Spies, Jesuits and the power of fear

As Britain is moving towards the annual celebration of Bonfire Night on November 5th the BBC is continuing its exploration of the political conditions that lead to the ill-fated attempt to blow up parliament. After the launch of the new drama Gunpowder on Saturday night, tonight the BBC rewinds thirty years to begin a new historical series, ‘Elizabeth I’s secret agents’.  This three-part series looks at the network of spymasters and secret agents that helped protect Queen Elizabeth I from assassination, terror and treason.  In 1570. Pope Pius V issued a papal bull Regnans in Excelsis declaring, ‘the pretended Queen’ Elizabeth, to be a heretic, leaving Protestant England isolated in Catholic Europe. The series asks leading historians to study the period from different key players' points of view, ‘dissecting the minds and motivations of the protagonists’.

The outcome most feared by Elizabeth and her Council was a Catholic-sponsored ‘regime change’, where Elizabeth's cousin Mary Queen of Scots would be placed on the throne. It was feared that this was to be facilitated by a Spanish invasion (the Armada) and that English and Spanish Jesuits were involved in its preparation.  The series focuses on key events of the period and includes an examination of the Jesuit John Gerard who famously escaped from the Tower of London. Under orders from his superiors, Gerard later wrote an account of his mission and audacious escape. This has been published in the UK as ‘The Autobiography of an Elizabethan’ and in the US as ‘The Autobiography of a Hunted Priest’. 

The Jesuits were seen as being particularly dangerous and subversive by the English court because of their international connections.  The writing of a pamphlet in 1590, ‘On the King and the education of a King’ by Juan Mariana SJ in Spain deals with the duties and virtues of a wise king. It was circulated after the death of Spanish King Phillip II and its intention was to ‘hold up a mirror to princes’. Mariana was an accomplished writer, having produced a much-lauded general history of Spain, and he had some powerful patrons. In a small section, Mariana declared that in an extreme case of tyranny, his subjects may be entitled to overthrow a king and perhaps even execute him.  Although this opinion was roundly condemned by Fr General Acquaviva, it was incendiary, and as a result regicide was often closely associated with the Society of Jesus by its enemies.

BBC Two - 9pm - Elizabeth I's Secret Agents.