Our culture is saturated with images of Elizabethan England: Shakespearean actors at the Globe Theater; one of England’s most famous monarchs presiding over a golden age; glamour and courtliness, prosperity and peace.
Elizabeth’s legacy seems inevitable from a twenty-first century standpoint. But it wasn’t always so. Late sixteenth-century English society was actually in some ways an unstable, dark and desperate place. In The Watchers: The Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I, historian Stephen Alford tells the story of the spies, the plots, the threats of foreign invasion, the torture and the intrigue in Elizabeth’s four-decade reign. Although some sections of Alford’s book are repetitive, overall, the book is a thought-provoking portrait of the darker side of Elizabethan society.
Alford, a fellow in history at King’s College, Cambridge and the author of three other books about Elizabethan history, lays out compelling evidence that the Elizabethan period was a tenuous time for England. The Spanish Hapsburgs and the Pope believed Elizabeth was a heretic, an atheist, and a bastard. England lived with the constant threat of foreign invasion, the threat of an attempt on Elizabeth’s life, and the presence of Mary Stuart, a potential claimant to the throne. In his introduction, Alford says if Elizabeth were murdered in 1586, a successful foreign invasion would have been launched, England would have been reconciled to the Pope, and the Protestant experiment would be remembered as a decades-long aberration in English history.
Alford continually reminds us of the dire threats facing Elizabethan England, but the story of the reaction to those threats makes up the bulk of the book, that of the spies, courtiers and advisers who fought a war of espionage against danger both nebulous and real. Alford introduces us to a vast cast of characters in "The Watchers": Anthony Munday, the writer and adventurer who infiltrated Catholic scholars in Rome; William Allen, the leader of Catholic exiles in Europe who supported foreign invasion of England; and Thomas Phelippes, a right-hand man to Elizabeth’s secretary Sir Francis Walsingham and a gifted cryptographer. These men participated in a decades-long dance of intrigue as priests plotted to infiltrate England, dissidents plotted to murder Elizabeth and Catholics plotted to free Mary Stuart, also known as Mary, Queen of Scots.
Mary, Queen of Scots is one of the most famous and important characters in Alford’s story. She was a claimant to the English throne, a prisoner in England and a potential liability to her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s government executed Mary in 1587 after it discovered the Babington Plot, which sought to assassinate Elizabeth and crown Mary as queen. The execution rocked the Elizabethan world because it called into question the divine sanctity of monarchy.
Alford’s tales of specific plots and spies are interesting to a point, but by the time he reaches the 1590s, these episodes become repetitive: coded letters, double agents and torture at the Tower of London figure prominently into most chapters. These tales are more interesting when considered as a bundle, rather than individually; they paint a picture of a society in the throes of fear, uncertain of its survival.
But the most thought-provoking aspects of Alford’s book are the larger questions about the implications of these spies’ and courtiers’ actions. For example, the decision to execute Mary Stuart, and its implications for the institution of monarchy, reverberated for centuries. Other seminal actions taken by the players in the book include the Act for the Queen’s Surety, a 1585 statute that was remarkable because it authorized the government to pursue any pretender to the throne simply because of a conspiracy organized in his or her name – in other words, a license for revenge.
The largest question implied by Alford’s book is, did the ends justify the means? Alford stresses in his introduction and conclusion that Elizabethan England was not the world’s first police state, as some other historians have theorized. But England in the 1500s was certainly on the road towards becoming a modern state, and many of the players in Alford’s book committed dubious acts in the name of national security. For example, as Walsingham and Phelippes labored to uncover the Babington plot, they doctored a letter from Mary Stuart to ensure they would have enough evidence to convict her of treason.
Readers will easily be able to extrapolate Alford’s narrative into larger historical questions: were the actions of these men justified to preserve the Protestant realm? How far will fear drive government, and how far should fear drive government, even when that fear is completely justified and understandable? By painting such a vivid picture of a society clinging to existence, Alford both illustrates the true zeitgeist of Elizabethan England and leaves his readers with these questions, which will linger long after they finish reading the book.
Emily Cataneo is a journalist and book critic based in Boston.