Losing our heads online? Lessons from the Renaissance NSA

File:Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, created 1613, artist unknown.JPG

“The executioner then picked up the severed head and, showing it to those present, cried out: ‘God save Queen Elizabeth! May all the enemies of the true Evangel thus perish!'”

Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots was beheaded about 8am on Wednesday, 8 February 1587 for plotting the assassination of her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England (and Ireland).

Mary had not confessed to any crime. The evidence that led to her death came from her intercepted letters. Other letters implicating Mary in the murder of her second husband had led to a cold reception when she first arrived in England. Both cases give an insight into how insecure communication is by no means a modern worry – even if, hopefully, having your emails and Facebook posts read today doesn’t lead to an executioner’s axe.

Escaping conflict in Scotland in 1568, Elizabeth I and her advisers were unsure what to do with Mary Stewart. As a Catholic, with close links to France, and the heir to the English throne Mary was already a religiously and politically awkward guest. When Scottish rebels brought a small casket of letters to England, matters rapidly got murkier still.

Casket which allegedly held letters written by Mary Queen of Scots – now known as the Lennoxlove Casket

Allegedly, the letters were written by Mary to James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell. Intimate letters from a married woman to a man not her husband might have caused a minor kerfuffle. But letters asking why he hadn’t yet had her husband killed painted Mary as treacherous and dangerous. The fact that Henry Stuart, Mary’s husband had been blown to pieces shortly after the letters were (allegedly) written, and that Bothwell was widely suspected seemed to show her as an eager and cold-blooded accomplice to murder.

But were the letters real? Mary herself, and her supporters denied that they were. Historians have questioned their authenticity and suggested they were at the very least doctored to portray Mary in the worst possible light, if not actually outright forgeries. The letters themselves have long since disappeared, so the case as to their genuineness remains open.

Reconstruction of Sheffield Manor, where, along with the now destroyed Sheffield Castle, Mary, Queen of Scots was detained for fourteen years.

Their impact was undoubted. Mary was detained in various castles and country houses around England. In her absence, relations between newly Protestant Scotland and England grew much warmer. Unable to return to Scotland and prevented from leaving for Europe, as the years passed Mary became an inconvenience – and a threat.

Her supporters continued to try to secure her release by diplomatic means as well as more drastic measures. She was implicated in several plots and fearful rumours abounded of French or Spanish invasions intended to depose Elizabeth and install Mary as Queen of England. Elizabeth was reluctant to believe the allegations against her cousin, and her advisers could find no evidence to persuade her to act.

Sir Francis Walsingham

Most frustrated was Sir Francis Walsingham, one of Elizabeth’s closest advisers – and spymaster. At the centre of a web of agents and informers, he was convinced that Mary was a dangerous threat. Strong circumstantial information pointed to her involvement in the Throckmorton Plot of 1583, a plan for the French duke of Guise to invade England with Spanish support. But no compelling evidence was found.What was needed was written proof.

Walsingham’s spies brought him reports in early 1586 that more secret plans to rescue Mary were afoot, headed by Anthony Babington a minor Catholic nobleman.

Anthony Babington and co-conspirators

Determined not to be foiled again, Walsingham ensured that well placed agents were in position in Mary’s household. One of these, double agent Gilbert Gifford, arranged for Mary to be able to communicate with her supporters by letters smuggled in beer barrels into and out of the house where she was detained.

The letters, of course, were closely monitored by Walsingham’s men. The coded messages were removed from the barrels, deciphered by experienced forger and gifted linguist Thomas Phelippes, copied and then allowed to reach the intended original recipients. Having set up the system to read all outgoing and incoming mail, it was only a matter of waiting for something to happen.

On the 6 July 1586 the wait for Walsingham and his men ended. Their surveillance uncovered a letter from Babington to Mary that was exactly what they were looking for:

“Myself with ten gentlemen and a hundred of our followers will undertake the delivery of your royal person from the hands of your enemies. For the dispatch of the usurper, [….] there be six noble gentlemen, all my private friends, who for the zeal they bear to the Catholic cause and your Majesty’s service will undertake that tragical execution.”

On the 17 July, Mary replied to Babington:

“So as, if remedy be not thereunto hastily provided, I fear not a little but they shall become altogether unable for ever to rise again and to receive any aid at all, whensoever it were offered them. For mine own part, I pray you to assure our principal friends that, [….] I shall be always ready and most willing to employ therein my life and all that I have or may ever look for in this world”

File:Babington postscript.jpg

Intercepted letter from Mary Queen of Scots. Deciphered by Thomas Phelippes, an expert forger, he also added a postscript seeking the names of Babington’s accomplices.

By writing these words clearly encouraging and endorsing a plan to kill Queen Elizabeth, Mary had signed her own death warrant. Walsingham used the letter to finally convince his monarch to allow her troublesome cousin to be executed. Babington and his associates were arrested in August 1586. All were interrogated and confessed – most likely after torture.


Hanging, drawing and quartering

On 20 September 1586 Babington (along with most of his co-conspirators) were executed by being hanged till nearly dead, cut down while still alive, and disembowelled with their entrails burned before their eyes. Once they were finally dead their bodies were butchered into four quarters.

Mary’s death followed five months later.

The question remains whether she and Babington were really guilty? Supporters and defenders have suggested that the entire affair was designed, propelled and controlled by Walsingham. Without his agents in place facilitating communication, nothing could have happened, there could have been no plot. Constant surveillance of every message ensured there was no danger – or more accurately only what danger Walsingham and his agents allowed to happen in letting the scheme build to the point where there was sufficient proof against Mary to bring about her death. Was the entire affair a case of entrapment engineered to entice the unwary into planning crimes they would never otherwise have thought of no less embarked upon?

Or, to bring these issues into the modern context, does it matter who’s reading, conveying and receiving your messages if you have nothing to hide? Was it Walsingham’s duty in 1586 to flush out potential threats and radicalising plotters by whatever means possible? Was England spared an invasion and bloody conflict through surveillance of communication?

The NSA PRISM Program which dominated the news this week and brought suggestions of a ‘turnkey totalitarian state’ in the offing.

Or where does the line between finding and creating threats lie? Is it permissible to alter emails, Facebook posts, and Tweets in the fashion that Walsingham’s agents manipulated Mary and Babington’s correspondence? Even a little for the sake of greater safety for all?

If you reveal intent to commit a crime online should you be stopped at the earliest possible opportunity by monitoring authorities? Or allowed to continue for a certain amount of time to ultimately permit a greater number of arrests?

If you’re innocent of any crime does any of this matter? Then again, online are we innocent until proven guilty? Or guilty until proven innocent?

Previously this was usually between you and your conscience. Now, it may be up to you and the NSA to determine.


It’s been there for a while. Since last year at a very least. Nothing drastic, nothing urgent, not even troublesome. But still there. Gaping:Image

I stepped over it, around it, across it everyday. Mostly I passed over it oblivious. Until one day it registered; I think it was one rare sunny day when the hiatus in rain, wind and cold let the senses wander without risk of drowning or frostbite, and focus on something else.

And this was the something else. Once I noticed it, I couldn’t unnotice it. Gradually it started to bug me that it was still there. And still there. And…….

Whatever ‘it’ is. In days of old, it might have been time for a trip to the library, or maybe a bat-shaped silhouette beamed onto the night sky. Though I doubt Batman ever concerned himself with missing valve covers. For it turns out that that is what ‘It’ is. A valve cover. Dozens of them – unobtrusive, ignored – on every street. Only noticed when gone. Never missed, just gone.

And what to do? Or to do anything? Does it even matter, really? It’s just a little thing in a little place. But little things in little places can have big effects.

And then a vague recollection of something read online came to mind. Fix my something? The interweb to the rescue again: FixMyStreet.ie. Not an Irish innovation – copied from something similar England, where small problems could be reported to local authorities. But a good idea is a good idea – until the originators (step forward Fine Gael) lost the domain name. Oops.

And then the good folks of the non-profit MyGov.ie relaunched the site. It’s still at FixMyStreet.ie

Today I eventually posted the missing valve cover on the list. Will anything happen? Will it be fixed? Will the vicious valve vacuity be vanquished? The tension is….well, entirely absent to be honest but it will be interesting to see what, if anything, happens.

Watch this space….


UPDATE 18 March 2013

Glad to be able to report that FixMyStreet has produced a positive result, and Dublin Corporation has replaced the missing cover. Sometimes the system works!

Fixed Valve Cover