The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I is Stephen Alford's page-turning history of assassination plots, torture, and espionage. Here, he gives us a primer on the dark side of the reign of Elizabeth.

The assassins left the queen with bullets lodged in her stomach and shoulder, unconscious and bleeding heavily. They had surprised the queen’s entourage in St James’s Park in Westminster, able to get close enough to Elizabeth I in her carriage to wound her with their pistols, and able also, thanks to the shock and horror of what they done, to escape into the scrub and woodland. Seriously wounded, Elizabeth was taken the short distance to Whitehall Palace. In the private rooms of her Privy Chamber she was attended by her physicians, ladies, and chaplains. Her Privy Council met in emergency session to decide what to do, controlling their panic, realising at once the gravity of what had happened.

Let us say that all this took place in the year 1586, when Elizabeth I had been on throne for nearly twenty-eight years. She was the queen of a Protestant kingdom. To Catholics she was a bastard heretic schismatic whose offence in governing the Church of England was abhorrent almost beyond words. Foreign monarchs like King Philip II of Spain had long failed to instruct Elizabeth in the errors of her ways. English Catholic émigrés wrote ferocious denunciations of a religious persecution in their homeland that reminded them of how the early Roman emperors had crushed the first Christians. Priests sent secretly to minister to Catholics still in England were captured, tortured and executed as traitors. Were they holy men or, as Elizabeth’s government believed, political agents of a subversive power? Most dangerous of all was Mary Queen of Scots, whose English blood as a great-granddaughter of the first Tudor king Henry VII, made her a counter-claimant to Elizabeth’s throne.

Let us imagine that in our scenario Elizabeth died of her wounds in Whitehall Palace. What would have happened? We know that in 1585 Parliament had passed a special law to try anyone who rose in rebellion against the queen for her crown. Many of Elizabeth’s subjects had indeed sworn an oath in 1584 to take private vengeance on anyone who tried to harm her. In the event of Elizabeth’s murder Mary Queen of Scots, a prisoner in England since 1568, would have been tried. It is almost certain that she would have been found guilty of treason against her royal cousin and executed. Panic, riot and disorder: all were likely, even leading to civil war. Within weeks or months Spain’s formidable war machine in the Netherlands would surely have invaded England’s southern and eastern coasts. Who would have ruled this monarchy without a monarch? Elizabeth had no successor and for years had refused to name one. Her advisers would have governed for a time as a Council of State, but under the pressures of civil upheaval and war their authority would have crumbled. And what would history then have made of the reign of Elizabeth I? Probably that it was a strange and disturbing aberration in Catholic Europe, a time when the heretics were in charge, from whose grip England was released by the heroism of the Most Christian King of Spain.

This is the sensation of horror and nightmare that stands behind the familiar shining façade of the Elizabethan Golden Age. Nothing in this grim fantasy of Elizabeth’s murder and its consequences was beyond the imagination of her ministers and advisers. They lived in its shadow for over four decades. They knew that the security of Protestant England stood on unstable foundations: that the ‘true faith’ was slow to take root throughout the kingdom: that Elizabeth was in the eyes of Catholic Europe no queen at all: that the great powers of Europe plotted invasion: that some of Elizabeth’s Catholic subjects were complicit in efforts to topple her government.

So Queen Elizabeth I’s advisers waited and watched: and The Watchers tells the story of their watching, of the eyes they used to watch – those characters Elizabethans called ‘espials’ and ‘intelligencers’ – and of the methods they employed to protect the Elizabethan state from destruction. Certainly they were right to watch and to beware. Yet at the same time their anxieties were so heightened that they saw dangers everywhere, and their vision was often curiously out of focus. There was an uncompromising hardness to their methods. In the 1580s Catholic priests and others, held to be traitors to the queen, were tortured for information. Elizabeth’s ministers had no time for euphemisms. They called torture by its name; they wrote of torment and pain. And they believed it was necessary. After all, as a short official book defending the use of torture put it, only the guilty were put on the rack. And how many governments since have used that same argument?

Her Majesty’s secret servants were motivated by religious passion, by hatred of the enemy and by money. Spying in the sixteenth century was a game of patronage, where men who needed to put food on a family’s table gave secret information on Catholic families. Humble servants working for masters and mistresses made good spies. Some worked secretly in Paris, Amsterdam, Antwerp and Rome, sending home reports in secret ink, using codes and aliases, and intercepting the letters of the enemy. Given the risks and the duplicities of their trade, few spies had careers that lasted for more than a few years. But here Thomas Phelippes, the secret right hand to the queen’s secretary Sir Francis Walsingham, was different, working for decades in secrecy. A brilliant mathematician and a formidable linguist, Phelippes was skilled in cracking codes and ciphers and in running agents. As he wrote in 1600, reflecting on his expertise in directing and deceiving both friends and enemies: ‘the principal point in matter of intelligence, is to procure confidence with those parties that one will work upon, or for those parties a man would work by.’ Phelippes always said that he served God, the queen and the state. Like many others, he lived in that shadow land of uncertainty and danger where a pistol shot to the queen or an invasion of her kingdom could so easily have brought the Elizabethan history we know crashing down.