November Books 2) The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I, by Stephen Alford

More reading for me in my slowly progressing Tudor history project, 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 Queen’s advisors, determined to preserve her rule at all costs, much more ruthless than she would have been (as witness her dithering over the execution of Mary Queen of Scots) and also somewhat more anti-Catholic.

It’s easy to overlook two very important facts about the historical situation: first, that nobody knew that Elizabeth would live to 1603, and the uncertainty about her succession, which she deliberately fostered to some extent, was profoundly destabilising to those who wanted to think ahead to the next reign; and second, that information just did not really flow between countries – there were no newspapers, statesmen did not give interviews, official communications between rulers and magnates had to be supplemented by intelligence gathered by agents in important centres abroad. One of the tools of statecraft therefore was to have a widespread network of contacts, who would demand regular payment in return for information; this still happens today, of course, but unlike today there was almost no OSINT to check the HUMINT against. Another important point is that most of the information was channeled to the principals directly, and never shown to anyone else except, if really necessary, the Queen.

Given these two factors, Alford makes it almost uncontroversial, though of course potentially very dangerous, that Walsingham essentially framed Mary Queen of Scots for execution through the Babington Plot; although Babington himself, who was only 24, was clearly a rather slender reed for the restoration of Catholicism, Mary was an ever present temptation for someone more competent while she lived. Walsingham and Cecil were ruthless, but they had seen the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, and indeed had perpetrated plenty of sectarian violence themselves; they knew perfectly well what awaited them in the event of a further change of official ideology. Elizabethan England, providing security at home for economic stability and some encouragement of culture, at the cost of repression of the surviving loyalists to the former regime and paranoia about their foreign allies, seems not so very different from Pinochet’s Chile, or the less corrupt Eastern European countries under Communism.

I guess that most of the Irish records of the period were destroyed in 1922 (there’s an sf story to be written about some future archivist time-travelling back to rescue documents from the explosives) but I can speculate that it was more difficult for Irish viceroys to set up such a system. They tended to serve only a few years, and had much less time to build networks of personal contacts – indeed, Cecil back in London had his own sources, and Irish chieftains often used their own personal channels to communicate with the Queen over the head of the Dublin administration. Part of the English problem in Ireland was simply not understanding what was going on. Of course, whether that has really improved in the last four centuries is a different matter…

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