Alford, a fellow in history at Cambridge University, has delved deeply into 16th-century archives to unearth a history of the dark underside to the Elizabethan golden age—a page-turning tale of assassination plots, torture, and espionage. When Elizabeth I ascended to the throne in 1558, Protestants saw her as the rightful heir; Catholics regarded her as the godless Henry VIII’s bastard daughter who had usurped the throne from its legitimate occupant, Mary, Queen of Scots. Thus, throughout Elizabeth’s reign, she was targeted by foes both within and outside the kingdom, from the 471 English priests working to return England to the Church’s fold, to the power-grabbing rulers of France and Spain. A perfect storm of Elizabeth’s childlessness, Europe’s religious wars, and the assassinations of Protestant leaders elsewhere, intensified the anxieties of Elizabeth’s ministers. Her spies thus resorted to deception, interrogation, and even doctoring evidence to destroy both real and perceived threats to the queen’s safety—including Mary Stuart, who was executed for treason in 1587. Her execution “jolted” the Elizabethan world “on its axis.” While the government’s extensive spy network maintained a precarious peace during Elizabeth’s reign, Alford vividly makes the point that its effectiveness actually undermined the monarchy, with repercussions that extended well into the next century. B& illus., maps. Agent: George Lucas, Inkwell. (Nov.)
Literature regarding Elizabethan espionage often focuses a very bright spotlight on the riveting figure of Queen Elizabeth's "spymaster," Sir Francis Walsingham. However, Alford (history, Kings Coll., Univ. of Cambridge; Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I), who already has several Tudor histories under his belt, has given readers a more holistic view of the intelligence-gathering personnel and processes employed by the Elizabethan state in its understandable, yet merciless, quest for security. Weaving together the stories of conspirators such as Francis Throckmorton, well known to today's readers on the subject, with those of far less documented agents such as Charles Sledd, Alford has written an exhilarating and well-researched history. He has also produced a thought-provoking volume that may lead the reader to ponder the dangerous interplay of national defense and repression. VERDICT This title should appeal to those interested in the roots of modern espionage, the government of Elizabeth I, Tudor history, or European political/religious history. Even readers more familiar with the key players in the dramatic Elizabethan security apparatus may enjoy this refreshing take on the subject.—Tessa Minchew, Georgia Perimeter Coll. Lib., Clarkston
Alford (History/Cambridge Univ.; Burghley: William Cecil at the Court of Elizabeth I, 2008, etc.) is an expert on all things Elizabethan, and his intimate knowledge of the queen's ministers and the period's political history guarantees the accuracy and thoroughness of this rip-roaring story. The religious makeup of 16th-century England had bounced from Protestant to Catholic and back again with each succeeding offspring of Henry VIII. Her country's future relied upon Elizabeth's strength. The lack of a successor and England's isolation and defenselessness produced obsessive vigilance on the part of Lord High Treasurer William Cecil (Baron Burghley) and Principal Secretary Francis Walsingham. As the author notes, the more obsessive the vigilance, the greater the danger perceived. That there was a real threat in the 1580s is without doubt. Philip II of Spain, Mary Queen of Scots, exiled Catholics and priests in France all worked unceasingly to usurp, overthrow or murder Elizabeth. Mary, first cousin to the queen, had the strongest claim to the succession. Her Catholic supporters in France plotted unceasingly during her two-decade imprisonment. The threat from Philip took some years to materialize, but England's interference in the struggle of the Low Countries against Spanish rule pushed him to join the Pope's Great Enterprise against Elizabeth. The third threat, posed by priests trained at the English seminary in France, was more insidious. Over the course of 40 years, Elizabeth's hounds identified nearly 500 priests active in England; 116 of those met the gruesome fate of being hanged or drawn and quartered. Tracing the devious machinations of rebels and intelligence agents alike, Alford makes brilliant use of the intercepted letters, illegal publications and incendiary pamphlets found in the Elizabethan archives. A great spy novel--except that it's all true.
The secret agents who labored to prove Mary's guilt and bring about her execution are the stars of this meticulous chronicle ... Elizabeth's spies routinely used the rack for interrogations; torture was then, as now, justified as a means of protecting 'the security of the state.'” New Yorker
“Alford populates this engaging study of Elizabethan espionage with a cast of colorful characters and exposes the dark underbelly of a period that is often better known for Shakespeare and the triumph against the Spanish Armada. Secret correspondence, infiltration into the ranks of exile English Catholics in Rome and the betrayal of double agents are some of the thrilling elements that comprise this little-known tale.” Ilana Teitelbaum, Shelf Awareness
“It provides a genuineand compellingreappraisal of one of the most studied periods in English history: the reign of Elizabeth I. In exploring the world (or underworld) of Elizabethan espionage, Alford takes us on a darker, more disturbing and arguably more fascinating journey through the Elizabethan era than any other historian of the period …[An] engaging and perfectly pitched narrative. … Alford weaves together the bewilderingly complex threads of plots and counterplots so skillfully that as a reader you are never left floundering.” BBC History Magazine (named a Pick of the Month)