This is an interesting book, dealing with the period from a novel perspective. Despite some repeats of favourite phrases, it is well written. But one must say that the treatment is quite subtle, one might even say crafty, in its pro-Elizabethan/Protestant bias. This only becomes apparent after reading several chapters and is mainly achieved through the kind of relative phrasing and choice descriptions used of one side compared to the other. It is difficult to provide an adequate representation of a this kind of characteristic belonging to a book of some 325 pages but the few example which follow might provide an indication.
In 1572 there was an outbreak of violence in Paris in which many Protestants were killed. In describing this, Alford says that "Elizabethans ...were horrified by the massacre..." Following the death of Admiral Coligny in the events, Alford tells us that "Henry, Duke of Guise led the killing party" and was ..."a first cousin of Mary Queen of Scots, and the eldest of the three Guise brothers"... who "were uncompromising Catholics". (pp50/1). Note the choice of adjective phrases here (fairly indicative of the rest of the book) and that there is nothing of a similar nature when we get to the descriptions of all, or at least, various examples of all the Catholics who were put to death by Elizabeth's government in England. This was accomplished by first dragging them through the streets, then hanging them, but bringing them down before death and, while still alive, cutting them open and extracting their innards, kidney, liver, etc. before dismembering them -- in front of crowds of onlookers.
Although Alford does not mention it, on some occasions these events were so gruesome that the watchers demanded that the individual be put to death early. However, we are told (p 235) that "Good Queen Bess" demanded that, in relation to some who had conspired against her, "Elizabeth took a special interest in how they were to be executed"... and told Lord Burghley (the Queen's Lord Treasurer) that ..."the form of the conspirators' executions' should be `for more terror' and should be referred to herself and her Council. Burghley replied that the usual way of proceeding, by `protracting' the pain of the traitors in the sight of the London crowd, `would be as terrible as any other device could be'". Nonetheless, Elizabeth "wanted the judge"... "to understand her royal pleasure. She wanted vengence, for the traitors bodies to be torn into pieces." Obviously, for Alford, what happened in France which the English could not see, was far more horrific than what happened in London when they could see.
While Alford occasionally allows some space for Catholic views of Elizabeth and her church (which, given the ways her prisoners were treated, did not tend to be ingratiating) there are very frequent, even repeated, descriptions of Protestant views of Catholics, popes and priests. Thus on p 98 "For Elizabeth's government priests like John Hart were agents of a foreign power whose objective was to remove a lawful monarch from her throne. They were traitors, and their torture was a necessary act of state". Well, of course, where Elizabeth's state was concerned, but elsewhere...? The book abounds in loaded phrases like " removal of a lawful monarch"; "traitors"; "their torture was a necessity". Descriptions by Catholics on the other hand always carry inserted caveats like "in their view" or "they considered", etc. whereas descriptions by Elizabeth's officials are genertally unqualified.
So for example, we have p 99 referring to the brilliant written statement by the priest Edmund Campion in his "personal intent" (referred to by Elizabeth's officials, in a derogative manner, as "Campion's brag") Alford includes quotations from "William Charke, a combatative Protestant controversialist" who wrote of Campion's "insolent vaunts against the truth, joined with words pretending great humility". No qualifications here (although Campion, a man of outstanding spirituality, was later beatified and made a saint). After frantic efforts by Protestant officials because of "the power of Edmund Campion's pen" and the "dangerous" nature of the "brag" in persuading English readers, Campion was captured and subjected to a mixture of public debate and examination mixed with periods on the rack -- a devise designed to tear arms and legs from their sockets and which Walsingham used with great expertise. In Alford view, "Both in very different ways, sought to expose truth and encourage the admission of error" (p 110). Really? This is an almost incredible statement to be made by a modern historian. Most men stretched on the rack would soon confess to anything -- and would soon be "encouraged" to say anything! Campion described the rack as a technique "more terrible than hanging" -- and that must be a gross understatement.
There are also inconsistencies in "The Watchers". For example, England is often (albeit frequently by innuendo and suggestion) represented as a heavily Protestant country, yet we then find (e.g. p 121) after Campion was hung, drawn and quartered, Barnard (a government spy) writing that he "believed any danger came from a Catholic uprising in England".
There are various other shortcoming. For example, feelings or emotions, which could not actually be known, are simply imputed to people as a writer might do in a novel rather than a serious historical work. So on p 106 Munday (a government spy and a writer) "relished every encounter with the Catholic enemy." So perhaps one can begin to appreciate the overall impressionistic, if not subconscious bias the unsuspecting reader might finish up with.
Thus Alford on several ocassions assumes the help of God in assuring victory for Elizabeth and her government e.g. p 255 "It was a positively miraculous deliverance" from the Spanish Armada. He clearly agrees with Elizabeth when she "ascribed victory, not to the weather, but to the agency of providence". Again, on p 262 Walsingham "apprehended a war between God's people and the forces of the Devil". This is not a quotation from Walsingham but from Alford. Nonetheless Alford knows that "Walsingham would have used any instrument or method to defend God, queen and country", and what differences could there be between the three?
In many ways this is quite an interesting book although it perhaps belongs to the outdated period of A G Dickens than coming after the profound work of revisionists like Scarisbrick and Duffy. It is well referenced and it is a pity that it is characterised by such gross bias.The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I