'Incidentally, they know you know they know you know the code.' Peter Ustinov's Cold War satire Romanoff and Juliet (1956) could have been about Salisbury Court, the London home in the early 1580s of the French Ambassador to the Court of Elizabeth I, Michel de Castelnau, seigneur de Mauvissière, an establishment described by John Bossy as 'zany, convivial and leak-ridden'. Bossy asks us to take our places at the dinner table at Salisbury Court in November 1583, 'as in a late novel by Henry James': 'who had done what, who knew who had done what, and who knew who knew who had done what.' Suspicion hung over the scene like a November fog, already a problem in Elizabethan London. (Those making a film of this book will want to know that.) The conspirator Francis Throckmorton was on the rack in the Tower, and Elizabeth, to the alarm of her ministers, would have tortured de Castelnau too, if she had had the power to do so, or at least have sent him packing, which is what she did to Mendoza, the Spanish Ambassador. For what was at stake was her throne. This was part of the overture to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots (1587) and the Spanish Armada (1588).
LRB 5 July 2001 | PDF Download