This is a history of the Elizabethan espionage services. Because Elizabeth I continued her father's breakaway from Roman Catholicism and because she never had a clearly nominated successor there were many attempts to replace her by assassination, coup or invasion. The pope called for her replacement, branding her a heretic and a bastard with no legitimate right to the throne and therefore exonerating in advance any Catholic who might kill her. Mary Queen of Scots, who was for 29 years the next in line for the English throne and who was a member of the ultra-RC Guise family, was the focus for a number of attempts to replace Elizabeth, even when a deposed Queen under quite strict house arrest in England. Philip II of Spain, once King of England as the husband of Elizabeth's elder sister Mary, always threatened even though it was not until 1588 that he managed to launch the Great Armada invasion attempt (and there was a second Armada in 1596 which was wrecked by a storm off Finisterre before the English discovered it was on its way). And there were a number of assassination attempts (though some might have been more due to the zeal of rival intelligence services to discover plots than actual attempts). So there was a need for England to have people involved in what we know call espionage but they then called spiery.
First Sir Francis Walsingham ran a very successful intelligence service which, amongst other things, 'discovered' (or maybe manufactured or provoked) evidence for the Babington Plot in which Mary Queen of Scots appeared to assent to a plot to kill Elizabeth. After his Walsingham's death in 1590 the Earl of Essex and Sir Robert Cecil ran rival intelligence services (Cecil's prevailing and eventually, although this is after the book finishes, preventing the Gunpowder Plot).
This book chronicles the spies who worked for them, decoding ciphers, collecting information, penetrating conspiracies, acting as double agents and agents provacateur and disseminating disinformation. Some of these shadowy spies are working for ideals, others for money, others because they are fascinated by aspects of a life where one is never whom one seems to be. Many of them are turncoats and one often wonders how any spymaster could be certain that his men would not turn their coats a second time.
Alford's book has moments of extraordinary interest, especially when he describes the spies in the shadows. Concentrating on the characters as he tends to does mean that sometimes the narrative is not chronological and it is sometimes a little confusing when he repeatedly returns to an event to describe it again from a different point of view. Furthermore, not all of the spies are as interesting as their colleagues and there are moments when the story drags. I also would have liked more details about the spycraft; it would have been fun to have learned more about the ciphers used (Simon Singh's The Code Book has a fascinating chapter on the Babington code cipher which shows how a technical discussion of code-breaking can be very readable).
Overall, however, Alford's book keeps the interest going and throws light on what must be one of the murkiest areas of history. April 2014; 325 pages
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57