The Debatable Land

Title:                      The Debatable Land

Author:                   Michael Burn

LCCN:    77512207

UB270 .B87 1970

Burn, Michael (1970). The Debatable Land: A Study of The Motives of Spies In Two-Ages London: Hamish Hamilton


Date Updated:  August 2, 2016

Concerns Elizabethan England and Cold War Britain.

Reviewed by Joseph R. Strayer. Jack E. Thomas and Walter Pforzheimer[1].

Professional intelligence officers will find this book fascinating reading. Mr. Burn discusses three intelligence operations in Elizabethan England: the maneuvers by which Scotland was removed from the French sphere of influence; the attempt to diminish Puritan agitation (and especially to suppress the Martin Marprelate tracts[2]); and the effort to discover and arrest Catholic priests infiltrated from overseas. The book ends with a. comparison of the motives of spies in the 16th and the 20th centuries, with rather too much attention being given to Philby as a type of the agent who betrays his own country.

By the sixteenth century, European government had worked out most of the basic tricks of the intelligence business. They knew how to plant agents under deep cover, and how to use businessmen and financiers as auxiliaries. They exploited exiles with grievances against their countries. They intercepted communications, broke ciphers, and leaked false information to their opponents. They were quick to take advantage of all human weaknesses, from drunkenness to fear of arrest and torture. They also suffered from some of the common problems of the profession, worst of which was lack of money. They had their troubles with double agents, lazy and incompetent agents, and rival agents. Mr. Burn makes the interesting suggestion that Queen Elizabeth may have had a small intelligence staff of her own to check up on information supplied by her ministers.

On the other hand, while intelligence planning was good, intelligence techniques were primitive. Ciphers could be broken in a. matter of hours; little effort was exerted to provide secure communications; agents were recruited largely through casual recommendations by men who knew someone who knew someone. Everyone must have known that letters were regularly intercepted, and yet important secrets were written down and entrusted to incompetent and untested couriers who spent hours drinking in taverns while their bags were rifled. What is really surprising is that some operations nevertheless were successfully concealed, for example, the spiriting of the Earl of Arran (a claimant to the Scottish throne} from France to England

All in all, this is a collection of good stories. But, as in most such collections, a great deal is left out. As the author knows (and says on occasion), espionage is only a small part of intelligence . As he might have added, intelligence is only a small part of the vast store of information required by ministers or state. The “New Monarchies” of the sixteenth century were not new in their basic structure; on the whole the same old departments did the same kind of work they had always done. What. was new was a passionate desire for exact and timely information, and the appearance of ministers who knew how to acquire information . Because the Tudor government was so much better informed than its predecessors, it was able to keep control of England without a standing army and without a police force—no small feat if we remember that the English had killed five of the nine kings who ruled between 1307 and 1485. The instructions compiled for the Secretaries of State all emphasize the importance of information—collection of newfangled devices such as maps and atlases, lists of treaties, names of gentlemen who had influence in their home counties, descriptions of foreign countries, values of various coins, export and import commodities. All these things were grist for the Intelligence mill, but only in the broadest sense could they be called lntelligence.

To take the specific cases studied by Mr. Burn, the French lost their hold on Scotland primarily because they could not get a fleet and army to Leith in time to prevent a link-up between a small English army and the Calvinist Scots nobles. It was doubtless a comfort to Elizabeth and to Cecil to learn from intercepted dispatches that the French could not sail soon enough to spoil English plans, but the English were deeply committed to intervening in Scotland before they had this assurance, and the English learned as much about French, plans by open observation of French shipping as they did by purloining letters and breaking ciphers.

Bancroft’s attacks on the Puritans owed even less to Intelligence. The Puritans made no secret of their convictions; there was no problem in collecting evidence that would justify expelling a Puritan clergyman from his living or even jailing him. The real problem was political; the Puritan minister might have influential friends. The Martin Marpeclate tracts were something of an exception in being clandestinely printed and circulated. Hard work and good luck enabled Bancroft to apprehend the printer and distributor, but neither he nor anyone else ever found out who Martin Marprelate was. And this and other partial successes were not decisive; Puritanism had too much appeal to a large part of the English population to be greatly weakened by the acts of spies and informers.

Reviewed by Paul W. Blackstock and Frank L. Schaf[3]

A scholarly, brilliantly written survey of espionage during the Elizabethan age in England, followed by an analysis and comparison of the motives of spies then and in the post-World War II period. The only other analysis of such motives is in Christopher Felix, A Short Course In The Secret War[4] (see below). Burn’s work is an outstanding example of careful scholarship combined with a depth of analysis which is extremely rare in the literature on espionage.

[1] Joseph R. Strayer. Jack E. Thomas and Walter Pforzheimer “Intelligence in Recent Literature.” Studies in Intelligence (14, Fall. 1970. Pp. 133-134)

[2] The Marprelate Controversy was a war of pamphlets waged in England and Wales in 1588 and 1589, between a puritan writer who employed the pseudonym Martin Marprelate, and defenders of the Established Church. Martin’s tracts are characterized by violent and personal invective against the Anglican dignitaries, by the assumption that the writer had numerous and powerful adherents and was able to enforce his demands for reform, and by a plain and homely style combined with pungent wit. While he maintained the puritan doctrines as a whole, the special point of his attack was the Episcopacy. The pamphlets were printed at a secret press established by John Penry, a Welsh puritan, with the help of the printer Robert Waldegrave, about midsummer 1588, for the issue of puritan literature forbidden by the authorities.

[3] Blackstock, Paul W. (1978) and Frank L. Schaf, Jr. Intelligence, Espionage, Counterespionage, And Covert Operations: A Guide to Information Sources. Detroit: Gale Research Co., p. 139

[4] Felix, Christopher (1992). A Short Course in The Secret War, 3rd ed. Lanham, MD: Madison Books


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2 Responses to The Debatable Land

  1. Pingback: The Literature of Intelligence | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

  2. Pingback: Espionage and Counterespionage, Chapter 14 | Intelligence Analysis and Reporting

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