The more things change...

.. the more they stay the same. Perhaps it’s a special curse afflicting historians and writers of historical fiction, but I keep seeing resonances between the late Elizabethan period and our current political climate. Not straight lines, not full reproductions, but echoes and shimmery reflections.

Who knew what and when did they know it

Devin_Nunes,_official_color_photo_portrait
Devin Nunes

A perennial political question. Sometimes I find it hard to remember why it matters. But here I am, on a morning in late February, reading the Washington Post in accordance with my daily habit, including this article about a memo about another memo. It’s all about the Trump-Russia collusion issue, which is tedious to watch play out in real time, but has potentially very important consequences.

Here’s the article, hope you can still read it. It’s “What we learned from the Democratic response to the Nunes memo — and what we didn’t,” by Philip Bump, February 25, 2018. I’ll give you the second paragraph for the gist:

“Understanding the memo released by the Democratic members of the House Intelligence Committee requires the context of Nunes’s original memo, released to great fanfare earlier this month in an effort to paint the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference as politically biased. Nunes presented a scenario in which a Trump campaign staffer, Carter Page, faced federal surveillance on the basis of information collected by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, who was working indirectly for the Democratic Party and Hillary Clinton’s campaign through a research firm called Fusion GPS.”

This whole issue hinges on who knew what at what time. Not exactly the same as my Elizabethan example, but in the same realm.

Who said what to whom and when

As Queen Elizabeth approached her sixth decade, her courtiers began speculating about her Elizabeth-I-Allegorical-Posuccessor. Not openly — that would be treason — but since she refused to name a successor for fear it would result in her immediate assassination, speculation was all they had. The smart money was on King James VI of Scotland, so the most astute courtiers began cultivating his good will early on.

These astute courtiers included, obviously, Lord Burghley, the Queen’s Lord Treasurer, himself a very old man, but with a son’s future to secure (Robert Cecil.) Also eager to advance apace was the dashing Earl of Essex, the Queen’s favorite and a most impatient man. The earl was aided by his astute and articulate older sister, Penelope Rich, whose sole biography I was reading last night: Maud Stepney Rawson’s Penelope Rich and Her Circle (London: Hutchinson & Co., 1911.)

That biography quoted at length a letter (pp 234-235) to Lord Burghley from Thomas Fowler, one of his many informants, writing from Edinburgh in 1589. Fowler lightly conceals his subjects with nicknames — standard practice in those days. The language has been modernized by Ms. Rawson.

james_I_1606_wikicom
King James in 1606

“Your Lordship may be pleased to know that I learn that Mr. Richard Douglas, coming last from London, brought down one Ottoman (Robert Dale.) The said Mr. Richard… himself delivered a letter from the Earl of Essex to His Majesty, with credit: both these (gentlemen) were in commission from the Earl to deal largely with His Majesty, to assure him of the Earl’s service and fidelity, and Ottoman to carry back the answer, what was not meet to be committed in writing. … the said Mr. Richard hath a long scroll as an alphabet of cipher to understand them [the letters] by. I can tell few of their names, but the Queen’s Majesty is Venus, and the Earl the Weary Knight, as I remember, but always that he is exceedingly weary, accounting it a thrall that he lives now in, and wishes the change. [borderline treason!] She [Penelope] is very pleasant in her letters, and writes the most part thereof in her brother’s behalf, so as they should be showed to Victor (King James) which they were; and the dark parts expounded to him…. The said Ottoman had many secret conferences with the King, which pleased him exceedingly; and Mr. Douglas won credit where before he had none…”

The smoke from this gun is hugely more obvious than the fog surrounding Donald Trump’s financial relationships in Russia and Central Asia, but the “who sat next to whom and spoke for how long about what” style of evidence seems strikingly similar to me, but then the Elizabethans didn’t have an internet and they weren’t very sneaky about code names either.

What boots it, when all is said and done?

In the event of Elizabeth’s death in 1603, it mattered a lot who had said what to which friend of King James and when that What had been said to that Who. It turns out that Robert Cecil had gotten in earliest and made all the right pitches. He had the advantage of his father’s extensive network of eavesdroppers eager to do themselves a favor by writing poste haste. The over-hasty Earl of Essex had already gotten his head cut off for over-reaching by the time James came south. Penelope Rich’s husband divorced her, but she didn’t like him anyway. 

And it will matter a lot if it turns out that Trump really does or did owe a bunch of Russians a bunch of money at any time leading up to the 2016 presidential elections. It will matter a lot if any of his crew solicited the help of Russian troll-masters in manipulating American votes. Who sat next to whom at which event? Could matter.

I remind myself of the letters flying back and forth from England to Scotland throughout the last decade of the sixteenth century now whenever I open up another article about the latest step in this appropriately long and detailed Russian collusion investigation.

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