Elizabeth I looked unlikely to ever inherit the throne. However, when Edward VI died so young, after the brief reign of Lady Jane Grey and following Mary I dying childless, Elizabeth finally became queen. She found a country torn between the Catholic and Protestant faiths, rebellions and misery. Worse, she had no successor and, refusing to marry, none were forthcoming. Luckily for Elizabeth, she had a good and loyal government, who used espionage, interrogation, surveillance, suppression of dissent, treason laws and propaganda to protect the queen from attack and the country from invasion.
Two key men who protected Elizabeth were Sir William Cecil and Sir Francis Walsingham and this book tells the story of how their loyalty protected her against a Catholic Europe that were united against her. They saw Elizabeth as the heretic daughter of the loathed Anne Boleyn and Mary Queen of Scots as the Catholic queen-in-waiting. Within months of Elizabeth being crowned, Mary and her then husband, the French dauphin, had dinnerware stamped with the royal arms of England. Elizabeth was understandably outraged and the insult never forgiven.
There is much in this riveting book about the threat posed by Mary Stuart - Queen of Scots - and this book recounts in detail all the major conspiracies linked to her, including the Babington plot. Mary was a figurehead of Catholic rebellion and she represented the most complicated political and dynastic problem of Elizabeth's reign. There are also threats of invasion, including the Spanish Armada. Lastly, there is much about Catholic priests being trained in Rome, described as, "the heart of the enemy's camp" and being sent on missions to work secretly in England. Spies existed in a network across Europe to intercept letters and gather intelligence, often working as servants, unsuspected in the heart of exiled Catholic households.
Lastly, this book asks how dangerous many of the perceived threats against Elizabeth were. Was there a likelihood that threats were discovered in order to gain advantage with the queen? After all, fear was something that could be used to secure Elizabeth's favour and there was infighting, especially between the Cecil's and the Earl of Essex after Walsingham's death. This is an excellent account of the Elizabethan era and the men who worked tirelessly to protect Elizabeth from harm. It is an exciting tale of ciphers, spying, danger, torture and endless plots and conspiracy. In the end, you have to conclude that whatever else may have happened, these men won by virtue that Elizabeth died in her bed at the age of sixty nine and that, some might say despite her best efforts to the contrary, these men arranged the accession to the throne after her death without religious turmoil or civil war (as you will see in the section about Mary Queen of Scots, these men were not afraid of risking Elizabeth's ire to do what they felt was right for the country). This is a fascinating account of Elizabethan espionage, undertaken by the government during Elizabeth's reign to keep the country safe from invasion and Catholic plots and the queen safe from assassination. Highly recommended.
In one of those histories that reads like a novel but is based on thorough research, "The Watchers" leaves us in no doubt that behind the swashbuckling exploits of Drake and Raleigh, the routing of the Armada and Shakespeare's vivid dramas, Elizabethan England was a violent and precarious world in which to live, operated like the forerunner of a police state. This was a response to very real threats: Elizabeth was regarded as an illegitimate, heretic queen not merely by the Pope but also the powerful Catholic rulers of Spain and France; the brutal 1572 St Bartholomew's Day massacre of French Huguenots was an ominous sign of what English Protestants could expect if Elizabeth was deposed in a foreign invasion. Many of the leading aristocratic families in England were Catholics prepared to support plots against Elizabeth. Her Catholic cousin Mary Queen of Scots was an ever-present threat ready to take her place.
As chanted from a book of common prayer, "Save us from the lions' mouth, and from the horns of the unicorns: lest they devour us and tear us in pieces."
With reference to surprisingly detailed records of intercepted letters, drafts thereof, and the various ciphers or codes used, Stephen Alford describes how most of the hundreds of Catholic priests who infiltrated England were mainly intercepted to be martyred, imprisoned or deported. He traces the careers of men like Thomas Phellipes, cryptographer, linguist and right-hand man of Sir Francis Walsingham who in turn worked for the Queen's leading minister, Lord Burleigh who wrote, "there is less danger in fearing too much than too little". Phellipes worked with a succession of agents, some "double", and helped to unmask a succession of intrigues, of which perhaps the most infamous was the "Babington Plot" which led to the controversial beheading of Mary Queen of Scots. With a fascinating regard to the rule of law, Walsingham was prepared to falsify evidence against Mary, but there was an insistence on a trial with reasonably convincing evidence, even though Elizabeth would have preferred a neat unofficial murder which would have left her clear of authorising the killing of another "crowned head".
The text is often repetitious, which pads it out unduly, but also helps to reinforce the main points, although some of the plot explanations are a bit long-winded. The list of "Principal Characters" and "Chronology" are useful for the general reader, with detailed notes for the academic.
on 1 January 2013
This story is very interesting. I had not been aware of the extent of the espionage master-minded by Walsingham and Burghley. To that extent, it is well told.
However, the author seems to be unaware that those who are interested enough to read his book will be intelligent enough to follow a character from one chapter to another. Too often he introduces someone, describes his role and importance - then a couple of chapters further on, re-introduces the same person as though we had never heard of him!
He also does what is - I fear - a common thing in the days of "cut and paste". He makes a point in one place and then exactly the same point in IDENTICAL terms further on. Maddening.
There were times when I found the narrative "ponderous", as another reviewer said - but the basic bones of the story still gripped me.
Occasionally, I felt that the book consisted of a series of separate essays which the author had done for his MA - and then stitched together to make a book.
on 19 September 2012
In the Protestant English translation of the Geneva Bible Numbers 13:1-2 was rendered: 'And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Send thou men out to search the land of Canaan which I give unto the children of Israel'. Two words: 'The Spies' was printed in large letters at the top of the page. Clearly, then, spying, or in Elizabethan english spiery, could be justified to keep alive the Protestant Queen - Elizabeth. If she died, Alford imagines a likely scenario, then the land would be subject to both invasion - either from Catholic France or Catholic Spain - and civil war.
After 1567 the ante was upped by Mary Queen of Scots fleeing to England seeking sanctuary. (William Cecil remarked that Queen Elizabeth was a patient being operated on by the King of Spain and the Pope, using Mary as their scalpel). Also, it became easier for an assasin to carry out his work because of the development of the pistol, or dag as it was known. (The catholic Earl of Northumberland incarcerated in the Tower for treason took his own life by a pistol shot to the heart).
The Protestant spies came from all walks of life and spied for many different reasons. The reason they had such success was the management of them by Sir Francis Walsingham. Walsingham had the ability to make windows into men's souls and see their human frailities and exploit them for the Queen's well-being. Walsingham's implacable hatred of Catholicism was formed during his embassy to Paris - he witnessed first-hand the St Bartholomew Day Massacre and subsequent atrocities. His letter to fellow englishman Charles Paget whom he suspected, correctly, of trying to use him as a 'stalking horse', reads in part: 'You love the Pope and I hate not his person but his calling. Until this impediment be removed we two shall neither agree in religion towards God nor in true and sincere devotion towards our prince and sovereign'.
All that followed was aimed at one goal: The destruction of Mary Queen of Scots and this book is the story of the men who made that possible - the spies.
Many of the names are unfamiliar, as are their stories, but this book grips from beginning to end. I would say that in order to get the best out of it, you need to be an intermediate to advanced reader of Tudor history. And I would recommend that you follow up by reading John Guy's book 'My Heart is My Own' looking from Mary's perspective at the struggle between representatives of the state and an anointed queen. (Taking my own advice I'm re-reading my copy which, like Alford's, contains a lot of new-found material (2003) and is a compelling read).
Subsequently, I have also re-read Stephen Alford's book 'Burghley' (2008). It was written as part of the Yale series and has, therefore, an impeccable pedigree. Part of the triumvirate who kept Elizabeth in power (Leicester and Walsingham being the other two) he was a political animal through and through and a dynast. Where Walsingham broke himself financially in the service of Elizabeth, along with his health, Burghley finished his earthly course a very rich man indeed - passing on the reins of power to his son, Robert. A big read - my hardback copy is over 300 pages - it is, nevertheless, a worthwhile one to anyone interested in the period.
While I was at it, I also re-read the portion of Elizabeth Jenkins book 'Elizabeth the Great' dealing with the Babington plot. If you can get a copy, well worth adding to your bookshelf. She is good on Elizabeth's mental state at this late period of her reign without being judgmental. I also pulled Derek Wilson's book on Walsingham off the shelf and re-read from the Babington plot onwards. As always with his books I found myself glued to the pages, reading through to the valediction Wilson touchingly ends his book on. Wilson (like Walsingham a Cambridge man) applies Shakespeare's words on the meaning of love to the service Walsingham gave a somewhat ungrateful queen. (If you buy into the Gloriana myth never read a Derek Wilson book as he digs his quill rather sharply into that one).
In case you can't get a copy, here it is:
"It is to be all made of faith and service
... All made of passion, all made of wishes;
All adoration, duty and observance,
All humbleness, all patience, and impatience,
All purity, all trial, all obedience".
'Transfer those words from the romantic context to that of affection for queen and country and you have a fair portrait of Francis Walsingham'.
Ay, a book is a lovesome thing God wot!.
on 18 January 2014
I bought this book whilst travelling in Scotland last summer. I was intrigued by the Anthony Burgess Book, 'A Dead Man In Deptford'.
If those sort of books (who did it how did it get done) is interesting to you plus a good measure of smoke filled rooms you can almost smell and images of sinister covered men landing at and leaving English ports in the dead of night and landing on the continent, then I would guess this is the sort of book for you.
I think it is an easy book to read which is good, and it portrays the characters really well and as I said the passages on Marlowe are interesting (I have been always so interested in the theory he was an English spy). I also particularly liked the underlying theme of the Cecil Family and their skullduggery and influence at Court and the way the subtle theme of the Catholic Conspiracy is played out throughout the book:
" ... The nightmare was real: at the end of 1593 Londoners could see on stage the horrors of Catholic conspiracy ... Christopher Marlowe's play ... Massacre in Paris .." (at the Rose Theatre, Southwark).
As the author says: "...We have to be impressed by the Elizabethan roll call of brilliance: Sir Francis Drake, Sir Philip Sidney, Sir Walter Ralegh, Edmund Spenser, Sir John Hawkins, Ben Johnson, Christopher Marlowe, William Shakespeare, Gabriel Harvey, Francis Bacon, William Camden. ..."
I couldn't agree more.
Read this book. It's highly recommended on here and rightly so.
on 3 October 2012
So begins a well-known hymn and it might well have been referring to the Elizabethan England of spies, counter-spies, encryptions, double-dealing and paranoia that Stephen Alford's book eloquently and dramatically re-creates.
As I write, leaders of the Anglican Communion are secretly meeting to choose their next preferred leader, who must be approved both by the Queen and the Prime Minister. The choice of the next Archbishop of Canterbury is fraught with difficulties: who, if anyone, can reconcile the differences that threaten to destabilise and perhaps split the Anglican Communion? Meanwhile, in The Vatican, the Pope's butler is on trial for leaking private papers which, he claims, reveal the corruption and intrigue at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church, a church now apparently trying to minimise the public 'outfall' of this episode, at the same time as it is riven with rumours and evidence of past abuses of those in its care.
Protestantism and Roman Catholicism are at the heart of historical intrigue in the Elizabethan state. Henry VIII made the dramatic break from Rome, desperate to find valid theological arguments to support his case and cause; protestant reforms continued during the short reign of the young Edward VI; Mary I ('Bloody Mary' ) reversed the religious thrust, persecuting and killing Protestants in her crusade to return England to Rome. Who knows how different our history might have been had her reign not been abruptly brought to an end by her death in 1558? Elizabeth and her officers then began the counter-attack, persecuting Catholics and hounding them from the country, where some plotted their revenge and the overthrow of the Queen.
Both within England and on continental Europe, those who challenged Elizabeth's right to govern and to be the proclaimed rightful head of the Church of England were assiduously tracked down, monitored and, in many cases, executed. To make this possible there existed a complex network of spies and counter-spies, passing on information, intercepting letters, encrypting their writing, espousing their cause.
At the centre of the web sit, spider-like, Walsingham, Burghley, Cecil and Essex, caught up in a frenzy of anxiety for the safety of the Queen and her realm, undermining plots, collecting intelligence, screening agents.
This is a book of profound scholarship that reads like a modern spy novel. The detail is engrossing, the narrative compelling. Even if you think you're not really interested in historical writing, you may be surprised by your response to this book. There are no annoying footnotes but an extraordinarily comprehensive chapter-by-chapter list of sources and a lengthy bibliography.
What did it do for me? It gripped me from page 1 to the end. I am not a historian but I have an amateur's interest in how and why this country has evolved as it has. I am also struck by the modern parallels that the reader can draw (Alford only hints at this, but it's not difficult to see). I am saddened that the kind of religious divisions and fanaticism that informed the ages of Mary and Elizabeth still impact in profound ways on our world today.
When I skim through the references at the end of the book I am reminded how much research is needed to write a book such as this. I also wonder at the wealth of information of our island's history that lies in the National Archives at Kew and in other archives.
It's a tribute to the author that, on finishing the book, I immediately wanted to read other books on the period: Stephen Alford's own book on Burghley; Thomas Penn's 'The Winter King' and John Cooper's 'The Queen's Agent'.
on 11 October 2015
This is a wonderful, intricate and detailed account of Tudor espionage and also amounts to a semi-biography of the inner-circle of the Elizabethan espionage network.
The book opens with a vivid scenario of an alternate reality of how Elizabeth I’s government would have had to react had the many attempted assassinations of their monarch by the likes of John Sommerville been successful, resorting to contingency plans drawn up by the government to withdraw to the Tower of London in the face of potential invasion.
Alford reveals that the fear of assassination – and its potential repercussions – was very real. Elizabeth I’s ministers lived in perpetual fear of foreign invasion by Spain, religious war and the installation of Mary, Queen of Scots, as Queen of England. Consequently, these fears helped shape governmental policy during the Elizabethan era. Alford argues that William Cecil and Francis Walsingham were devoted to maintaining the safety of Queen and country as well as the continuation of reform – and saw their actions as essential to the peace of the realm.
Alford charts the fascinating lives of minor English spies commissioned by Cecil and Walsingham to spy for Queen and country – Anthony Munday, Charles Sledd, Mallivery Caitlin and William Parry.
Munday and Sledd would travel to Rome, profess their allegiance to English Catholic émigré priests living in the English seminary in Rome and spy on their new-found colleagues to discover any potential foreign plots against their monarch. Upon their return to England, both men would reveal the goings-on of the seminary.
Using these colourful experiences, Munday would go on to become a successful author with Charles Sledd joining Constables in hunting dangerous Catholics in London. While William Parry became a double-spy for Cecil and the Queen’s enemies within the English seminary in Rheims – a master flatterer, promising a great deal to Burghley in exchange for personal advancement but delivering very little in return. Reneging on his pledges, and never far from trouble, (if the charges of attempted murder and fraud were anything to go by), Parry would eventually be found to be a traitor for conspiring to kill Elizabeth in 1585.
Alford covers a number of key events during Elizabeth’s reign and shows that she was never far from danger; facing danger at home as well as abroad from the likes of Bishop William Allen, noted for his propaganda and for urging foreign powers to invade England.
Therefore espionage using recruits across Europe – in France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and England – became a useful tool to assess the plans of Elizabeth’s enemies and their potency to carry them out.
Alford shows that the flight of Mary Queen of Scots to England posed a particular dilemma for Elizabeth and exacerbated existing tensions within the Catholic community who rebelled against Elizabeth, as Mary would become the spearhead for Catholic efforts by default.
Cecil, Walsingham and Phelippes’ efforts were instrumental in capturing Edmund Campion (through Thomas Bernard in 1580) and foiling the Ridolfi and Throckmorton plots. Through a complicated web of spy networks, Alford shows that the pioneering use of double-espionage and deciphering was vital in uncovering these plots and depicts these events in glorious detail – showing how dangerous émigré English Catholics abroad such as Charles Paget, William Allen and Mary’s propagandist Thomas Morgan, would attempt to access a wide array of European and English networks to communicate with their allies. We are shown how Paget’s visits to England to secure information on coastal landing sites for potential invasion and his communication with English allies, Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland, Lord Henry Howard, Lord Paget and the Spanish ambassador, Bernardino de Mendoza, was discovered using Thomas Phelippes’ superb deciphering skills.
Again, with the use of double spies – Gilbert Gifford, Robert Poley and a brewer – Phelippes and Walsingham successfully foiled the Babington plot of 1586 – a complicated plot involving the powerful Guise family which would be credited for finally bringing down Mary, Queen of Scots, when it was found that she had essentially incriminated herself by showing complicity in a plot to facilitate her escape through dictated letters to her ambassadors hidden in tubes within beer caskets.
Using the Act for the Queen’s Surety, Walsingham and Cecil were finally able to try Mary for treason leading to her execution in 1587.
Following the political fallout of Mary’s execution, Elizabeth continued to face threats from Philip II, who attempted to use his own obscure Lancastrian ancestry as grounds for his claim to England’s throne. The use of espionage became ever as important for spying out Philip’s plans for the Spanish Armada – which due to a strange twist of fate involving the weather and the successful command of Baron Howard Effingham ran aground. The unsuccessful feat however did not prevent the Spanish King from attempting to mount further – albeit, unsuccessful – efforts.
After the death of Francis Walsingham in 1590, Alford demonstrates that the use of espionage became increasingly politicised – with Lord Robert Deveraux using the skills of his new recruits, Francis Bacon, William Sterrell and the newly redundant, Thomas Phelippes, to potentially out-flank Cecil for the Queen’s favour. This appears to have become a dangerous political game which became out of hand leading to the trials and executions of the Queen’s physician and Patrick O’Collun – double-spies whose guilt of actual treason towards the Queen was either dubious or unconfirmed at best.
Alford concludes with the eventual death of Elizabeth and the rise of William Cecil’s progeny, Lord Robert Cecil who helped facilitate James VI's succession and Thomas Phelippes, who fell drastically from favour following Sir Francis Walsingham's death and a failed espionage bid within the employ of Robert Devereux. His subsequent employment with Sir Robert Cecil did not redress his troubles, leading to a lingering feeling that his years of dedication and service had essentially gone unrewarded.
All in all, this is a fascinating, detailed account of Elizabethan espionage – covering pivotal events of the reign as well as the key roles played by Elizabeth’s allies and enemies abroad. Very academic and comprehensive throughout.
on 12 May 2013
Most people know that Elizabeth 1 had one of the world's first spy systems, under Francis Walsingham, that helped find the evidence that led to Mary Queen of Scots execution at Fotheringay Castle. But many (or at least me) are hazy on the detail. Alford sets out to tell the full story, including: the spies themselves (notably Thomas Phelipes, one of Walsingham's code breakers); the political and religious context; and some of the great cases (the Babington Plot, the execution of Mary, the arrest of Edward Campion etc). Alford read many original documents (commenting on handwriting and amendments), and paints a vivid picture of paranoid times.
Alford tries to strike the difficult balance between providing enough background history for non-experts and enough detail about spies to be new. This did not quite work for me. Too much was a quick history of Elizabethan England (but well done) and there were gaps in the analysis of spying - eg how ciphers were broken, letters intercepted or intelligence used by Elizabeth. I don't blame the author, who clearly wants to reach a wider audience.
So while I enjoyed the book overall, it left me wanting either to buy a history of Elizabethan England, or a more detailed history of the episodes covered in the book. But as an introduction to either, this book works well.
on 16 November 2015
From today’s perspective our view of Elizabethan England is one of Gloriana; golden years; England triumphant against its Spanish adversaries. However, the religious pendulum in Tudor England that swung painfully between Catholic and Protestant following the reformation created a world of paranoia and uncertainty, of division and discontent. This is the backdrop to Stephen Alford’s excellent book. It reveals the efforts made by Lord Burghley and Sir Francis Walsingham in particular to protect the fragile monarchy from its enemies within and without England. It shows a remarkable web of espionage not only in England but throughout Europe and reveals the hidden stories behind many of the plots to assassinate Elizabeth and put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. It is a remarkable study of the period. Fascinating.
on 30 June 2014
What a cracking read. Full of fascinating characters, labyrinthine plots and derring do. As well as this though the truly murky and at times terrifying dealings of the Elizabethan spymasters are revealed.
I found it immensely readable and accessible.