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

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

4 out of 5 (1 rating)


The acclaimed and enthralling story of the dark side of Elizabethan rule, from Stephen Alford Elizabeth I's reign is known as a golden age, yet to much of Europe she was a 'Jezebel' and heretic who had to be destroyed.

The Watchers is a thrilling portrayal of the secret state that sought to protect the Queen; a shadow world of spies, codebreakers, agent provocateurs and confidence-men who would stop at nothing to defend the realm.

Reviews: "Forget Le Carre, Deighton and the rest - this is more enthralling than any modern spy fiction". (Daily Telegraph). "Absorbing and closely documented...Alford vividly evokes this murky world of codes, ciphers, invisible ink, intercepted letters, aliases, disguises, forgeries and instructions to burn after reading ...flowing narrative [and] crisp judments ...engrossing". (Guardian). "[Alford] has brought a dash of le Carre to the 16th century". (The Times (Book of the Week)). "A vivid and staggeringly well-researched portrait of the sinister side of Elizabethan England...This is a spectacular book. It sheds new light on plots that most historians have ceased to explore and brings less famous conspiracies to the attention of the general reading public". (Herald). "Fascinating...If you want to know the inside story of this struggle, the dark heart of calculation and the fight for survival, then this is the book to read.

I know no better". (Spectator). About the author: Stephen Alford is the author of the acclaimed biography Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

He taught for fifteen years at Cambridge University, where he was a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of History and a Fellow of King's College.

He is now Professor of Early Modern British History in the University of Leeds.


  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 416 pages, Illustrations
  • Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
  • Publication Date:
  • Category: British & Irish history
  • ISBN: 9780141043654



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An interesting and engrossing book detailing the activities of the network of spies and informers, the ‘Watchers’ of the title, set up and run by Walsingham, Essex, Burleigh and Robert Cecil to protect Elizabethan society from the catholic threat. Alford cleverly illustrates the perceived magnitude of the threat when he describes an imagined assassination attempt on Elizabeth by catholic agents and the ensuing chaos when she dies from her wounds.Alford concentrates on the ordinary men in the network, the ones recruited and paid ad hoc – many ended up in debt - the double and, in one case, triple agents, collecting information and sending it back, by letter, to their masters. He details how letters were intercepted, decrypted, and sent on their way – a device used most famously to break the Babington Plot and to force the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots – how torture was used for force confessions, and how catholic spies were become double agents.Its easy to draw parallels between those Watchers and the recent revelations of the lengths today’s Elizabethan watchers will go to in order to protect society and there are lessons here - the manipulations and use of entrapment in the Babington Plot is a good example - are a timely reminder that we should also consider just how far we want the state to go to preserve our way of life.

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