The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I by Stephen Alford

The Watchers by Stephen Alford(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

In a Europe aflame with wars of religion and dynastic conflicts, Elizabeth I came to a throne encircled by menace.  To the Catholic powers of Europe, England was a heretic pariah state and her queen was “Jezebel,” the bastard offspring of Henry VIII’s illegal second marriage.  The pope denounced her; the kings of France and Spain conspired to destroy her, their plans culminating in the Spanish Armada.  Many of the Queen’s own subjects plotted her overthrow—or her assassination.

If Elizabeth’s reign was a golden age, then, it was also a precarious one that required unrelenting surveillance by Her Majesty’s secret service.  Headed by the brilliant, enigmatic and widely feared Sir Francis Walsingham, the Elizabethan security network willingly deployed every dark art: spies, disinformation, double agents, cryptography, and torture.

Delving deeply into secret files, Stephen Alford offers a chillingly vivid depiction of Elizabethan espionage.  In his company we follow Her Majesty’s agents through the streets of London and Rome, and into the dank cells of the Tower.  Alford brings to life this shadowy world, where no one could be trusted and a single mistake could have changed England’s history.  The Watchers is a riveting exploration of loyalty, faith, betrayal, and deception with the highest possible stakes, in a world poised between the Middle Ages and modernity.

[Full disclosure: Bloomsbury Publishing sent me a free print copy in exchange for an honest review of this book.]

I don’t read nearly as much nonfiction as I would like, so The Watchers was both a refreshing change from YA novels and a great book in its own right.  For someone who knows a decent amount about the Tudors and Medieval England, I was shocked at how big of a role spying played back then.  It wasn’t just basic spying either: it was sophisticated and at times, incredibly complicated.  Stephen Alford has documented the lives of some of the main players in the spy game, from the talented to the incompetent, the eccentric to the boring.

Although Alford’s writing can get a bit choppy here and there as he jumps from spy to spy, he does tie things up well at the end of the chapters and at the very end of the book.  Despite the head-hopping, the writing style itself was very engaging for a nonfiction writer and made The Watchers far more enjoyable.To illustrate his point that spying was very important in Tudor England, he had a very lengthy introduction imagining a scenario in which spies did not exist and Elizabeth I really had been assassinated.  I would have liked for the introduction to be cut down slightly, but Alford certainly did make his point well.

One thing I really liked about The Watchers is that Alford isn’t telling a completely one-sided story of the struggle of Protestants to protect their queen from evil Catholics.  We get to see how the Protestant agents felt about their missions, but also get to see things from the point of view of Catholic exiles.  it’s rare to find such balanced nonfiction these days, but Alford managed it.  The political triumphs of courtiers like Lord Burghley are balanced by accounts of the terrible torture captured Catholics faced.  Alford does not depict a picture of a Golden Age as most books about Elizabethan England seem to and we get to see that the ugly side of the Golden Age was quite ugly at times.  It’s nice to find a more realistic portrayal of the times.

Overall, The Watchers is a great book for both newcomers to history and old hats at it.  Personally, I’m looking forward to any future books Stephen Alford publishes.

I give this book 4.5/5 stars.

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