We caught up with John Cooper ahead of his talk, The Elizabethan Secret Service: Queenship, Conspiracy and Plot in Tudor England, at our York History Weekend…


Q: What can audiences look forward to in your talk?

A: My talk offers a different vantage-point on the rule of Elizabeth I. A lot of history writing celebrates the reign of the Virgin Queen: the stability and glamour that she brought to England, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, a golden age of poetry and drama – the list could go on. But the queen’s ministers saw the situation very differently. Elizabeth was frequently in danger, vulnerable to being deposed or even assassinated. Spymaster Francis Walsingham’s secret service kept her safe, but only at the cost of some pretty dark activity. There may be parallels there for our own times.

York speaker programme: Buy tickets here
York History Weekend 2017.

Q: Why are you so interested in this area of history?

A: As a boy I loved visiting Henry VIII’s castles guarding the entrance to my home town of Falmouth in Cornwall. A school project on Henry VIII’s flagship ‘Mary Rose’ also gripped my imagination – all those Tudor things dredged up from the silt of the river Solent, perfectly preserved. At A-level we studied the Tudors and the 20th-century dictators side by side. I asked a question about Tudor propaganda that my teachers couldn’t answer. It became the subject of my Oxford doctorate, and ultimately my first book. But I‘m interested in other periods of history too, particularly early colonial America (I teach a course on this at the University of York) and modern British history.

Q: Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this period of history…

A: Something that has surprised me is the recent discovery of immigrant communities in medieval and Tudor England, from all across Europe but increasingly also from Africa. It’s a field of history that we are only just beginning to learn about. Who knew that a black African salvage team worked on the sunk ‘Mary Rose’? That wasn’t in the history books when I was at school.

As for shocking: I still struggle to understand how Elizabethan England, with its sensitive poetry and handsome country houses and stunning sacred music could take such a casual attitude towards brutal execution and torture and other things we today find so repugnant. The Tudors feel close to us in certain ways, but at other times they are very far away.

John Blanke. (Illustration: Rose Wilkinson for BBC History Magazine)

Q: What is your favourite ‘little-known fact’ from history?

A: I was recently reading about the Eglinton Tournament of 1839, an attempt to re-enact an Elizabethan-style chivalric pageant in the grounds of a Scottish castle. The event was famously a washout, with the queen of Beauty and all the spectators getting drenched in a massive rainstorm. What I didn’t know was that one of the pretend armoured knights was the young Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, who went on to rule France as the Emperor Napoleon III and to rebuild Paris before losing the Franco-Prussian war. It’s one of many unexpected asides in Caroline Shenton’s book on the rebuilding of the Houses of Parliament, Mr Barry’s War (2016).

Q: Which three historical figures would you invite to a dinner party and why?

A: This is a tough one! I would be fascinated to meet Sir Thomas More, but I think he would be a challenging dinner guest: too aware of his own intellectual ability (and he probably wouldn’t eat much). Certainly not Henry VIII, nor any other of the Tudor monarchs. From the period of history that I write about, I would choose John White: an otherwise obscure painter who went on the first English expedition to settle America in the 1580s. White was able to sketch Native American society and the flora and fauna of the new world at the moment of first contact with Europeans. For me his paintings have a real sense of intellectual curiosity, expressive of a desire to communicate more than to dominate.

A portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger of Sir Thomas More, 1527. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)
A portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger of Sir Thomas More, 1527. (Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images)

From outside my period, I would invite another artist: Eric Ravilious, whose depictions of British scenes in the 1930s are hauntingly evocative of that pre-war world. He had an amazing eye for design. Ravilious became a war artist, painting submarines and warships but also the people who operated them. His artistic style is pared down; sometimes almost translucent. In 1942 he joined an air-sea rescue mission from Iceland as an artistic observer. His plane went down and has never been found.

Q: If you had to live in any historical time period, which would you choose and why?

A: Not the Tudor period, for sure: too much religious strife, poverty and disease, although I would love to have seen the full ritual of the late medieval church before it was swept away by the Reformation. So many interesting periods of the past would come with the threat of violence or persecution or sudden death.

With some reservations, I would choose Edwardian England, in a house designed by architect Edwin Lutyens (who was influenced by great Tudor houses, but with mod cons) and a garden created by horticulturist Gertrude Jekyll. For comfort, the time and space to read, the cottage-garden colour of the flower beds and greenhouses, it would be hard to beat.

The reservations would come from the knowledge that a lot of that comfort was based on the under-paid work of women and men further down the social scale. As a historian, I might also spot the signs that an apparently serene world order was about to blow itself to pieces.

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Q: Which history books would you recommend?

A: I’ve flagged up one already, based on my current work at the Palace of Westminster. It’s a long way beyond my parish, but I enjoyed reading Stonehenge (2016) by the archaeologist Francis Pryor – so much about that mysterious place is still being discovered, changing our understanding about why it was built. Elizabethan Architecture (2009) by Mark Girouard distils a lifetime of knowledge about the buildings and society of the period which I study. As a wild card, I would recommend Empire of the Clouds (2011) by James Hamilton-Paterson: the story of the British aircraft industry during the Cold War. It may sound like a niche subject, but in fact it has an absorbing and even tragic quality – especially if you have ever heard the roar of a Vulcan bomber in flight.


John Cooper will be speaking about the Elizabethan secret service at our York History Weekend on Friday 19 October. To find out more about his talk and to book tickets, click here.