Book Review – ‘The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I’ by Stephen Alford


This was a very intriguing read largely regarding the secret network of spies and informants built up around Elizabeth I, with William Cecil, Baron Burghley, Sir Francis Walsingham, and Sir Robert Cecil at its heart. It explores in detail the Throckmorton Plot of 1583 and the Babington Plot of 1586 where the use of spies and ciphers really came into their own.

It was well-written and clearly a lot of research had been done, much of which I hadn’t read about before. However, I felt that in places it also seemed overly complicated, and I couldn’t wrap my head around some of it until I’d read it at least three times. I also had to keep going back to check on the people involved in various plots. There was a lot of jumping about from person to person which I think is sometimes where I got a bit lost, and the writing then lost some of its cohesiveness.

There were detailed endnotes and a comprehensive bibliography, easy to track down the research used. The book plate section in the centre I also felt was well-chosen and linked to what was written about in the text. It was nice to also have some images spread throughout the text when they were particularly appropriate, it made a nice change actually.

There was an interesting introduction of ‘what if’ Elizabeth I had been assassinated after the spy network failed and how this could have influenced English and European history. It illustrated Alford’s point of just how important the Tudor spy network was in keeping monarch and country safe and prosperous.

This was a very helpful book to read for my own writing on Elizabethan Rebellions, but I did have to make a lot of notes and then go back through them to make sure I understood it. Not an easy read, but a very informative one, nonetheless.

Chapters:

Part One – Spying Out the Land

  1. Ten Days in November
  2. The Lion’s Mouth
  3. English Roman Lives
  4. ‘Judas his parts’
  5. Paris and London
  6. Hunting Edmund Campion
  7. Out of the Shadows

Part Two – Enemies of the State

  1. ‘Sundry wicked plots and means’
  2. The Secret Lives of William Parry
  3. ‘The enemy sleeps not’
  4. ‘A very unadvised enterprise’
  5. Dangerous Fruits
  6. Alias Cornelys
  7. Sleights of Hand
  8. Framing the Labyrinth

Part Three – Politics and Money

  1. An Axe and an Armada
  2. ‘Good and painful long services’
  3. Platforms and Passports
  4. The Fall and Rise of Thomas Phelippes
  5. Politics and Prognostications
  6. Ends and Beginnings

Author: Helene Harrison

I have an MA in History, with a thesis entitled 'The Many Faces of Anne Boleyn: Perceptions in History, Literature and Film'. I have an interest in the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses along with my love of reading and literature.

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