The Watchers

England, during the reign of Elizabeth I, strikes most people, when it strikes them at all, as having been glorious, victorious, and stable at last; but, as Stephen Alford shows in darkest detail in The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I, it was a time of extreme peril, offering Britons little evidence that the turbulence of the past quarter century was at an end. With her ascent to the throne, Elizabeth became the fourth monarch to rule in less than twenty-five years, a period that also saw the official religion change from Roman Catholicism to quasi-Protestantism, to outright Protestantism, back to Roman Catholicism, and, finally -- though it scarcely seemed final at the time -- to Protestantism once again. All this was attended by savage religious persecution and tremendous social disruption. Meanwhile, on the Continent, Catholic France and Spain took an unfriendly interest in Elizabeth's "heretic pariah kingdom," and the pope -- that "canting little monk," in Protestant parlance -- gave his blessing and financial backing to schemes, clandestine and military, to bring her people back into the fold. Making the situation all the more precarious was Elizabeth's refusal to wed (and produce an heir) or to name a successor. Meanwhile, the person whose bloodlines gave her the greatest claim to be Elizabeth's heir, Mary, Queen of Scots, had strong ties with France and was herself a Catholic.

Having outlined this ominous state of affairs, Alford lays out the nightmare scenario for the future of England: the assassination of the queen, inexorably followed by civil uprising, Spanish invasion, return to Catholicism, and the establishment of "Hapsburg England." This short exercise in counterfactual history has the effect of making palpable and immediate Elizabeth's ministers' state of mind. They feared the enemy within, believing that intransigent Catholics spurred on by exiled coreligionists and priests -- most particularly those "shock troops of the Catholic Antichrist," the Jesuits -- were conniving at invasion from the Continent and even regicide. Chief among the queen's anxious and vigilant men was her secretary, the consummate spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham. As ambassador to France, he had witnessed the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in Paris in 1572, during which thousands of Huguenots were slaughtered, and he feared an English version were the Catholic element to rise again.

Thus begins a story of international intrigue and domestic treason but above all of the skullduggery of spies, double agents, and pursuivants (priest catchers). Among the men Alford follows and whose characters he ponders is Anthony Mundow, a young man drawn into espionage by a desire for adventure and, not least, to make a living as a writer. Traveling to Rome under an alias, he infiltrated the English College as a seminarian, drawing on the experience and his creative powers to write a series of bestselling pamphlets published in England, detailing the corruption and vice he found in Rome and the perfidy and sedition he found in the College. He also betrayed those who had befriended him, some of whom were tortured and executed upon their return to England. Then there is Charles Sledd, another enterprising operative, who passed himself off as a servant to Catholic émigrés and acted as their courier, passing on their messages and his own reports on their activities and contacts to Walsingham. His work, too, led to torture and grotesque executions, most notably of Edmund Campion and Robert Persons.

Munday and Sledd are only two of the men whose cold-blooded betrayal of friends and associates Alford describes; there are many others, equally brilliant in duplicity -- or, put another way, real snakes in the grass. But, among them, one stands out for his utter haplessness: William Parry, a "gentleman spy" as he conceived himself, whose personality and escapades Alford presents with unmistakable relish. A penurious dandy, braggart, and chancer, Parry was always deeply in debt and on the lookout for patronage, Protestant or papist, wherever it might be found. Alas, in his vanity, he was also a master of self-deception ("After all, he was no ordinary informant; he knew he had special talents") and came to a most unfortunate end, leaving the reader very sorry to see him go.  

Alford shows, in case after dramatically described case, how integral to sixteenth-century English politics were spies, double agents, forgers, and suborners. Elizabeth's ministers entered into the deepest of undercover schemes, not only to confound enemies at home and abroad but also, with devious practicality, to get around the will of their own monarch. Two instances of circumventing Elizabeth's wishes were fundamental to the shape of the future: maneuvering Mary, Queen of Scots into a position of putative treason, making her execution imperative. (Elizabeth had hoped that her royal cousin could simply be dispensed with in the traditional manner, which is to say, murdered discreetly.) The second was circumventing the queen's refusal to name a successor by secretly arranging for James VI of Scotland to become, in the fullness of time, James I of England.

Throughout this fresh and fascinating book, Alford displays an engaging wit and an air of involvement, the latter coming out of his immersion in archival sources. The many characters here are revealed in their own accounts of their deeds and devices, and we feel fully how appalled some of them would have been to know how expeditiously their secret communications made their way straight into the files of Elizabeth's spymasters. In giving this inside look into a shady corner of the sixteenth century, The Watchers shows us the surveillance state finding its legs.

About the Columnist
Katherine A. Powers received the 2013 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.

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