Discover more from Spionage
Don Antonio Pérez, Elizabethan Agent-of-Influence
I confess that I fancy myself a connoisseur of historical eccentrics—those strange characters who flit and flicker within the annals and chronicles of the past. They’re invariably obscure, always fascinating, usually pretty dubious, and never anything but enigmatic.
If we mere mortals are but worms, then they at least are glowworms. The Secret World is their natural habitat: No other environment is so hospitable to their kind.
Who could not wish to read about the mad Baron Roman von Ungern-Sternberg, who tried to revive Genghis Khan’s Mongol Empire while holding off the Red Army, practising tantric Buddhism with Tibetan fighting monks, and indulging his love of creative homicide?
Or follow the career of the rackety adventurer Augustus Charles Hobart-Hampden, son of an English earl, who after retiring from the Royal Navy turned his hand to gun-running during the (American) Civil War and ended up as Grand Admiral of the imperial Ottoman fleet? (The latter has a walk-on role in my forthcoming book, The Lion and the Fox.)
I recently stumbled across one Antonio Pérez while reading about the Venetian Secret Service, my favorite secret service. He was once described as “one of the most diabolically false, vain, fascinating scoundrels that ever disgraced and bewitched humanity.”
Sounds a splendid fellow! So who was he and what did he do?
The Rise . . .
He was born in 1540 the illegitimate son of Gonzalo Pérez, a scholarly priest who later rose to become, first, Charles V’s, and then Philip II’s Secretary of State, a position requiring immense discretion as the king of Spain at the time was effectively sovereign of half the known universe.
After raised as the ward of Philip’s friend and favorite, Ruy Gomez de Silva, Prince of Éboli, young Antonio was educated at variety of universities, where he was trained in Latin and theology, but he was always a man of the world.
He traveled widely and loved Venice especially. La Serenissima and Spain had traditionally had a prickly relationship. They were generally allies, but only for the sake of convenience. Their mutual enemy was the Ottomans, and France was always a lurking threat. Venice wanted Spanish support against Ottoman power in the Mediterranean; Spain wanted Venetian support against French power in Italy. More often than not, Venice would negotiate with the Turks and the Great Protestant Satan—England—behind Madrid’s back even as Spain intrigued with the Papal States and Paris to stiletto the Venetians.
Neither particularly “liked” the other, for obvious reasons. The Spanish regarded Venetians as devious, impious, secretive, and coarsely interested in money (all true, by the way), while the latter saw Spain as grasping, troublemaking, religiously overzealous, and hypocritical (I mean, given the amount of gold forcibly extracted from the American mines, their accusing Venice of tackiness was a bit rich). All in all, it was a relationship that had its ups and downs, as they say.
After returning home, Pérez was appointed to a bureaucratic role in the Council of State thanks to his brilliance, his wit, his splendor, but most of all the influence of Ruy Gomez. In 1567, when his patron died, Pérez easily slipped into his shoes (and his widow’s bed) as Chief Secretary to the greatest monarch on earth. He was only 26.
By all accounts, Pérez “enjoyed” his good fortune immensely. By having the ear of the king, he was so untouchable he used to call the Grand Inquisitor offhandedly by his surname, as if this crimsoned prince of the Church and Primate of Spain was a servant. He did the same to sundry dukes while vulgarly parading around his new aristocratic arms of a minotaur and labyrinth.
He also became notorious for his welcoming of “gifts” from placeholders, favor-seekers, lickspittles, and plenipotentiaries eager to purchase a good word with the king. Money, fabrics, furniture, filigreed armor, Bengal and Moorish chests, busts of Roman emperors, books, Milanese jewels, tapestries, fashionable marble sculptures—all flowed remorselessly into his coffers—but it was his paintings that were beyond compare.
Pérez had once dreamt of becoming a painter, but now that he was rich he could afford to buy any painting he wanted. Licentious mythological episodes, royal portraits, Biblical allegories, battle scenes—his collection was fabulous. So fabulous, in fact, that he built a vast Italian-style villa, La Casilla, to show off his treasure.
At the time, Philip II was going through a Titian phase, and had commissioned no fewer than seven pictures from the artist himself to decorate his court at Madrid. Pandering to his master’s tastes, Pérez too delighted in them, and the only people who had Titians in any quantity (and quality) were the Venetians.
The master had his workshop there and during his earlier sojourn Pérez had visited him on several occasions. He and Titian used to discuss painting technique and then wander around the back room—where the latter kept a stock of canvases, some finished, some not, and others still being worked on by his assistants.
That had been nearly twenty years earlier, though. By the early 1570s, Titian was in his 80s and had slowed down considerably. In short, Pérez shrewdly predicted that soon there would be, to put it politely, a shortage of fresh Titians. The Venetians could see that terrible day approaching, too, and had clamped down on Titian exports—the 16th-century equivalent of Beijing’s controlling the trade in panda bears to Western zoos to gain diplomatic leverage.
So Pérez made a deal with the Venetian Secret Service, more formally known as the Council of Ten (CDX) because there were thirteen members (don’t ask, it’s a Venetian thing). He would serve as an agent-of-influence in the Spanish court, placing a thumb on the scale if needed, whispering soothing words to Philip II whenever he became agitated at the latest instance of Venetian perfidy. He was not a spy, but would nevertheless provide a steady stream of information and gossip from Philip’s newly built Escorial to the Venetian ambassador in Madrid, Leonardo Donà, who would pass it to the Secret Service back home.
His services, of course, were not cheap, but his demands could nevertheless be met. He wanted no money, Donà reported, only two “good, old” Titians, preferably religious in nature, which could be selected from the painter’s stock. Donà urged the CDX to agree to the proposal as having Pérez on side would be worth considerably more than a couple of Titians. More pointedly, Venice had heard from several sources that the Turks were planning to invade one of its most glittering colonies, Cyprus, and they needed to guarantee Spanish backing for a war. CDX sensibly agreed and two paintings were sent to La Casilla.
Most annoyingly, the identity of the two paintings remains a mystery. One of them, now in the Prado, might have been The Fall of Man; other candidates include Adam and Eve and Entombment.
. . . and Fall
We’d know more about them had Pérez’s fall not been so soon afterwards. As you might expect from his arrogant behavior, Pérez had been playing a dangerous form of high-wire: Philip II had learned from the master, Charles V, that to restrain the ambitions of the nobility you need to appoint poor and pliant creatures of your making to high office. As one of those creatures raised from the dust, Pérez ought to have known that the king could break, as well as make, men.
Pérez had expected the good times to go on forever, but of course they didn’t. As with so many like him—blazing comets who streak across the heavenly firmament—he traveled too fast and soared too high. The proximate cause of his downfall was Juan de Escobedo, another of Ruy Gomez’s protégés, who served the splendid prince Don John of Austria, Philip II’s half-brother and hero of the glorious battle of Lepanto against the Turks.
Pérez was madly jealous of Escobedo, who was helping to plot to install Don John as Mary of Scotland’s husband, their secret plan being to overthrow the Protestant heretic Elizabeth I and return England to the bosom of the Church.
John was currently governor of the Spanish Netherlands, then experiencing a serious revolt at the same time as Spanish troops were mutinying because they hadn’t been paid. It was a dangerous situation, and so no time for gallivanting across the Channel, but Pérez seized his opportunity to make mischief. He asked Escobedo and John to send him details of what their plan involved and he would ensure it received a thumbs-up from Philip.
Pérez, of course, brought the resulting incriminating letters straight to Philip, who could see the threat as clear as day: As king of England there was a good chance John might claim the throne of Spain. That, at least, was how Pérez poured poison into Philip’s ear.
The king nixed the scheme, and John and Escobedo subsequently did themselves no favors by complaining indignantly to Pérez of Philip’s short-sightedness, paranoia, and envy. In a last-ditch attempt, John sent Escobedo to Madrid to plead his case in person.
Pérez had already prepared the ground by advising Philip that Escobedo was the problem: He was the baleful, diabolical influence on the hitherto harmless Don John. Suitably enraged, Philip scrawled an irritated letter to Pérez saying that once Escobedo arrived “we must get rid of him quickly, or he will worry us to death.”
“Get rid of him” has several meanings. One’s reminded of Henry II’s ambiguous plea for someone to “rid me of this turbulent priest” back in 1170—taken literally by four knights who thereupon murdered Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.It’s not clear what Philip himself intended by it; he might have simply wanted Pérez to listen to Escobedo’s message from John and “get rid” of him by sending him back to the Netherlands with a flea in his ear.
Pérez chose to interpret it Thomas Becket style. On the night of March 31, 1578, Escobedo was set upon by three assassins whom Pérez had imported from Aragon and was stabbed to death in a Madrid street. On the principle that three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead, two of the hitmen were later found poisoned, by unseen hand.
Pérez’s brilliant operation soon turned bad. It emerged that the courtier had had an ulterior motive for wanting to “get rid” of Escobedo. Pérez, as mentioned earlier, was having an affair with Ana de Mendoza, the one-eyed, 40-year-old, ten-childrened widow of his mentor Ruy Gomez, and she happened to be an intimate of Philip’s queen, Elisabeth de Valois. By such means, Pérez was receiving some rather intrusively personal gossip about Philip’s inclinations courtesy of his Mendoza pipeline.
Escobedo knew too much about this embarrassing situation, and Pérez needed to shut him up before he blabbed everything to Philip to avenge Pérez’s scotching of the England plan. Too late—the word had gotten out (Pérez had a lot of enemies only too pleased to circulate the rumor) and Philip was livid at the scandal. Murdering Escobedo did not project strength and vigor; it made him look weak and fearful of some jumped-up clerk.
Worse yet, the murder was a mistake. Philip had originally expressed his desire for Pérez to get rid of Escobedo in the fall of 1577, but the killing did not happen for another year (there were two failed poisoning attempts that held things up). By that time, Philip had lost interest in the affair and had forgiven Don John—who, in any case, died that year.
Pérez’s arrogance in carrying out a task he knew was no longer relevant and then waving his “I’ve got permission” letter from the king was what really set Philip off. No one likes to be hoodwinked and duped, kings especially so.
When the hammer came down it came down ruthlessly. In January 1585, Pérez was evicted from La Casilla and his beloved art collection was confiscated. There followed years of investigations, inquisitions, and interrogations, culminating in a torture-extracted confession that convinced Pérez that if he was to survive he must escape.
On the Run
In 1590 he borrowed one of his wife’s dresses and scarpered for Aragon, where he evaded various attempts to kidnap him. Describing himself as “a monster of misfortune, capable of exciting the astonishment and deserving of the sympathy of all mankind,” the indefatigible Pérez eventually pitched up in England, intent on selling Philip’s secrets to the hereditary enemy.
He immediately fell in with the raffish, sexually swinging crowd around the Earl of Essex and made his mark in London. He quickly gained a reputation as a catty gossip, a world-class moocher, an obsequious spendthrift, a Spanish Casanova of unbridled appetites, and a spy familiar with ciphers and dark intrigue happy to work for the French if they paid him more, or at all. (At one point, he was negotiating with the king of France for a cardinal’s hat, a bishopric, and a private cohort of Swiss Guards, which shows some impressive moxie.)
Elizabeth I tended to humor him, seeing him as a cat’s-paw to irritate Philip II, but his death in 1598 and hers in 1603 put paid to Pérez’s utility. He was reduced to traveling back and forth between English hovels and French garrets to beg alms from his former friends and lovers, to little avail, and the former amasser of one of the world’s great art collections died penniless and sick in 1611.
This vain, urbane, unscrupulous adventurer would today be completely forgotten but for the fact that he makes for a fantastic character. William Shakespeare, always on the lookout for inspiration, found him a fascinating study. The pompous, deceitful “child of fancy” Don Adriano de Armado of Love’s Labor’s Lost appears to have been a joke the playwright had at the old voluptuary’s expense. More recently, in 2008, we’ve had a somewhat torrid flick—La Conjura de El Escorial—featuring a Spanish-dubbed Jason Isaacs and an eye-patched Julia Ormond.
And so ends our dossier on Antonio Pérez, a man who vanished from history with his passing but who has since gained a sort of immortality nonetheless. He’d probably be quite pleased if he knew we were still talking about him.
Further Reading: A. Delaforce, “The Collection of Antonio Pérez, Secretary of State to Philip II,” The Burlington Magazine, 124 (1982), No. 957, pp. 742-753; J. Hamill, “A Spaniard in the Elizabethan Court: Don Antonio Pérez,” Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, 45 (2009), 1; M.A.S. Hume, “Antonio Pérez in Exile,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 8 (1894), pp. 71-107; M.J. Levin, “Diego Guzmán de Silva and Sixteenth-Century Venice: A Case Study in Structural Intelligence Failure,” in D. Szechi (ed.), The Dangerous Trade: Spies, Spymasters, and the Making of Europe (Dundee [U.K.]: Dundee University Press, 2010), pp. 22-44; E. Tietze-Conrat, “Titian’s Workshop in His Late Years,” Art Bulletin, 28 (1946), 2, pp. 76-88.
This famous line is a much later invention. A closer approximation to what the king said was quoted by Edward Grim, a monastic chronicler: “What miserable drones and traitors have I nourished and promoted in my household, who allow their lord to be treated with such shameful contempt by a base-born clerk?” You can see why that could set someone off.