Review: The Watchers, Stephen Alford

The wartime security services have been unpicked rather thoroughly over recent years, particularly by Ben Macintyre.  It is however much more unusual to find the same area being explored in the Tudor age, so this book immediately intrigued me.  People remember Henry VIII and his six wives, the Nine Days Queen, Bloody Mary and Good Queen Bess but behind the propaganda, a much darker and more unpleasant story lies.  The Tudors were a dynasty of interlopers.  Nobody knew that Bosworth marked a turning point, that never afterwards would the crown change hands on the battlefield, hence why Henry VIII was so merciless at extinguishing the final flickering embers of the House of York.  Still, by the time of Elizabeth I, it had been nearly three quarters of a century since Richard III’s defeat.  One might have been forgiven for thinking that she could sit slightly more comfortably on her throne but this book makes clear that she, or more accurately her advisers, were fighting a war on terror, remarkably similar to the one fought in the present day.
Elizabeth was a lone woman, she had no family to marry off to make allegiances, and to further complicate matters, she was herself unwilling to wed.  This meant no heir, which meant that the succession was completely open.  Even putting all of this aside, Elizabeth herself was seen by many in Europe as a heretic and a bastard.  Pope Pius V wanted her to be overthrown, Philip of Spain tried repeatedly to invade and then there was Mary Queen of Scots, the guest from hell, plotting at every opportunity.  English Catholics had to face the dilemma; loyalty to the queen versus loyalty to the Church.
The opening chapter of The Watchers sets out a bold alternate history, that Elizabeth was shot at in her carriage by an assassin, that she succumbed to her injuries, that the whole country collapsed in panic.  Alford speculates that the Privy Council would then have retreated to the Tower of London and attempted to govern from there, but that Philip of Spain’s invasion would have overthrown them, making the Elizabethan age little more than an interesting aberration, thirty years or so of Protestant rule.  Elizabeth refused to name her successor until immediately before her death, her Privy councillors knew that they stood to lose everything if she died without them having time to prepare.  It is little wonder that they were so zealous at seeking out those who would do her harm.
The Rainbow Portrait – the eyes of the state can be
seen on her gown protecting Elizabeth from her enemies.

Many of the conspiracies came from the Catholic exiles, plotting from the continent.  Foremost amongst these was William Allen, who trained young men in seminaries abroad and then sent them back to sow dissent in England.  It is impossible to miss the parallels between Allen’s pamphlets and radicalisation of young Catholics and the words of hate preachers in recent years and the propaganda from Bin Laden.  Countering them however were Elizabeth’s team of watchers, those committed by personal loyalty and interest to safeguarding the queen and her reign.  The Watchers sets out to demonstrate that the Privy Councillors and their associates were prepared to stoop to some measures that were murky in the extreme.

Many of the names featured were familiar to me; William Cecil, his son Robert Cecil, Francis Walsingham.  Elizabeth was certainly fortunate in her advisers, something that her cousin Mary Queen of Scots once observed jealously.  I have always thought though that while fortune may have brought these men to her attention, Elizabeth herself had the wisdom to value them.  Her father Henry VIII had two of the finest civil servants in history in his service, Thomas Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, and he drove both to unpleasant deaths through his paranoia and selfishness.  Elizabeth’s servants lived long lives, stayed loyal and finally died in their beds, often having passed on their service to their children.

There were some names that I had not come across before, such as Thomas Phelippes, a gifted mathematician and cryptographer who is described as the most intelligent man of the Tudor age.  Having also read quite widely about espionage in World War Two, it was interesting to compare the differing strategies.  Clearly, codemaking was nowhere near as complex but I did wonder how a mind such as Phelippes’ might have adapted had he been born five hundred years later – might he have found his way to Bletchley?  Compared to more recent conspiracies, some of the plots seem rather laughable but at the time they were no laughing matter.


The most constant threat was of course, Mary Queen of Scots.  Deposed by her own kingdom and fleeing to England, Mary was the main focus for Catholic discontent.  The Watchers spent years trying to gather evidence that would persuade Elizabeth to have her executed and Alford makes it plain that the Babington plot was allowed to run so that Mary could gather enough rope to hang herself.  To truly settle the matter, Walsingham falsified the Casket Letters with an added postcript.  Mary protested in her trial that Walsingham had been conspiring against her for years, to which Walsingham agreed that indeed he had been ‘curious’.

In an age of paranoia and distrust, the ruthless lengths that the watchers were prepared to go to are unsurprising.  Elizabeth herself remains a rather background figure, rarely taking centre stage.  This was dark, grubby work, not for the queen to sully herself with.  I did wonder if a male monarch might have involved himself more directly with the more unpleasant areas of the task, but most likely the torture was something that would only ever take place behind closed doors.  Elizabeth was furious when Mary was executed, even though she had given the order herself.  She knew that a monarch being put to death, even by another monarch, would cause shockwaves across Europe and indeed, those were the waves brought over the Spanish Armada.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.
Also, trouble.

The descriptions of the different ‘ground-level’ spies were fascinating.  Then as now, spycraft gathers up some rather odd characters.  There was William Parry who started a spy for the government but who ‘went rogue’ after spending time with the Catholics.  The stark contrast to twentieth century espionage though was how reliant a Tudor spy was on their patron.  Walsingham and Cecil frequently paid their agents out of their own pockets, the Tudor ‘MI5’ was a very different beast.  Indeed, Alford also demonstrated how the rivalry between the Cecils and the young Earl of Essex built up with the two factions pitting their spies against each other.  The most disturbing fact was that when Essex claimed that some of the agents allied to the Cecils were plotting against the Queen, the Cecils merely agreed and stood back while their associate was executed.

While Walsingham and the Cecils seem to have understood which men could be trusted and where the valuable information could be found, Essex seems not to have understood the nuances quite so well.  Alford’s narrative tails off in the 1590s and does not cover Essex’s fall from grace and rebellion, but it is not hard to imagine that the young man lost patience.  It was a slower world, messages could not be passed instantly.  Transporting information back and forth could be incredibly difficult.  By contrast, having a believable ‘legend’ must have been far easier, with far fewer ways of checking someone’s identity.

This was an interesting and very thoroughly researched account of a shadowy side of Elizabethan Britain.  With Elizabeth’s refusal to name a successor, a matter her government raised as important when they congratulated her on her accession, being close to the throne was always precarious.  Still, more than anything, this book just reminded me of how little people or situations have changed.  As a teenager, I remember feeling nervous about the war on terror.  My mother grew up being worried about the atom bomb.  Living in Tudor times, I would have feared a Catholic uprising.  Times have moved on, but governments continue to use surveillance, add bias to reports and to keep people imprisoned without charge.  Communications are still intercepted, people can still be pre-emptively charged, or shot as in the tragic case of Jean-Charles De Menezes.  I am not sure if I felt reassured or depressed to realise how little things have moved on in five hundred years.
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The Watchers by Stephen Alford
Published by Penguin UK on 2012
Pages: 397
ISBN: 9781846142604

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