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Post William Ashby: A Biography in the Works
Created by John Eipper on 08/06/19 8:26 AM

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William Ashby: A Biography in the Works (Timothy Ashby, Spain, 08/06/19 8:26 am)

I'm in the midst of writing a biography of William Ashby, who led a fascinating life in the service of HM Queen Elizabeth I. He was a relative, not an ancestor, as he was the nephew of my 11th great-grandmother, Barbara Ashby, whose claim to fame (at least during the Tudor era) was that she lived 105 years, dying in 1598.

I am very fortunate to have a large amount of original source material for my research.

A close friend (and former very senior UK diplomat) described William Ashby as follows:

"It is clear your forbear was indeed a highly significant figure given his closeness to FW [Sir Francis Walsingham], the first de facto head of the nascent British intelligence service(s) that in time morphed into both MI5 and MI6. In modern intelligence circles QE1 is always regarded as the first monarch to have created an intelligence service, or more exactly to have one created for her by the great man FW.

"As regards WA's 20 years prior to becoming Ambassador to Scotland, when he was scooping up intelligence across Europe, his role is best described as that of a senior Agent of Influence.This reflects both WA's secret role under diplomatic cover and the quality of intelligence he collected from his sources/assets; and of equal importance the Information from the household of the Queen of England which he will have imparted to key continental contacts in line with his instructions from FW on behalf of QE1.

"Subsequently once WA [William Ashby] was posted as Ambassador to Scotland his role was primarily to represent Good Queen Bess in difficult circumstances arising from her vexed relationship with Mary Queen of Scots and from his Scottish sources report on/prevent the Spanish trying to infiltrate the British Isles. But secondly we can be pretty sure also that FW asked WA to continue to use the tradecraft skills honed across the Continent for 20 years essentially to pad out his diplomatic fact-finding with secret reporting. So in a very real sense one could say that WA executed the roles of both Ambassador and Head of Station.

"Just to be clear, in using job descriptions like Agent of Influence and Head of Station one is of course being anachronistic, as we are imputing roles and titles from a much later era to activities carried out 400+ years ago. But I think in trying to describe as accurately as possible WA's professional life and accomplishments it is actually helpful to use the modern terminology to give the reader the clearest possible vision of what he achieved."

Hopefully, my book will be timely (and relevant to current events) as a recent poll of Conservative Party members revealed that 63 percent said that they would rather have Brexit take place even if it meant Scotland seceding from the United Kingdom (59 percent said the same about Northern Ireland). There's a growing possibility both of a "No Deal" Brexit and of Scottish independence. A poll out today showed that 46% of Scots said they would vote Yes to independence, and 43% No. Excluding those who say they don't know or wouldn't vote, this amounts to a lead of 52% to 48% for an independent Scotland.

To quote Good Queen Bess from 1583: "England could live well enough without Scotland." This would probably be the other way around, as the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland voted by a large majority to remain in the EU--62 percent north of the Border, and 55.8 percent in Northern Ireland.

My thoughts on PM Bojo will follow this week.

JE comments:  This 1583 quote may finally be put to the test.  Who would ever have imagined no more "U" in the UK?

Tim, how are you planning to structure the Ashby bio?  In a straight chronological fashion, or with an in medias res "hook"?  Either way, I know you'll knock this one out of the park.  (Are baseball metaphors acceptable for Elizabethan England?)


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  • William Ashby: How to Structure a Biography (Timothy Ashby, Spain 08/09/19 6:37 AM)
    John Eipper asked me on August 6th: "How are you planning to structure your William Ashby bio? In a straight chronological fashion, or with an in medias res 'hook'?"

    I'm very much using an in medias res approach. The book opens in the wee hours of July 29th, 1588, when William Ashby, only two weeks into his job as Queen Elizabeth's ambassador to Scotland, is reading for the third time a letter from Sir Francis Walsingham, "touching the appearing of the Spanish fleet upon the coast of the west country." Ashby is in his drafty, rodent-infested lodgings in a dank close near St. Giles Cathedral, for which he must pay the exorbitant rent of 20 shillings per day.


    He knows from his intelligence contacts that the impecunious King James VI (who was so broke that his last two cooks had quit and the royal kitchen closed) was seriously considering large bribes from the Spanish and French for an alliance that would allow the Armada to use Scotland as a base from which to invade England--"the King was greatly solicited and pressed to hearken to the large offers made to him by Spain and France." The Ambassador is sleepless and exhausted, consumed by a moral and professional dilemma that could not only end his career but result in literally losing his head. He has been charged by Walsingham and the Queen to promise anything to keep King James "in amity" with the English, or at least neutral. But he knows that he must personally take the blame for any failure, as Good Queen Bess expects what today would be called "plausible deniability."


    JE comments:  You've already hooked us in, Tim!  (Timothy Ashby has also sent a post on a decidedly more current subject, Boris Johnson's first fortnight as Prime Minister.  WAIS usually doesn't publish twice from the same colleague on a single day, but what rule isn't meant to be bent...?) 

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