(Pictures from Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

Kathleen Lea, Geoffrey Ashe and Leo Hicks all mention Sir Anthony Standen’s trip to Constantinople in articles, taking the account bearing his name on the title page at face value. Leo Hicks S.J. in The Embassy of Sir Anthony Standen, Recusant History, April 1963 states that Standen was in Constantinople in 1578 or before, citing the document now in the Beinecke Library: Relation of Sir Anthony Standen. Memories of a Turkish Voyage, collected in Constantinople in the year of our Lord God 1578. He remarks that Standen hadn’t disclosed in any of his writings why he went, but speculated that it was in connection with trade competition between the French, Florentines and English vying for Ottoman favour. Certainly, Elizabeth’s merchants were then in Constantinople, lobbying for privileges for the Levant Company. But the Relation of Sir Anthony Standen says little about tariffs.

To my eyes, it’s a clarion call by a military foe advertising unsuspected weaknesses in a long-time enemy, exhorting Christians to unify and take advantage of the naval victory at the Battle of Lepanto of 1572. The writing throbs with triumphalism, and a feral reappraisal of what had looked so mighty from afar, but really wasn’t.

Here’s a flavour. After stating that he made his observations personally in Constantinople, “having to deal with so barbarous a people and so insolent a generation,” the writer outlines Ottoman lands and client states, military forces and funding. Then he adds, “although these are necessary to be understood, yet are they but bodies without spirit if unto the other manner of life be not applied, wherefore this inward knowledge of this great Empire is most necessary.”

On this inward condition he’s scathing: “themselves do know and confess that although their Empire be great, and of so many Kingdoms, a great part thereof be weak, disinhibited and ruined…they also well know that their ancient valour and discipline is much decayed.”

Referring to the Battle of Lepanto, he asserts, “the Turks were of the opinion that the Christians durst not affront them, which now is contrary. Their minds being so overwhelmed with dread and doubt that they dare not so boldly presume upon the Christians. Confessing of their own free wills, as some of these have done to me, that their galleys in all respects are far inferior to the Christians, as well for the soldiers and men of combat, as also for mariners, galleotes, artillery, and other provisions pertaining to the sea.” He offers a plausible sociological analysis of why Ottoman crews don’t measure up to Europeans, rooted in gathered facts. Still, he marvels at their building of 170 galleys in six months to reconstitute their devastated navy, calling it “a feat incredible to those who saw it.” This doesn’t prove he was on the spot in 1573—it could have been hearsay—but it has the feeling of a witness account.

(Pictures from Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)

He sees the Ottomans as now rotten at the core, corruption bringing the least able to power. “…such manner of people are brought in, whose favours and greatness do grow by carnal affections, full of lechery and covetousness and above all replenished with arrogance and pride, which two vices are nourished in them by prosperity and good hap…All these are known truths to them, and hereupon will they not stick to say that in time these disorders will be an impediment to the conservation of all that they have gotten with so much blood…(but) to come to some other quality of their religion, I must say that few of them are there which hold the Mahomet religion to be good, which law is divided among them in opinions…yet in outward appearance the Turks are very strict observers thereof, for that few or none of them shall be seen to omit their ordinary prayers…” Transcription by Jacqueline Ly.

The accumulated weight of the writer’s verdict reflects an Ottoman government reeling from yesterday’s shocking drubbing, and looking inward. It is a distorted overview, more descriptive of the “sick old man of Europe” of the late nineteenth century than sixteenth-century Ottoman viability. This part of the text, particularly the frank exchanges the writer says he had with Turk officials, seems to have been written in the raw emotions of 1573-4, flush after Lepanto. But it is hard to place Anthony Standen out of Europe before 1577.

So who wrote these broiling words? Tune in next week for a candidate.

Chasing Elizabethan Double-agent Anthony Standen

I wrote in my first blog that I would say more about Sir Anthony Standen, the inspiration for Sir Edward Latham. Standen’s actions and motives are sketchy; they can support opposing characterizations. When a spy’s handler advises him in letters to write like a Catholic and the spy does, it’s hard to pinpoint his real feelings.

Stephen Alford  (The WATCHERS: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I. Bloomsbury Press, London, 2011) described him simply as a man whose loyalty was for sale, while Geoffrey Ashe (An Elizabethan Adventurer. The Career of Sir Anthony Standen, The Month August and October 1952) liked him as a conflicted moderate dedicated to both faith and country. John Guy (ELIZABETH: The Forgotten Years Viking, New York, 2016) rated him one of Walsingham’s more shady agents, yet Alan Haynes in The Elizabethan Secret Services, Sutton Publishing 199) admired him as a “plucky intelligencer,” an adventurer who won pensions from various notables, but was such a nomad that Haynes couldn’t imagine how he ever got paid. Kathleen Lea, in Sir Anthony Standen and some Anglo-Italian letters, The English Historical Review Vol. 47 #187, July 1932, calls him a fantasist, tripped up by episodic indiscretions. This doesn’t square with cold hard cash, in the form of a bill of exchange for 300 crowns, that Walsingham certainly sent Standen in 1586 to get Spain’s war plans. That’s a lot of money, and would only have been entrusted to a proven agent. Will the real Anthony Standen please stand up? I long to meet you!

One of the most teasing hints about Standen concerns a trip to Constantinople in the late 1570s. Scholars Kathleen Lea, Leo Hicks S.J and Geoffrey Ashe refer in articles to his account (citations in my next blog). Interestingly, they don’t quote him. This lengthy account lived in tantalizing footnotes. So imagine my excitement when I realized that this document, Relation of Sir Anthony Standen. Memories of a Turkish Voyage, collected in Constantinople in the year of our Lord God 1578, was in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale, New Haven.  I pass New Haven in my weekly New York/ Clinton, Connecticut commute. Thirty-one pages long, the library only provided a short abstract, along with the description: “attributed by another hand to an unrecorded Sir Anthony Standen.”

Some content in the abstract was juicy.

“…I will set down in what esteem and consideration the Turks do hold all other potentates about them that are not their subjects…and to allure and draw with pleasant morsels the people to the liking of his merchandise, he slaked the reins of the bridle to all kinds of carnal concupiscence and fleshly appetite, through which kind of licent life he chiefly wrought his purpose upon infinite numbers of men, who, naturally inclined to evil, embraced his horrible sect…”

This seemed awfully hypocritical, given Standen’s notorious patronage of Edinburgh prostitutes with Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, Mary, Queen of Scots’ husband. It also didn’t quite fit with a subtlety I saw in the Bacon papers when I first read about him. Still, three scholars had taken it at face value, so I asked Jacqueline Ly, a doctoral student of history at Yale, to complete the transcription. I was delirious at the prospect of hearing Standen’s voice across the centuries, getting a feel for how this Catholic expatriate viewed the Ottomans. I had experienced beginners’ luck in my prior careers—music then financial services—perhaps my writers’ beginners’ luck was arriving. Stay tuned. Had I found the white rabbit?

Or was I chasing down the rabbit hole?


Members of my writers group asked me what influenced me in creating Latham?

Initially, a spy I knew as a friend, then fiction and non-fiction. But a documentary offered me the most compelling crawl around a spy’s emotional innards. The Green Prince is an interview with the son of a Hamas leader—the Green Prince—who spied for Israel for ten years, and an interview with his Israeli handler.

Originally coerced into collaborating with Israel because he was gay, the Green Prince gradually determined that informing on Hamas was the more virtuous course.  He loathed what he called “the Hamas project,” built, as he learned, on provable lies. But as a Muslim Palestinian, he couldn’t accept Israel either, and he honoured his parents. He constructed his own moral code, lines he wouldn’t cross, and trained himself to feel right in his code. Latham also constructs his own moral code. The Israeli handler had stresses, too. More empathetic to his agent than Shin Bet allowed, he got into trouble. Both men were hollowed by the experience. Latham isn’t hollowed out, but he pays a price. Love isn’t available to him; his attachments are partly transactional. Serving a higher purpose sustains him. With a grandiose streak, he writes his life large as he goes.

In my reading about the Tudor era, I came across an incident from the time of Henry VIIII. English soldiers were besieging a Scottish town. A church spire was in artillery range. Officers called a halt and pored over their bible. Was bombarding the spire allowed? They concluded that it was, and fired the cannon. I wondered if Hamas soldiers consult their Koran before storing weapons in Gaza’s UN refugee centres. There are affinities between Latham and the Green Prince. I decided to incorporate a search for theoretical justifications in Latham; he thinks and dreams a lot.

The Secret of Thrills; or, the Thrill of Secrets

My publisher asked me what it might have been like for Latham to hold all those secrets, spying for the Catholic side first, then a double agent for Elizabeth. As I conceive him, Latham isn’t burdened by secrets. They excite him, as rare diamonds thrill jewelers, because he uses them to make things happen, in what he construes as a virtuous direction. His talent is decoding, both ciphered writing and court intrigues, for which he is exquisitely attuned. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter Two:

“Latham tried to control mounting excitement… He wanted to leap on the table, wave his arms, stamp his feet, dance. He clutched the bench white-knuckled, grinding his heels into the floor. Why had Hicks come to Paris to tell him this?”

Espionage is how Latham finds his place in a world roiled by religious wars and

A 16th century French cypher in the shape of a book, with the mark of Henri II (wikipedia)

upending innovations. If you want to know what royal secret excited him that day, you can now get the book! A kind pre-release reviewer describes Latham as “a dashing Elizabethan double agent, (who) personifies the nerve-tingling tension between passionate patriotism and a tormented Catholic conscience.” Latham’s era doesn’t allow for easy answers. As a counterweight to Latham’s dilemma, my other characters are free from core conflicts. You’ll meet Don Cristobal, Spanish professional soldier with an ancient code of chivalry; David Hicks, courtier friend of Latham, dedicated to the English side, who becomes Latham’s handler; Latham’s servants, Joris and Marie, whose ethos is service to their master, whatever side he’s on; Ibrahim, Ottoman slave/high official, who until his tragic death tries to pry Latham’s

Replica of Confederate army pocket cypher machine using the Vigenére system (obtained from the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC)

service from Catholic Spain back to his birth country, whose more moderate ruler Ottoman policy prefers. And plenty of Queens, kings, councilors, sub-agents, field marshals, noblewomen, maids and mistresses. My next blog will be titled A CRAWL AROUND THE EMOTIONAL INNARDS OF ONE MODERN SPY


When Latham left Elizabeth’s court to serve Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots and her husband, Henry Stuart Lord Darnley, I had to sidle into that notoriously miserable marriage. These coins tickled me! Mary minted the first one on their marriage. Its inscription is Henricus & Maria, with handsome Darnley’s big head taller than his wife’s. Mary soured on him within months, with reason, and withdrew this coin from circulation. They are rare. This image is from the British Museum.

Mary replaced the Henricus & Maria coins with those below, Maria & Henricus, with a thistle on one side and a coat of arms on the other. These coins  can be bought from dealers.

Has anyone exceeded Tudors or Stuarts in the art of public insult? Readers, let me know at!

My next blog is: The Secret of Thrills; or, the Thrill of Secrets

Dear Reader Friends

Welcome to my blog and thank you for your interest in my debut novel The Reversible Mask.. I will be posting each week. The first question is how I got entangled in this tale. Why did I have to write it?

Several years ago I was in bed at night reading this book:

It’s ALL about spies. Published in the eighteenth century, it contains the papers of two Elizabethan spy handlers and brothers, Francis and Anthony Bacon. Yes, Francis Bacon (below), the great philosopher and attorney, was a spy.

“Oh no!” I cried, struggling with the f/s ambiguities of eighteenth-century printing. “Anthony Standen if, no, is, blown!” Our two cats scrambled to the floor, and an irritated “Who….cares?” rumbled from my dozing spouse.

Francis Bacon (1561 – 1626 ) was an English philosopher, statesman, scientist, jurist, spymaster, orator, and author.

Good question. I had no idea why a career-ending exposure of this obscure adventurer, written plaintively from a French prison to Francis Bacon, hooked me. Sir Anthony Standen was a young Catholic courtier who had left Protestant Elizabeth I’s court in the 1560s for reasons of religion. For years, he spied for Catholic Spain against European Protestants. But in the 1580s he became a double agent for Elizabeth while remaining on Spain’s payroll. His reasons are unclear.

I am a secular Jew, so why was I intrigued? I believe that we make art—paintings, sculptures, stories, music—to understand the world we find ourselves in. Eventually I realized that Standen epitomized, in a pure form, conflicts that permeate our modern lives, along with the compartmentalization we call on to manage them. An insurance agent, which I was at the time, serves an insurer employer and the claimant; a physician gives a nod to hospital budgets, and to a patient who might gain a few months with a stratospherically costly drug; a tobacco company executive putting his children through college knows that his industry is concealing the addictive poison of cigarettes. For most of us, these conflicts are muted or temporary. For Standen they were a matter of eternal damnation. What split could be more profound than a Catholic who believed in transubstantiation and a physical hell, yet risked his life to protect his heretical birth country? What was it like to wanted to wander in his world? Quickly, I realized that Standen was irretrievably ambiguous—more about him in future blogs—so I created Sir Edward Latham. Latham does some things Standen did, and many he did not. His loves, hubris and foibles are my inventions, clearer and dearer to me than his elusive model. Historical fiction allures because the known outcomes provide a frame for imagining the experience. So, do please join me in sixteenth-century adventures from England to the Sublime Porte and places between.