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?