Tracy Borman is immersed by an account of plots and plotters in Elizabethan England
The author here explains that “in this book you will find a world shaded in tones of grey rather than drawn in white and black”. This assertion by Stephen Alford is both confident and, accidentally or not, reminds the reader of a certain other book that’s currently taking the publishing world by storm. But The Watchers has nothing in common with the work of EL James. Rather, it provides a genuine – and compelling – reappraisal of one of the most studied periods in English history: the reign of Elizabeth I. In exploring the world (or underworld) of Elizabethan espionage, Alford takes us on a darker, more disturbing and arguably more fascinating journey through the Elizabethan era than any other historian of the period. He covers territory that’s at once both familiar, yet terrifyingly alien.
Without doubt, the book’s most impressive achievement is to explode the myth of political stability and self-confidence that the Virgin Queen and her council were so keen to project. Although historians have long proved that her regime was built upon the sand of illegitimacy and religious division, somehow this instability has become a truism, and most accounts of her reign are written with the knowledge that Elizabeth would become the longest-reigning and most successful of the Tudor monarchs.
Stephen Alford changes all of that. He begins by taking the reader through a terrifyingly dramatic account of an assassination attempt in 1586, which leaves Queen Elizabeth mortally wounded by a volley of fire while travelling in the royal coach. At its heart lies a Catholic conspiracy involving possibly Spain and France, and certainly Mary, Queen of Scots – Elizabeth’s most deadly enemy. As the queen’s life hangs in the balance, her council desperately makes plans for the government of the realm if the worst should happen – which, in this case, it does. It is an imaginary, but startlingly real scenario, and one that haunted Elizabeth’s advisers throughout her 45-year reign. By telling it here, Alford sets the scene perfectly for the rest of the narrative, putting the reader in the mindset of the Virgin Queen’s paranoid ministers, who became so obsessed with espionage that they jumped at their own shadows.
Alford also introduces us to the myriad enemies of the Elizabethan state: kings, queens, politicians, popes and spies drawn from across Europe, and all united by the common aim of destroying England’s monarch. It is a fascinating cast of characters “of a skewed brilliance and cunning”, ranging from the well-known (Lord Burghley, Sir Francis Walsingham, and of course Elizabeth herself) to those who have remained largely hidden from the historical spotlight: Robert Beale, a zealous Protestant and experienced interrogator; Thomas Phelippes, Walsingham’s right-hand man and master cryptographer; and Charles Paget, Lord Burghley’s gamekeeper-turned-poacher spy who ended up conspiring to assassinate the queen.
The book traces the evolution of secret communication during the 16th century, from its comparatively rudimentary beginnings to the sophisticated operation it became during Elizabeth’s reign. This reached a zenith during the 1580s – the most plot-ridden decade of the reign – when the queen’s spymasters finally claimed their most sought-after victim, Mary Stuart. Her execution in 1587 gave another great Catholic conspirator, Philip II, the excuse he needed to launch his Armada against England (“probably the worst-kept secret in 16th-century Europe”). Philip’s move encapsulated everything that Elizabeth’s ministers had most feared during the previous 30 years, but it would become the queen’s finest hour.
The telling of the Armada story is the only weak point in an otherwise engaging and perfectly pitched narrative. It is in uncovering the plots and counter-plots that never came to light where Alford excels. The result is to make the apparently invincible Elizabethan regime seem dangerously fragile; the dividing line between loyalty and treachery virtually invisible. Tales of codes, ciphers, forgeries and false names make this seem more of a spy thriller than a factual account. But it is not just about the glamour of espionage: the narrative also reveals the “weaknesses and compromises; the unremarkable and ordinary” of those who made their living from this dark and dangerous underworld.
Alford weaves together the bewilderingly complex threads of plots and counterplots so skilfully that as a reader you are never left floundering – and even if you were, then a useful cast of characters and chronology is provided for reference. There are also extensive notes and an impressive bibliography for those who want to delve deeper into the subject.
They may have kept Elizabeth on her throne, but the watchers ultimately betrayed her. In what seems an unforgivably disloyal final twist to the tale, during the years leading up to the great queen’s death, her own spies are seen focusing less on keeping her alive than on working to smooth the path for her successor, James VI of Scotland.
Tracy Borman is the author of Elizabeth's Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen (Jonathan Cape, 2009)