Review of The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I

Author: Stephen Alford

Publisher: Bloomsbury Press, 2012

One of my main criticisms of most modern books about history is that they lack depth; another is that they focus on the irrelevant at the expense of the relevant.  Neither of those are true of this fine book, which is one of the best I have read in years.  In the research for my own volume on Tudor England and Scotland this ranks as my favorite secondary source, far exceeding the rest in informative and entertainment value.

After the first fifty pages, which go around in circles and the information in which could be placed to greater effect in a variety of different places through the rest of the book, the narrative hones in on specific spies and agents working in the great hubs, seaports, and villages of Europe, from London Venice and Milan and Rome and Paris to Rheims, Dieppe, and Lyons.  Not only does it emphasize their specific activities, it explores the different purposes each served and the different uses to which they put their information–some for a public audience, some for special use by the Elizabehan Privy Council, some as witnesses in treason trials, and so on and so forth–and it explores the reliability of each source, which varied considerably.  It explores their motives for engaging in espionage, their respective skills and abilities; and it effectively describes the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants as a matter of politics, stability and continuity of government, rather than as matters of religion that we in the 21st Century have difficulty understanding.

The book is of value to me as a historian, and as a scholar of ideas, of course.  But it is equally of value in assessing our own government’s preservation of security and stability in the face of a political threat cloaked under the disguise of religion.  As such it is one that I highly recommend to each and all.