Review of Espionage in the Divided Stuart Dynasty: 1685-1715 by

Book cover for Espionage in the Divided Stuart Dynasty: 1685-1715

I can’t do it. Why do I have such bad luck with non-fiction British history on NetGalley? First The Tragic Daughters of Charles I and now Espionage in the Divided Stuart Dynasty. Thanks to NetGalley and publisher Pen and Sword History for the eARC, but unfortunately, I did not finish this book.

Here’s what I was anticipating based on the description of the book: I was hoping that Julian Whitehead would explain, in detail, how government intelligence and espionage worked in Stuart England. For example, he could have opened the book by describing what methods were used during the Civil War by Cromwell, et al, and then talked about what (if anything) Charles II had changed after coming to power. From there, after a brief broader lesson on the state of continental politics and the tensions between Protestants and Catholics, I’d have expected Whitehead to structure this book such that each chapter focused on a different aspect of intelligence work: appointment and funding of the spymasters; recruitment and handling of agents; cryptography and secret communications; infiltration and exfiltration, etc. Or perhaps he would have organized the book loosely around specific key moments of espionage activities, each of which would then elucidate specific understandings about Stuart espionage.

That is not what you get with this book.

Despite the title, this is a general history of the reign of James II from 1685 to 1715. It focuses heavily on how England’s staunch Protestantism drove multiple attempts to depose Catholic James II. Indeed, if I learned anything from this book (and I did learn things!), it’s how incredibly powerful and vast the divide between Catholics and Protestants was in Europe in the late seventeenth, early eighteenth centuries. Religious differences fuelled so much of the conflict and underlay so many alliances in that time.

To be fair, Whitehead does mention intelligence here and there. He talks about who is in charge and agents that were being used to gather information, especially about rebels and rabble-rousers living on the Continent. Nevertheless, such information never threatens to take over and, you know, actually become the focus of the book.

Even if I were satisfied with this just being a more general history, I was not enjoying Whitehead’s writing style. It has the flatness of academic writing with none of the frequent citations. There is a small amount of editorializing and context, but for the most part, this book feels like reading a Wikipedia page about James II’s reign. That’s honestly the best way I can summarize Whitehead’s style: it is almost pure exposition with very little voice or heart to it.

So … I got bored. The book was not academic enough to excuse its dryness and also not specific enough to keep my interest. Your mileage may vary.

Engagement

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