Alford continually reminds us of the dire threats facing Elizabethan England, but the story of the reaction to those threats makes up the bulk of the book, that of the spies, courtiers and advisers who fought a war of espionage against danger both nebulous and real. Alford introduces us to a vast cast of characters in "The Watchers": Anthony Munday, the writer and adventurer who infiltrated Catholic scholars in Rome; William Allen, the leader of Catholic exiles in Europe who supported foreign invasion of England; and Thomas Phelippes, a right-hand man to Elizabeth’s secretary Sir Francis Walsingham and a gifted cryptographer. These men participated in a decades-long dance of intrigue as priests plotted to infiltrate England, dissidents plotted to murder Elizabeth and Catholics plotted to free Mary Stuart, also known as Mary, Queen of Scots.
Mary, Queen of Scots is one of the most famous and important characters in Alford’s story. She was a claimant to the English throne, a prisoner in England and a potential liability to her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s government executed Mary in 1587 after it discovered the Babington Plot, which sought to assassinate Elizabeth and crown Mary as queen. The execution rocked the Elizabethan world because it called into question the divine sanctity of monarchy.
Alford’s tales of specific plots and spies are interesting to a point, but by the time he reaches the 1590s, these episodes become repetitive: coded letters, double agents and torture at the Tower of London figure prominently into most chapters. These tales are more interesting when considered as a bundle, rather than individually; they paint a picture of a society in the throes of fear, uncertain of its survival.