Heretics, Spies, or Useful Idiots?: Confessional Mobility in Anglo-Spanish Relations, 1570-90.


Religious historians study 16C Western European religious refugees from Catholic countries who resettled in Protestant lands through the prism of their religious beliefs, and consider them as victims of early modern intolerance. Historians of political thought, on the other hand, focus on the political threat that many of those refugees’ religious ideologies, such as tyrannicide and direct illumination, posed to the established order. Historians of early modern intelligence tend to prefer spies’ practices to their deeper beliefs. My paper presents a case study of a group of Italian and Spanish spies who served both Elizabeth I of England and Philip II of Spain. By an integrated methodological approach I will be able to show that confessional mobility in Anglo-Spanish relations between 1570 and 1590 impacted greatly on the recruitment and modus operandi of both the English and the Spanish intelligence systems. I analyse first, the spaces where religious refugees-turned spies operated; secondly, their movements as resulted from their political services; and, thirdly, the relevance of the particular time when their recruitment occurred, after the Jesuits forced Philip II to start considering England as an enemy. Thanks to manuscript evidence from the Jesuits Archive in Rome which has not been previously studied I show that Italian and English Jesuits forged an unnatural alliance with moderate English Puritans with the aim of weakening Spain against France. Catholic terror plots true and forged are part of the story. Were those people heretics, spies, or just useful idiots?


Vittoria Feola
Associate Professor, History, University of Padua, PD, Italy


Presentation Type

Paper Presentation in a Themed Session


2024 Special Focus—Spaces, Movement, Time: Religions at Rest and in Movement


Religious Refugees, Sixteenth Century, Spain, England, Jesuits

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