Civil Liberties

The Elizabethan CIA

The surveillance state in the 16th century


The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I, by Stephen Alford, Bloomsbury, 2012, 398 pages, $35 

We think of the surveillance state as a modern development, something conjured up by novels such as Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent or George Orwell's 1984, or by real-life stories of Stalin's Soviet Union or Hitler's Germany. But spying is one of the world's oldest professions, as the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Bible attest. Well before the 20th century, many states were doing all they could to monitor their citizens' activities as closely and comprehensively as possible.

England in particular has a long history of spying on its own people. It is no accident that in Hamlet, Shakespeare portrays the Danish government specializing in espionage and double-dealing. In Act 2, scene 1, the court councilor Polonius teaches a henchman how to spy on Polonius' own son, Laertes, in Paris, instructing him "by indirections find directions out." Moving as he did in court circles, Shakespeare was evidently familiar with intelligence operations in Elizabethan England, some of which involved several of his famous contemporaries—certainly Francis Bacon and possibly Christopher Marlowe. Under such spymasters as Lord Burghley and Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth's court pioneered many of the techniques and practices we associate with international espionage to this day, including code-breaking and the use of double and even triple agents.

A fascinating book could be written on the surveillance state in Elizabethan England. Unfortunately, Stephen Alford's The Watchers is not it. As interesting as the material the King's College historian has assembled may be, it is so badly written that I cannot in good conscience recommend it. The book is filled with clichéd prose: "Courtiers sparkled, poets and dramatists wrote, and audacious sea captains harried the Spanish enemy" and "Elizabethan London was a crowded, suffocating, jostling world of pleasure, business and life" and "Life carried on; pain passes away, memories eventually heal." It is filled with sentences that are either ungrammatical or unintelligible, and sometimes both: "Treason was cumulative, a self-sustaining and self-nurturing fear, incident building upon incident over many years, a great pattern of conspiracy" and "The mystery of Thomas Phelippes's mission remains its object and purpose." (I believe the latter sentence means "The purpose of Thomas Phelippes's mission remains a mystery.") As an involuntary connoisseur of bad undergraduate prose, I need to add this sentence to my collection: "Three years later he founded a seminary to train priests in the town of Douai in the Low Countries which had moved, by the time Allen was in Rome in 1579, to Rheims in France." I did not know that the Low Countries were ever this mobile or so small that they could fit conveniently into a French town. I have rarely seen a book from a real press with so many grammatical and stylistic errors.

If the problems with Alford's writing remained on the level of individual sentences, perhaps I could give this book a pass on the grounds of its content. But The Watchers is poorly written on the global as well as the local level. Alford's narrative is repetitious, he constantly emphasizes details at the expense of the big picture, he discusses events out of logical order, and he apparently cannot gauge what the general reader needs to know in order to follow the larger story he is trying to tell. He has no sense of proportion. He devotes one paragraph to the defeat of the Spanish Armada, and a slightly longer paragraph to a random dinner among Catholic Englishmen in Rome. We learn of the dinner: "The food was very fine indeed, beginning with antipasto of meat, Spanish anchovies or syrup of stewed prunes and raisins." And of the demise of the great Spanish fleet we learn: "The Armada, and with it the cherished Enterprise of England, hoped for and then planned for so long, failed." A reader may be excused for desiring more information about the most momentous event that happened during Elizabeth's reign and less about what was on the menu at the Renaissance equivalent of a tapas bar.

The Watchers is also fundamentally incoherent in intellectual terms. Early in the book, Alford appears to be offering Elizabethan England as an object lesson in the dangers of the surveillance state: "Yet the heightened vigilance of Queen Elizabeth's advisors was in fact potentially corrosive of the security they craved. It is a cruel but perhaps a common historical paradox. The more obsessively a state watches, the greater the dangers it perceives. Suspicions of enemies at home and abroad became more extreme, even self-fulfilling." (For the record, prophecies, not suspicions, are self-fulfilling.) But despite a few scattered hints at parallels between Elizabethan espionage and later developments, Alford does not pursue this theme in any depth or prove that the queen's advisors were paranoid. Toward the end of his narrative, he does discuss a few cases where Elizabeth's government, to suit its own political agenda, may have manufactured evidence of treason. For example, in 1594, Elizabeth's doctor, Roderigo Lopez, may well have been wrongfully accused and convicted of plotting to kill her. But in general, the threats against Elizabeth's rule that Alford discusses were real. The Spanish Armada was not a figment of some overzealous Elizabethan spy's imagination.

Thus, by and large, Alford ends up justifying the espionage he documents, though not all the unethical and even morally repellant forms it took. (Burghley and Walsingham were pioneers in torture.) But according to what Alford himself shows—and other historians would agree—Elizabeth's England faced genuine and profoundly threatening enemies: the Spanish, the French, and the Papacy abroad and dissident Catholics at home. At times Alford seems to downplay the extent of the Catholic threat to Protestant England. But most of his narrative is devoted to showing that renegade Catholics were operating within Elizabethan England, and they were conspiring with foreign forces to overthrow the Queen. As the saying goes, you're not paranoid if everybody is out to get you.

I should acknowledge that Alford has done some remarkable archival research in developing this book, and he does succeed in documenting the details of Elizabethan espionage rings and Catholic counter-intelligence operations. A reader who already has a grasp of Renaissance history, and in particular one who already understands the Catholic-Protestant conflict in this era, can profit from reading The Watchers. But the general reader will have a hard time following Alford's account, and those looking for an indictment of the surveillance state will have to draw their own parallels to modern experience, and even their own conclusions. On the larger issues his book appears to broach, Alford is ultimately as evasive as the shadowy spies who people his narrative.