Penniless and a disappointment to his father, Anthony is flung into the Eighty Years' War, spying for the queen who exiled him, against the queen who knighted him.
'The Spy Who Sank the Armada' by David West is the first of three books devoted to the highly perilous life and times of Sir Anthony Standen, Tudor mercenary spy for hire; a man well in tune with the extremely fraught times in which he lived. This is a Tudor spy thriller, unabashed, unapologetic, and written in grand, pacey style!
The book is sweeping and certainly covers a great deal of territory in terms of geography and events and notable historical incidents. It is based on the actual and often mysterious life of an actual figure; Sir Anthony Standen [born c.1548 - ?] In his evidently crowded career, Standen, English born but a firm favourite within the circle of Mary, Queen of Scots [who appointed him a 'Master of Horse' and knighted him] flitted and flirted throughout Europe in the pay of a variety of very different spymasters. His travels took him from England and Scotland to France, to the contentious Lowlands, and to Italy and Spain and beyond. West's creation is a resourceful and indefatigable man; a sixteenth-century adventurer, a veritable 'James Bond' of his time.
We first meet the young Sir Anthony Standen in Paris in 1567 and seemingly at a bit of a loose end. His early attempts at espionage on behalf of the English end in failure and near death. Paris is a powder keg, with near and actual civil war between the French Catholic and Protestant Huguenot factions; and always the abiding English fear of Spanish involvement in their affairs - not only in England but also in Scotland.
The late sixteenth century is of course a crucial and fascinating period in European history. It is also very complicated, so we must thank David West for guiding the readers through the minefields of this period with considerable savoir-faire and dexterity, revealing a deep knowledge of and feel for his subject matter. At the English Embassy, he is turned over to various masters and adepts at the various black arts of espionage and young Anthony emerges as an accomplished creator and decipherer of codes and ciphers, an expert lockpicker and silent burglar, and a proficient killer; skills to add to a repertoire that already includes an extraordinary ability as a linguist and a flair for swordplay. Anthony is next commissioned by the up-and-coming Francis Walsingham, the new English Ambassador in Paris to spy on the Spanish and to gather information on their plans and intentions and this involved a very long period of activity in fighting for William of Orange, leader of the rebel Protestant forces in the Low Countries, specifically the famous maritime rebel force of 'the Sea Beggars'.
There is rarely a dull moment in the hectic life and career of Sir Anthony Standen and the reader's attention is always fixed upon him as he continues to be both an eyewitness and active participant in the major dramas of the period. Where events arrive at boiling point Standen can usually be relied upon to be centre stage or, at the very least, lurking in the shadows. The reader can only marvel at [and, perhaps, envy] the sheer, steady, cold nerve of the man or his uncanny ability to not only make the most of his circumstances but turn them to his best advantage, The resourceful Sir Anthony is a superlative survivor, dealt many bad hands and with more than seems fair and equitable of ''chutzpah'. After leaving the 'Sea Beggars' and making the acquaintance of William of Orange [who also pays him] he burgles the house of an absent Governor and steals money and important documents, the contents of which he relays in code to his master Francis Walsingham. Surviving and escaping a full-blown Spanish attack and massacre of the inhabitants of a major town, he then masquerades as an Italian soldier in the Spanish army and becomes, naturally enough, a despatch rider entrusted with sensitive military information which he dutifully relays back to the English authorities in Paris. He in fact maintains this pretence for several years before being robbed and left unconscious. Naturally enough, he is recognised and taken in by a beautiful widow to whom he had once done a favour in a previous life when he had been Antonio Foscari, an Italian wine merchant - his previous cover back in his Paris days. They become lovers and it is a fine enough life until one morning when her illegitimate son whom she has been separated from for many years comes to call. This man turns out to be none other than the new Spanish Governor. Anticipating Henry Fielding's 'Tom Jones' by a good century and a half, he makes a hasty exit in a state of some undress through the window and makes off on the Governor's prized stallion, thus making him the most wanted man in the Lowlands. He sets off, hotly pursued, across the length and breadth of Spanish-controlled Europe, heading for the safety of the land of the Ottomans and the fabulous City of Constantinople. As previously noted, 'never a dull moment'. This book [and in all likelihood, the following ones in the series] would equally make an excellent action comic book or television serial! The reader needs to bear in mind at all times that all these adventures are based on the life of a real person! Sir Anthony Standen inhabits his world like some inverted, world-weary, and cynical 'Candide'. In the words of Shakespeare ''bestriding the narrow world like a Colossus.''
At the risk of falling into the trap of simply narrating, a very pleasant interlude of four years follows as a guest of the Sultan in the Topkapi Palace where Anthony adds written and spoken Arabic to his already impressive portfolio of accomplishments and develops an appreciation of both alchemy and medicine [and poisons!] through his study of Arabic texts. At one point he pauses to reflect upon the possibilities of developing a business in the cultivation of tulip bulbs, foreshadowing a phenomenon in the Lowlands in the following century. He also sends frequent and highly informative letters to Walsingham ever anxious to stir up trouble for the Spanish. Ever since the catastrophic defeat of the Turks at the sea battle of Lepanto by the Spanish and Venetians the Turks are not inclined to take an affectionate view of the Spanish. In his last communication, Walsingham orders Anthony to Florence and the Court of Duke Francis de Medici where it is hoped that a shared connection with Mary Queen of Scots can be exploited, for there is evidence of a plot to murder Queen Elizabeth. And it is here at the glittering Florentine Court and by deploying all of his considerable skills that Sir Anthony Standen uncovers a plot in his greatest triumph to date. This, in his subsequent stay there and in Madrid, is just one of his many activities.
Those thinking that perhaps too much of the plot has already been revealed may rest assured. That which has been already outlined is but a fraction of what is still yet to come in the chaotic career of Sir Anthony Standen. Everything thus far is something of a trifle in comparison with what is yet to occur in the political hotspots of Florence, Madrid, London, and Rome!
There are confrontations with Kings and Popes and extraordinary figures such as Cecil and the Earl of Essex and a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth still to come. In separate conversations with both the new King James I, the life of whose mother Standen had saved so many years before, and Pope Clement VIII both these eminent figures remark on what an interesting life Holden appears to have led. This is, of course, something of an understatement, given the circumstances. Sir Anthony Standen has to be just about the most travelled man of his age. He has been both the welcome bidden guest and the hidden and illicit lurker and intruder in most of the grand Palaces and Courts of Europe; as well as the unwilling inmate of most of its more infamous gaols, up to and including the Tower of London. He has been both the paid and unpaid agent and double agent of all the competing powers and has won and lost small fortunes several times over. He has been betrayed and double-crossed by most of them as well, but survives on each occasion to spy again.
In 1605, at the end of this admirable first book, we find him living on Papal patrimony in a beautiful villa with lands with his wife [whom he had met years before in Florence and whose subsequent Wedding was conducted by the Pope] and his three children. West does not tell us if he has white hair and shaking limbs, but he certainly deserves to have these bequests of his life to date. If he now hopes to spend his declining years tending his vines in the bosom of his doting family he is to be sorely disappointed when an Italian Cardinal, an old associate, arrives dangling a purse of 2000 ducats and a new mission. We are not told the nature of the task, but it is patently clear that he must put his plans on hold for a while and once more brush up on his old highly advanced skills of forgery, lock picking, and swordplay and don afresh his chameleon-like Actor's mask.
This is a fine and stirring tale indeed and bodes well for the following books charting the further life and times of Sir Anthony Standen. From the relatively few known verifiable facts regarding the life of the man, David West has conjured up an epic portrayal of a truly 'Renaissance' figure [at one point he reveals a skill of draughtsmanship and portraiture]; a nerveless and cold-blooded 'Maestro' of his chosen profession. The book is peppered with the emergence and frequent re-emergence of notable historical figures who, again in the style of 'Candide', display a habit of appearing with unfortunate results. In telling this story the author has clearly been scrupulous in his attention to the welter of confusing and often seemingly contradictory information that surrounds this complex and fascinating period of European history that may have the beneficial effect of persuading readers to carry out their own research. 'The spy who sank the Armada' is a fine read and accomplishment and bodes well for its successors.
“The Spy Who Sank the Armada” receives 4.5 stars from The Historical Fiction Company
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David V.S. West was educated at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, where he took a B.A. in Engineering Science. During a career in engineering and project management he was commissioned by Gower Publishing to write a book on Project Sponsorship. This led him to study creative writing with the Open University, and a new career as a writer. He lives in Wiltshire.