For many readers it will doubtless be Guy’s vivid account of Elizabeth’s cruel methods against Catholics or suspected traitors and the climate of terror amid economic crisis and political and social discontent that is most striking and unfamiliar. Guy convincingly argues that Elizabeth sanctioned, and even encouraged, the activities of the notorious Catholic-hunter and rackmaster Richard Topcliffe, who tortured suspects in a “strong room” in his house in Westminster. Indeed, “strong archival evidence exists that she knew him personally, thoroughly approved of his activities and received reports directly from him rather than through intermediaries”. The smoking gun which proves her acquiescence in some of Topcliffe’s worst atrocities lies buried in Burghley’s papers. When the Jesuit priest Robert Southwell was arrested in 1592, Topcliffe wrote to tell Elizabeth how the prisoner was shackled to the wall in his “strong chamber” and had responded to interrogation “foully and suspiciously”. Topcliffe sought the Queen’s permission to “enforce” the prisoner “to answer truly and directly”, by stretching him out against the wall using “hand gyves” (iron gauntlets). Although the Queen’s reply to Topcliffe’s letter was not written down, the fact that he proceeded with the torture methods he had described and with no further warrant as the law required, is in Guy’s view “chilling proof that she gave her consent in the full knowledge of what he was about to do.
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