has it to do with the legend of Robin Hood I hear you ask? Well bear with me and let me try and explain.
Out of the shadows of this period appears a 'watcher' that I have been particularly interested in - Anthony Munday. Many have probably never heard of him but it was this former spy who made the most influential contribution to the Robin Hood legend.
Anthony Munday (1560?-1633) was a budding writer and adventurer who seems to have fallen into the world of spying by accident. Alford describes how on his travels Munday quickly realised that he was able to tell all that he had seen and heard of the 'wicked conspiracies' of Queen Elizabeth's Catholic enemies. Once back in England he sold his stories in books and pamphlets in London. The priests, who had been Munday's friends in Rome were quickly captured and imprisoned on their return and tried for treason. He confronted his former friends with the evidence of their hatched crimes and helped to see them to the gallows, including Edmund Campion who was hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1581.
"The young writer felt a flush of satisfaction at seeing justice done." (p.116)
|Edmund Campion's death at Tyburn|
So what began for Munday as an exciting enterprise soon became deadly serious as he reported on the terrible dangers facing Queen Elizabeth from her 'Roman enemies.' Soon his detecting of these conspiracies aroused the bitter animosity of the Jesuits and with his cover blown he turned his attention back to writing prose and verse. By 1589 he was a distinguished enough writer of theatrical productions to appear in a list of playwrights that included the name of William Shakespeare.
Stephen Alford's fascinating details about Munday's early life finish here, although his book continues to take up the exploits of many more Elizabethan watchers. It is a gripping read.
But now I would like to continue with the later career of Anthony Munday and his famous two plays, 'The Downfall of Robert Earl Of Huntington' and 'The Death of Robert Earl of Huntington.' Both were probably written by Munday in 1598 (seven years after Campion's execution) and evidence shows he was helped by Henry Chettle, who had some part in the writing of the 'Death' and possibly re-worked the 'Downfall.' A court performance in 1598 is recorded as by 'the Earl of Nottingham's men.' This was Charles Howard who had recently been made Lord Admiral and was a patron of the theatre.
In his two plays the Robin Hood of ancient minstrelsy is transformed into an earl. Munday is the first person to name him Earl of Huntington (as he spells it) and the play (within a play) is set as a rehearsal for a revel to be presented inside the court of Henry VIII by the poet John Skelton. The 'good yeoman' had now been gentrified.
Munday had also softened many of Robin's radical elements for the Elizabethan stage by relocating him in time, class and moral authority, crucially excluding any sense of social challenge through outlawry.
Both of these Huntington plays stress betrayal by family and church. The danger is closer to home, which no doubt resonated with audiences who had witnessed the Reformation.
Earl Robert flees to the forest. Meanwhile Queen Eleanor (who lusts after him) hatches a plot to disguise herself as Marian and elope with the earl instead. Luckily Eleanor's plans are foiled and Marian is reunited with her lover in Sherwood. They are eventually joined by Much the miller's son, Little John, Scarlet, Scathelock and a girl named Jinny.
Even as late as the seventeenth century Robin Hood and Maid Marian were not strongly linked. In the medieval ballads, Robin has no love interest, only a strong devotion to the Virgin Mary, which of course was idolatry to Protestants. So for his two plays, Munday combined Robin's May Games consort Maid Marian with the historiographical Matilda Fitzwalter who had appeared in Drayton's tragic poem 'Matilda the faire chaste daughter of Lord Robert Fitzwalter' in1594. Munday then created a love triangle between Robin, Marian and Prince John.
Bizarrely, in the early scenes of 'The Downfall' she is known as Marian daughter of Lord Lacy but later she switches to Matilda daughter of Richard I's faithful baron Fitzwater. This could be an example of some of the fixing and re-working of the material that Henslowe paid Henry Chettle for. Or, an indication of how Munday had only sourced Drayton's poem after starting his play.
Friar Tuck is introduced and 'played' by John Skelton, Henry VIII's teacher and the former poet laureate. So for the first time both Friar Tuck and Maid Marian now have an integral place in Robin's band outside of the May Games.
Robin dies at the hands of his enemies in Act I of 'The Death.' His uncle, the prior of York plans to poison the king, but Robin, for no clear reason, drinks the poison instead and we witness his slow demise:
The rest of the play follows John's pursuit of Marian, who has been gifted the title of Countess of Huntington by King Richard.
So Anthony Munday, the former spy, had pulled together the Robin Hood narrative tradition as it was known to the Elizabethans. He processed and censored written sources and popular oral ballads of the time to make them acceptable to his patrons and the Tudor court. In doing so he created a framework in his two plays that clearly influenced later productions.
Elements like Robin's early betrayal in the action, his escape from powerful enemies to the forest, his defiant speech to his men, the jovial friar and Marian's disguise and torment by a lustful nobleman will be continually replicated in various forms down the centuries. This would subsequently leave an indelible impression on a legend that would outlive Munday's own reputation.
|Jason Connery as Robert Earl of Huntingdon|
Three hundred and eighty eight years after Anthony Munday penned his pair of plays, Jason Connery performed the part of Robert Earl of Huntingdon in the hugely successful 'Robin of Sherwood' TV series written by Richard Carpenter. Along with Little John, Will Scarlet and Much, he was accompanied (of course) by Lady Marian and Friar Tuck.
The Watchers by Stephen Alford Penguin Books (2013).
Playing Robin Hood: The Legend as Performance in Five Centuries by Lois Potter
Old English Plays by W. Carew Hazlitt
The Death of Robert Earl of Huntington by J. Payne Collier
Anthony Munday and Civic Culture by Tracey Hill
Anthony Munday and the Catholics 1560-1633 by Donna B. Hamilton