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

3.59  ·  Rating details ·  536 Ratings  ·  85 Reviews
In a Europe aflame with wars of religion and dynastic conflicts, Elizabeth I came to the throne of a realm encircled by menace. To the great Catholic powers of France and Spain, England was a heretic pariah state, a canker to be cut away for the health of the greater body of Christendom. Elizabeth's government, defending God's true Church of England and its leader, the que ...more
Hardcover, 416 pages
Published November 13th 2012 by Bloomsbury Press (first published August 1st 2012)
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(showing 1-30)
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Dec 11, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: books-read-2016
Elizabeth I reigned for a total of 45 years in England, and the stability she gave as head of state gave us the Golden Age of wealth and greater self-assurance as a nation. The final Tudor monarch saw a cultural advances too, this being the time of Shakespeare and military confidence on the high seas. However, the Europeans saw her very differently; as daughter of Anne Boylen, Henry VIII's second wife, she was considered a bastard and Protestant heretic by catholic Europe. Following her denounce ...more
Carrie Slager
Feb 11, 2013 rated it it was amazing
(This review also appears on The Mad Reviewer.)

[Full disclosure: Bloomsbury 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
Oct 26, 2012 rated it really liked it
The golden age of England, underneath, was a time when secrets were a form of currency just a precious as gold.

Stephen Alford's "The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I" was an excellent book about one of my all-time favorite eras of history the Tudor Reign. I've read several books about the Tudors, and this book showed that Elizabeth's rule was a precarious and fragile thing; the Protestant monarch had many enemies at home and abroad, at times her network of spies was all tha
Aug 30, 2012 added it
Recommends it for: Fans of Elizabethan history, fans of history of espionage
I really enjoyed this book. The subtitle is "a secret history of the reign of Elizabeth I", but I feel that doesn't actually explain just what an insightful, but accessible, book this one is.

It includes some really fascinating details on spies and spying in Elizabethan Europe, but it also describes the state of almost perpetual paranoia during a period of history which Hollywood likes to glamorize as the "golden age" of monarchy. It wasn't a golden age. Elizabeth maintained a dazzling but stric
Nicholas Whyte
Jul 23, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, xr, 2013, 1311[return][return]this is a study of how the leadership of the English government maintained an intelligence service to protect the realm, in particular the Cecils and Sir Francis Walsingham. I'll say up front that I had a couple of disappointments - there is very little about Ireland, and I'd hoped for at least a passing mention of John Bossy's Giordano Bruno theory and didn't get one. But I was very satisfied with the overall detailed picture of the Quee ...more
Karen Brooks
Jan 10, 2013 rated it really liked it
Sent this book by the publishers, I really looked forward to reading what’s ostensibly a behind the scenes account of Queen Elizabeth I’s reign but from the point of view of the “watchers”: that is, reporters, listeners, spies – the men whose speciality was espionage. Elizabethan times, it turns out, are notorious for their extensive use of spies and networks, all of which were established to protect England and ensure the queen’s successful reign. As Alford writes in the introduction, while Eli ...more
Deadly danger and intrigue, love of money, monarch and God and a bizarre cast of players make up the incredible melange that is The Watchers. The author takes us on an unforgettable "Grand Tour" of Elizabethan Period Europe. We visit Rome, Rouen, Paris, Madrid and Lisbon. We frequent London's taverns and lodging houses. We study in Douais, Rouen and Rome, and we hide in priest-holes in the English Midlands. Alford spins the tales of Sir Francis Walsingham's vaunted spy network in the days when t ...more
Pete daPixie
I found this book to be a very interesting and well researched probe into the Elizabethan birth pains of our present MI5 and MI6. A fascinating history of Walsingham and Burghley's dark and secret intelligence networks, established in England and throughout Europe during the second half of the sixteenth century.
Stephen Alford has brought out of the shadows many of the agents employed, through British and Bodleian Library documents, Cecil Papers, State manuscripts and printed sources.
'The Watcher
This is a gossipy romp through Elizabethan spying. The best part of the book is in the very beginning, when the author describes a scenario where Elizabeth is assassinated and what might have happened as a result. This is the terror the government lived with. The fear that her spymasters felt becomes palpable and, as a result, I had a very good sense of why they acted as they did.

The book needs editing. It's redundant in many places, repeating information about individuals, plots, and basic his
Aug 28, 2014 rated it really liked it
I so enjoy academics -- especially historians -- who can write about topics in a way that is both knowledgeable and accessible. Alford is one of those writers and this one of those books.

Alford shows how the time period of Elizabeth I's reign, saw the origins of both the modern state and international espionage. Indeed, they seem to have been born and grown up together. Beginning with a dramatic what-if episode that serves to highlight just how precarious England's situation was during the latt
I thought the history covered in this book was really fascinating, and it was nice to get a book set during Elizabeth's reign that talks about what was going on behind the scenes and abroad instead of focusing solely on her and her own choices and actions.

What keeps me from giving the book a higher rating is that the prose is very choppy and repetitive, and included so much jumping around from one point in time to another and back again that I found it very hard to get engrossed in the narrativ
Marty Monahan
Nov 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This showed how delicate the balance of power was to just maintain.
Feb 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
That Elizabeth I died in her bed at the age of 69 was not predestined. This is a thrilling account of the war fought in the shadows, against foreign agents and domestic traitors, to keep Elizabeth safe.
Hilary Shearing
Jun 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
Terrific read. An extraordinary period. Totally mindboggling.
Not much has changed
Jun 02, 2017 rated it it was amazing
So well written, and full of drama and suspense! Life under Elizabeth I & her court was not for the faint of heart ❤ ...more
Stanley Bloom
I think Steven Alford has fallen between the two stools of writing a book for the general reader, which this is supposed to be, and making an academic study.

Set in the 16th century the book may be, but I included it in reading suggestions for my book club (we take it in turns) because I thought the subject was nevertheless topical, a reminder that espionage if not quite the oldest of professions is certainly among the earliest, and that its basic features of surveillance, infiltration, intercept
Lyn (Readinghearts)
Nov 08, 2012 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Tudor-philes, Elizabethan fans,
Recommended to Lyn (Readinghearts) by: Netgalley and the publisher
In The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I Stephen Alford presents a book that satisfies both the history buff in me and the side of me that loves mystery and intrigue. Although political intrigue is not a new phenomenon, Tudor England, in particular, the Elizabethan era, had it in spades. The setting of the book is a time when religion was less about worshiping God, and more about power and the riches and control of the world that went with that power. This is no romanticized ...more
I became interested in Elizabethan/Tudor history through the advent of the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall (which I still need to actually read), so when I started looking into historical accounts of life in that time, I came across a lot of recommendations for Stephen Alford's book.

The Watchers is a nonfiction account of the political struggles following the rise of Elizabeth I to the English throne. A staunch Protestant, she was seen by the rest of Catholic Europe as a bastard here
Apr 14, 2013 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: English history, in depth.
This gets the fourth star primarily for finding a fairly original subject to write about in Elizabethan England. It is well written but I don't know that I'd have given it 4 stars otherwise. This is about the spy network that was set up by the Elizabethan government. It went through 3 top bosses over the course of Queen Elizabeth's reign with the final one continuing and actually enabling the next King, King James I of England and VI of Scotland. It was rather refreshing to have Elizabeth actual ...more
Sep 21, 2013 rated it really liked it
I feel a bit guilty. The last book I read I gave 2 stars but it really deserved 2.5 (maybe 3). This one probably deserves 3.5 and I'm giving it 4. The point to be made about this book is that it is the sort of thing that needs to be written. It's clearly meticulously researched and the author has a passion for the history. But more importantly, it reveals something about the mentality of a certain kind of person that has not changed in over 4 centuries, namely, the spy.

In these Elizabethan agent
Roman Clodia
"The more obsessively a state watches, the greater the dangers it perceives... balance and perspective are lost"

This is a good account of the anti-Catholic paranoia which proliferated during the reign of Elizabeth (1558-1603), and the men who simultaneously fed it, feared it and built their power upon it. At its heart sit William Cecil, Lord Burghley; and Francis Walsingham - but Alford also uncovers the spies who worked for these men (e.g. Anthony Munday, Robert Poley, the sinister Thomas Pheli
May 23, 2013 rated it it was ok
How can a book about Elizabethan espionage be so dry and boring? On paper, it sounds exciting: a chronicle about the various assassination plots and coups to unseat the Queen, the tinderbox of tension between Protestants and Catholics, and the small band of spies and informers that Elizabeth entrusted (Varys on Game of Thrones might call them his "little birds") to infiltrate Rome and sniff out the schemes.

But the book largely follows the formula, e.g.: John Smythe was a spy for Elizabeth. He we
Mar 04, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
A fascinating, well written, and deeply researched book about the world of Elizabethan spies, the plots they uncovered, and the consequences of both those plots and the government's reactions thereto.
One of the aspects that made me appreciate this book most were the pains Alford took to show Elizabethan England as it was--we tend to think of it as a "golden age," whereas in truth it was a ferociously uneasy age, full of uncertainty and danger. England and Elizabeth were viewed as heretical and
Myles Wirth
Oct 05, 2016 rated it it was ok
While it has its moments, this one was kind of a slog. The book is exhaustively researched and packed with primary sources, but Alford's writing just doesn't flow. It's convoluted, unfocused, and repetitive, padded with frequent insistences of the drama and tension of sixteenth-century espionage while at the same time totally failing to capture any of that drama or tension for the reader. Alford spends pages talking up specific plots and conspiracies as major flashpoints in Elizabeth's reign, bu ...more
Apr 20, 2013 rated it really liked it
I very much enjoyed this book. Stephen Alford gives us the underbelly of what is often called the Golden Age of Elizabethan England.

Alford tells the story of the network of spies that Queen Elizabeth, under the control of Sir Francis Walsingham, had throughout Europe. The Court was petrified that an assassin would attempt to kill Elizabeth, especially since she was denounced as a heretic by the Pope and even excommunicated. The Pope also made it clear that English citizens owed Elizabeth no loya
Allison Thurman
May 17, 2013 rated it it was amazing
A different perspective from the other books I've read about Elizabethan spy craft, that usually focus on the activities of Walsingham and Cecil - instead, this book discusses the "men on the ground", so to speak. I was particularly interested in the different personalities involved in spying on the Continent: Munday, who wrote about his experiences in the English mission in Rome in inflammatory pamphlets when he got back to London, Sledd, the unremarkable servant who gained English Catholics' t ...more
Mike Maurer
Sep 23, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
I enjoy reading about history. I enjoy reading about real espionage. So I had high hopes when I found the book on the shelf of a local used book store.

It is an excellent telling of the spies and intrigue surrounding the reign of Elizabeth I. The point of view is from the side of the English, with numerous first sources used throughout. We meet a number of characters, many whom popular history has forgotten. From copying mail, foiling assassinations, and running double agents, it is in here.

Gayla Bassham
It's a very interesting book, and I learned a lot about espionage in the Tudor era. The author does a great job sketching the lives and personalities of men like Thomas Phelippes and William Parry (a spy working for Elizabeth I and a conspirator against her, respectively). Where I think Alford misses the mark, though, is that he fails to really grapple with the big picture: how did the aura of danger and paranoia that surrounded Elizabeth's court affect English politics and society? In particula ...more
Oct 29, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: owned-books, history
Most folks know the major facts of Elizabeth I's reign: The Armada, English Protestant v. Roman Catholic, Mary Queen of Scots, state sponsored Protestant killings in France, Spanish religious warfare in the Low Countries. This volume provides a detailed overview of how these separate issues were inter-woven, and detailing the specific acts of her staff on her behalf, and the individuals involved on the various sides.

This is a detailed study of the methods that the English state used to ensure th
Jun 25, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This was an interesting book but the organisation of its contents left something to be desired. The first section seems interminably long at times and the history it recounts is pretty well known. Certainly one needs some historical context before jumping into the finer points of Elizabethan plots and intrigues (and perhaps Alford is just over playing the Cambridge historian card here), but this book for me really started and picked up speed from section two. There is also some considerable over ...more
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  • The Children of Henry VIII
  • Tudor: The Family Story
  • Heretic Queen: Queen Elizabeth I and the Wars of Religion
  • New Worlds, Lost Worlds: The Rule of the Tudors, 1485-1603
  • The Queen's Agent: Francis Walsingham at the Court of Elizabeth I
  • Elizabeth I and Her Circle
  • The Anne Boleyn Collection: The Real Truth about the Tudors
  • Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England
  • The Uncrowned Kings of England: The Black History of the Dudleys and the Tudor Throne
  • The Men Who Would Be King: Suitors to Queen Elizabeth I
  • Her Majesty's Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage
  • The Reckoning: The Murder of Christopher Marlowe
  • Elizabeth: Renaissance Prince
  • The Last White Rose: Dynasty, Rebellion and Treason. The Secret Wars against the Tudors
  • Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty
  • Fatal Colours
  • England Under the Tudors
  • The Lady Penelope: The Lost Tale of Love and Politics in the Court of Elizabeth I

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