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.
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!
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.
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.
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.