The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I

by Stephen Alford

Hardcover, 2012




Allen Lane (2012), 416 pages


A gripping account of the unflagging battle by spies, code breakers, ambassadors and confidence-men who sought to protect Elizabeth I from the most powerful rulers of Europe who conspired to destroy her, their plans most fully realized by the Spanish Armada.

Media reviews

The Watchers offers detailed examinations of the conspiracies of the age, from the genuinely dangerous to the distantly ridiculous. They culminate in the period’s best-known intelligence coup, the entrapment and execution of Mary Queen of Scots after the so-called Babington Plot, and Alford’s account of this episode plays out as a piece of bleak cat-and-mouse reminiscent of le Carré at his most disenchanted.
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Stephen Alford's engrossing book reminds us that most governments will stop at very little if national security is at stake. When political conflicts are exacerbated by fanatically held religious differences, the outcome is even more deadly.
The Watchers begins with a reminder that then, as now, being paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you. (Or, as Walsingham elegantly put it, "There is less danger in fearing too much than too little.") In a bravura piece of counterfactual storytelling, Alford describes the moment in an imagined 1586 when one of the many plots to assassinate Elizabeth finally succeeded, leaving England to be overrun by the invading forces of Catholic Spain and the Elizabethan age to go down in history as a fleeting and futile attempt to resist Habsburg domination.

User reviews

LibraryThing member mrlzbth
I thought the history covered in this book was really fascinating, and it was nice to get a book set during Elizabeth's reign that talks about what was going on behind the scenes and abroad instead of focusing solely on her and her own choices and actions.

What keeps me from giving the book a higher rating is that the prose is very choppy and repetitive, and included so much jumping around from one point in time to another and back again that I found it very hard to get engrossed in the narrative. I would still recommend it to Tudor history fans, though!… (more)
LibraryThing member riverwillow
An interesting and engrossing book detailing the activities of the network of spies and informers, the ‘Watchers’ of the title, set up and run by Walsingham, Essex, Burleigh and Robert Cecil to protect Elizabethan society from the catholic threat. Alford cleverly illustrates the perceived magnitude of the threat when he describes an imagined assassination attempt on Elizabeth by catholic agents and the ensuing chaos when she dies from her wounds.

Alford concentrates on the ordinary men in the network, the ones recruited and paid ad hoc – many ended up in debt - the double and, in one case, triple agents, collecting information and sending it back, by letter, to their masters. He details how letters were intercepted, decrypted, and sent on their way – a device used most famously to break the Babington Plot and to force the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots – how torture was used for force confessions, and how catholic spies were become double agents.

Its easy to draw parallels between those Watchers and the recent revelations of the lengths today’s Elizabethan watchers will go to in order to protect society and there are lessons here - the manipulations and use of entrapment in the Babington Plot is a good example - are a timely reminder that we should also consider just how far we want the state to go to preserve our way of life.
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LibraryThing member gayla.bassham
It's a very interesting book, and I learned a lot about espionage in the Tudor era. The author does a great job sketching the lives and personalities of men like Thomas Phelippes and William Parry (a spy working for Elizabeth I and a conspirator against her, respectively). Where I think Alford misses the mark, though, is that he fails to really grapple with the big picture: how did the aura of danger and paranoia that surrounded Elizabeth's court affect English politics and society? In particular, Alford seems to take for granted the guilt of the conspirators executed in the last decade or so of Elizabeth's reign, even while acknowledging that there was little evidence against them and that the government moved against them more quickly than they had against other alleged revolutionaries in the past. Particularly in the last half of the book, I thought that Alford had become so interested in Phelippes's antics that he lost perspective. Still, it's a great book if you are interested in the details of the Babington Plot and other cabals against Elizabeth I.… (more)
LibraryThing member stephengoldenberg
Some fascinating stuff but rather too much of it. By the end all the spies start to blend together. I preferred S J Parris fictional version using some of the real people.
LibraryThing member PDCRead
Elizabeth I reigned for a total of 45 years in England, and the stability she gave as head of state gave us the Golden Age of wealth and greater self-assurance as a nation. The final Tudor monarch saw a cultural advances too, this being the time of Shakespeare and military confidence on the high seas. However, the Europeans saw her very differently; as daughter of Anne Boylen, Henry VIII's second wife, she was considered a bastard and Protestant heretic by catholic Europe. Following her denouncement by the Pope various European rulers prepared plans to dispose her, replacing her with Mary. The event that most people are aware of is the almost invasion by The Spanish Armada, but throughout her reign she was protected by a team of loyal subjects.

These men were a motley bunch of ambassadors, codebreakers, and confidence-men and spies who used all sort of covert and overt methods to counter the catholic threat. Infiltrators were sent to the continent to ingratiate themselves with the church, uncovering conspiracies both real and imagined, identified and followed gentlemen who were plotting the overthrow of their Queen. The network tracked priests entering the country under cover, intercepted and deciphered almost all correspondence between suspects in England and their contacts in France, Spain and Italy and neutered the threat that hung over the crown.

Drawing on documents from archive and collections, Alford shines a light into this dark and shadowy time of history. The narrative details tense searches across the countryside looking for specific people who were perceived to be a threat to the crown. Traitors who were convicted, sometimes only on hearsay and confessions uttered under torture on the rack, were condemned in horrific ways to die. It is an interesting account of those involved in keeping their monarch safe from all the assassination attempts and plots, but at times was fairly complicated as he details all the people involved in these plots. Worth reading though for those that like their Tudor history.
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LibraryThing member passion4reading
In this book Stephen Alford gives a detailed account of the men who chose (or were occasionally *persuaded*) to protect Elizabeth's life and government during the tumultuous years of her reign; far from being the Golden Age we often associate with it, the years between Elizabeth's accession in 1558 to her death in 1603 were anything but stable, characterised by disease, famine and religious upheaval, set against a backdrop of a divided Europe.

Most of this history was, out of necessity, kept secret, and the author has extracted the details from a variety of documentary and other sources. The result is not entirely successful: the chronology and the prose aren't as clear as they should be in a book like this, which made keeping track of the multitude of characters even more difficult, although it didn't help that I took nearly four weeks to finish the book (not because it didn't hold my interest, but because I had to do a lot of overtime this month). While the first part is filled with interesting facts, the pace doesn't really pick up until Mary Queen of Scots appears on the scene, and even then the account often reads like a spy's travelogue and who did/said what when – a cohesive narrative it is not, and there are several questions that are left open (what was the significance of Francis Throckmorton's velvet-covered casket that was smuggled out of the house and handed to the Spanish ambassador?).

Though it is clear from the outset that the author intends to shine a spotlight on the men in the shadows and those in government who handled them, it still came as something of a surprise that some of the wider implications were not sufficiently dealt with in my opinion; we hear of the passing of the Act for the Queen's Surety that in the end made it possible to arrest and execute Mary Queen of Scots, and how the government approved of the use of torture to extract information, but I felt there was little else that explored the prevailing mood among England's general population (did the paranoia experienced by Elizabeth's closest advisers extend all the way to the common man and woman on the street?). Where the author is successful, though, is in conveying how dangerously close Elizabeth came to a premature and violent death by describing the numerous plots to invade England and attempts on her life; it's quite miraculous (and no doubt due to the vigilance of the loyal advisers around her) that they never amounted to anything, and Elizabeth died of natural causes in her bed at the age of 69.

An interesting but flawed book that will surely benefit from a second reading.
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