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Book Review: The Watchers, by Stephen Alford

Sent The Watchers, A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth Ist,  by the publishers, I really looked forward to reading what’s ostensibly a behind the scenes account of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign but from the point of view of the “watchers”: that is, reporters, listeners, spies – the men whose speciality was espionage. Elizabethan times, it turns out, are notorious for their extensive use of spies and networks, all of which were established to protect England and ensure the queen’s successful reign. As Alford writes in the introduction, while Elizabeth and her council worked hard to maintain “clever and persuasive projections of political stability, empire, self-confidence and national myth” there was, in fact, “a darker story… set against a Europe divided and oppressed by religious conflict, cThe Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth Iivil war and the ambitions of kings and princes.”

Taking the crown after her half-sister “Bloody Mary” tried to purge the Protestant stain, and trying to stabilise an England divided by religious schism and rapidly changing succession, Elizabeth’s job was not easy. Declaring England as Protestant, but claiming that Catholicism would be tolerated, Elizabeth nonetheless was acutely aware of how precarious her position as ruler and religious head of a reeling nation was. Plots to declare her rule invalid, assassination attempts, never mind trying to overthrow Elizabeth and place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne abounded. Then there was the job of trying to find Elizabeth a suitable husband, all of which meant that though the kingdom flourished in terms of exploration, the humanities and arts, there was also a seething underbelly that threatened to erupt and destroy everything at any time. The greatest threat was that of the Catholics who, discontent with Elizabeth’s heretical leadership and perceiving it as ungodly, sought to rid themselves of Henry VIII’s daughter and restore the “true religion”. Working from within their homeland, their overseas networks were extensive, travelling across Europe and involving some of the most powerful people abroad as well.

The stage is thus set for espionage, betrayal, treason, propaganda, secrets, torture, faith, martyrdom and lies all of which Sir Francis Walsingham and his successors sought to control.

Carefully researched and very well-written, this book is an eye-opener that also makes the mind boggle. The lengths to which various individuals would go to inveigle themselves into (Catholic) families or communities in order to uncover plots and treasons were phenomenal. Conspirators were discovered frequently, many from noble families. The Throckmorton plot was one of the most famous and this is covered in detail throughout the book. Fascinating in its complexity and the degree of commitment and sacrifice believers were ready to make, uncovering it was to prove an even greater triumph.

The book goes onto explore the stories, derring-do, successes and failures of many spies and traitors, how far they were willing to go (disguise, denying their identities for long periods, sacrificing family and a “normal” life for little reward) and from these we also learn how disposed Walsingham and his men were to use torture to uncover secrets and plots and how brutal their interrogation methods were. Some of the spies, or intelligencers, were gentleman and even poets, others were criminals, but many were chameleons, able to shift, camouflage themselves and change with subtlety. There was William Parry, Thomas Phelippes, Gilbery Gifford, Chrales Sledd, Sir Robert Cecil, Burghley, simply to name a few (forgive my memory) – names both known and unknown to history buffs. Perhaps, for those names less familiar, it’s testimony to how well they performed their roles – they disappeared not simply into the woodwork, but became lost in the pages of history and time until Alford recovers them. Uncovering the plots and deeds of desperate men, these watchers brought many to trial and death and, in doing so, ensured Elizabeth’s long reign.

Utilising surviving records, Alford has done an amazing job and recreated in detail a tumultuous but fascinating period. Almost akin to a Renaissance version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I found this book fascinating, challenging (to keep track of the different names and roles), but also a wonderful insight into what occurs behind the doors, under the tables and in the shadows and whispers of a colourful and deceptively confidant queen’s reign. Like an ice-berg, it was the seven-eights we didn’t see that ensured the topmost part remained afloat. Alford has given us access to that which we don’t normally witness and exposed the intricacy and deadly seriousness of spying in Elizabethan times.

A great read for history buffs, writers, anyone who loves tales of espionage and appreciates solid research delivered in an entertaining and engaging manner.



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