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2021/22 Taught Postgraduate Module Catalogue

HIST5031M Secrecy and Espionage in Early Modern Europe

30 creditsClass Size: 10

Module manager: Professor Stephen Alford

Taught: Semester 1 (Sep to Jan) View Timetable

Year running 2021/22

This module is not approved as an Elective

Module summary

In an early modern (c. 1500-c. 1650) Europe beset for decades by the upheavals of war and religious conflict, the trade in secret intelligence flourished. Monarchs and states relied upon foreknowledge of enemy intentions. So how was this kind of intelligence sought and gathered in? Who did the work? What sort of information was it? Was it reliable? And how should historians approach and read evidence whose survival is at best fragmentary and often frankly misleading?This module considers a number of themes and topics. We will look at the structures and funding of secret intelligence; the profiles and careers of individual ‘espials’ and ‘intelligencers’; diplomacy and espionage; codes and ciphers; cartographic intelligence; the techniques of surveillance; and the portrayal of spies in Elizabethan plays and poems. A working assumption of the module – and one to be tested in it – is that intelligence work was a species of an often unstable politics and that it embodied the anxieties and preoccupations of a divided Europe, reflecting and refracting religious hatreds.Although the module’s landscape is broadly and inclusively European in scope, we will approach these themes and topics through two related case studies of the Elizabethan intelligence networks and structures of Sir Francis Walsingham and Sir Robert Cecil, illustrated with primary sources not easily available in print.All the material for the module, both primary and secondary, will be in English.


This module seeks:

to explore how espionage was conducted in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries;

to evaluate, through the use of primary sources, the surviving evidence for secret intelligence and surveillance;

to encourage students to think critically about the nature of intelligence in the light of political, religious and cultural contexts; and

to reflect upon the nature and extent of the ‘surveillance state’ in early modern Europe.

Learning outcomes
By the end of the module students will:

have a sound understanding of the conduct and nature of intelligence and espionage in early modern Europe;

be able to read critically and evaluatively the secondary historical literature on espionage and intelligence for this period;

have a sound knowledge of the surviving primary sources on intelligence work; and

understand the political, religious and cultural contexts of espionage and surveillance.


Provisional seminar titles:

1. Spying out the land: landscapes and contexts
2. Information and intelligence
3. Diplomats and embassies
4. Reformation: faith and ideology
5. ‘Espials’ and ‘intelligencers’
6. Codes and ciphers
7. Secret maps
8. Case study I: Sir Francis Walsingham
9. Case study II: Sir Robert Cecil
10. Spies in literature
11. The information state?

Teaching methods

Due to COVID-19, teaching and assessment activities are being kept under review - see module enrolment pages for information

Delivery typeNumberLength hoursStudent hours
Private study hours278.00
Total Contact hours22.00
Total hours (100hr per 10 credits)300.00

Private study

Students will read extensively each week to prepare for class discussion. Students will have to prepare two essays and an oral presentation.

Opportunities for Formative Feedback

Tutorials, on-on-one meetings on request, use of office hours, feedback forms

Methods of assessment

Due to COVID-19, teaching and assessment activities are being kept under review - see module enrolment pages for information

Assessment typeNotes% of formal assessment
Essay2,000 word historiographical essay30.00
Essay4,000 word research essay60.00
Presentation10 minute verbal presentation10.00
Total percentage (Assessment Coursework)100.00

4,000 word research essay due in exam week 2. Verbal presentations to take place across weeks 3-11

Reading list

The reading list is available from the Library website

Last updated: 30/06/2021 15:57:33


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