This is my review of The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I by Stephen Alford.
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.