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

3.66  ·  Rating details ·  738 ratings  ·  109 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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Average rating 3.66  · 
Rating details
 ·  738 ratings  ·  109 reviews

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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
Richard Moss
Jan 02, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2021, non-fiction
Anyone who has read Hilary Mantel's Cromwell trilogy will know that espionage, intelligence and control of information were a vital part of the armoury of the Tudor state.

In The Watchers, Stephen Alford looks at the role spies, codebreakers and surveillance played in shoring up the reign of Henry VIII's daughter Queen Elizabeth I.

The reputation of Elizabeth's reign as an English Golden Age may be justified in some ways, but Alford focuses on the sense of fragility and insecurity that also pervad
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
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
Oct 12, 2017 rated it really liked it
“The Watchers” gives us a very different view of Elizabethan England than we (or at least I) are used to. Instead of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Ben Jonson and the university wits there is the constant threat of invasion and the first stirrings of a centralized police state. Elizabeth is not the Gloriana of Spenser’s “Faerie Queen” but a headstrong monarch who put her kingdom at risk by refusing to name a successor. While the arts flourished, voyages of discovery sent out and everyone went to the thea ...more
Nicholas Whyte
Jul 23, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, 2013, xr, 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
Mar 02, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: tudor, history, england, nonfic, spy
For some reason I randomly became obsessed with Elizabethan spycraft in the last week, so of course I had to read this. And, for the most part, this book had what I wanted. There is an insane level of detail here; many, many documents get referenced. I also liked how the author explained all of the broader concepts at work as well, for those of us who don't know off the top of our head the politics of Philip's Spanish court. Yes, there is an obvious bias, but it's so mundane that it didn't reall ...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
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
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
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
Jun 09, 2019 rated it liked it
A book on espionage during the reign of the Tudors. The author uses found evidence to detail the workings of the Elizabethean system, specifically the threats and plots against queen Elizabeth. He competently merges the lives and schemes of the main characters into the timeline using a combination of historical facts and the available evidence to explain the behind the scenes espionage at key Elizabethian events, from the execution of Mary queen of Scots to the Spanish Armada. The level of detai ...more
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
Nov 25, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This showed how delicate the balance of power was to just maintain.
Sep 13, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
From necessity the Elizabethan state saw the birth of what, in a Le Carré world, would be called tradecraft. Once it became clear that Elizabeth was not going to return her country to Rome, and moreover threw such limited financial and military resources as she had into supporting the Protestant Dutch rebels, she became, in Catholic eyes, a legitimate target for assassination and overthrow. Protecting the Queen and the Tudor Protestant state required information gathering, intelligence and spies ...more
Mar 28, 2021 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I spotted this on my mum's bookshelf (she's always been obsessed with Elizabethan England) and was intrigued, so I borrowed it the last time I was allowed to see her, covid permitting.

It's a really interesting book, and starts out by painting a powerful picture of what might have happened if Elizabeth had been assassinated or overthrown in any of the many plots against her - positing an alternative history in which we might now all be speaking Spanish here in the UK.

The author shows how Francis
Michael Cayley
Aug 15, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
A book on opposition to Elizabeth I and the spies used by the government. It emphasises the fragility of the regime, and the constant worries about succession and the stability of the realm if the queen was assassinated.

There is a mass of fascinating detail in the book, but the detail ends up being repetitive. How many times, for instance, do we need to be told at some length about worries about the threat posed by Mary Queen of Scots? Stephen Alford clearly did lots of research into original do
Marian Finan
Dec 22, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A very well accomplished book on the secret battle to make Elizabeth I and her reign the glorious ‘golden age’ that we talk of now.

I was personally so surprised that figures like Walsingham and Burghley were assisted greatly by other lesser known individuals. Spying was it’s own form of currency in Elizabethan times. I feel the author writes his subject in an easily understood book, which flows quite nicely.

Also, not being excessively long, it’s a nice, easy read for those (like me) who are no
Apr 23, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A fascinating look, into the machinations, it took, to keep Elizabeth I on her throne, and to keep her alive. It also gives question(s) as to why Mary Queen of Scots was so demonized by the English, but the bigger question, for me was, how come Elizabeth I never met with her so called "sister?" Was Mary Queen of Scots the legitimate heir to the throne from Edward VI? After all, Elizabeth had been legally declared a "Bastard," and that term was never legally dismissed. So many questions, so many ...more
Jan 02, 2019 rated it really liked it
3.5 Stars. Interesting look at the network of spies and their masters keeping Elizabeth I safely on her throne. Amazing to think how many plots there were from people and countries outside of England solely because of her religion. And even after Mary Queen of Scots, the major reason for replacing Elizabeth, there were still tons of plots. The book has lots of details of the spies and spy masters, though is a bit redundant at times. Still, fascinating for anyone interested in the Tudor dynasty.
Not what I was expecting -- I was expecting a more in-depth exploration of Elizabeth's spy ring. The book is divided into parts, each focusing on Catholics in England, Mary Queen of Scots, and the defeat of the Armada, with some info spread throughout the chapters regarding some of the spying that was being done. Still informative, and good if you want an overview of some of the big moments from Elizabeth I's reign. ...more
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.
Sally Stewart
Jan 07, 2019 rated it it was ok
This book certainly has a lot of detailed research. But history books today should be more than that. They should be well written not only in terms of prose but also in creating a bigger picture around the detail. This book didn’t.
Oct 21, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Good description of the covert operatives and operations of the Elizabethan Era. Read it following reading The Cecils. Features Walsingham more than the Cecils but really spends most time on their various spies and how they garnered or created “intelligence”. Very readable book.
Hilary Shearing
Jun 28, 2017 rated it really liked it
Terrific read. An extraordinary period. Totally mindboggling.
Not much has changed
Sep 29, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
It started out really strong but started to drag about halfway through. But still enjoyable.
Mike Bevel
Feb 16, 2018 rated it really liked it
I'll mostly think about poor William Parry, who loved gossip and dinner but had a conversion experience once he realized what England was doing to Catholics. ...more
George Foord
Jun 04, 2018 rated it it was ok
this book was boring, in parts it was ibteresting but was dull otherwise
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Stephen Alford FRHistS (born 1970) is a British historian and academic. He has been professor of early modern British history at the University of Leeds since 2012. Educated at the University of St Andrews, he was formerly a British Academy Post-doctoral Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge (1997–99) and junior research fellow of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge and, between 1999 and 2012, ...more

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