“Cannot we delude the eyes/ Of a few poor household spies?” Volpone sings to Celia in Ben Jonson’s play. On the evidence of these two books, the answer is “No.” Consider the fate of John Somerville, a Warwickshire Catholic who decided, in October 1583, to assassinate Queen Elizabeth. He was foolish enough to say as much before witnesses, describing the Queen as “a serpent and a viper.” Within days he found himself being interrogated by no less a person than Sir Francis Walsingham, the head of Elizabeth’s security service. He was found hanged in prison before he could be brought to trial for treason. This may have been a prudent forestalling on his part, to avoid the drawing and quartering that followed a traitor’s hanging, or he may simply have been disposed of without fuss.

This anecdote from Stephen Alford’s The Watchers is a small but telling illustration of many themes of his book: the extraordinary efficiency of Walsingham’s espionage network, the seriousness with which the most obscure dissentient voices were taken, and the implacability of the State machine. It is also a reminder of the inextricability of religious and political allegiances in the last decades of Elizabeth’s reign. A “loyal Catholic” was a contradiction in terms. Since the queen had been excommunicated by Pope Pius V’s bull Regnans in excelsis in 1570—which, incidentally, prompts the surprising reflection that England remained technically a Catholic country for the first twelve years of her reign—her Catholic subjects had been released from obedience to her or her laws. (John Cooper, however, remarks that the bull was not widely publicized in England and suggests that “most English Catholics never saw a copy.”) Many priests and laity worked actively to overthrow and replace her, first by Mary Queen of Scots, then, after the latter’s execution for treason in 1587—an act which was forced upon a reluctant Elizabeth by her ministers, who had effectively rigged the case against her royal cousin—by King Philip of Spain. Alford’s book tells the stories of many plotters on both sides: some, like John Somerville, minor figures, others among the great of the land. Intriguing though these stories are, they give the work an episodic feel; it lacks the narrative drive of Cooper’s biography of
Walsingham (which Alford seems not to know). Where they cover the same ground, Cooper is usually clearer and more perceptive.

In 1534, when Henry VIII was proclaimed head of the church of England, Walsingham was two or three years old. He later studied at King’s College, Cambridge, a center of reformed thought. For much of Queen Mary’s reign he was abroad, returning shortly after Elizabeth’s accession to enter Parliament. In 1571, he was appointed English ambassador to France, and in that capacity witnessed the St. Bartholomew massacres in Paris the following year, in which two thousand Protestants were slaughtered over three days of rioting. This only intensified his hostility to Catholicism—it must have galled him to be a party to negotiations for Elizabeth’s projected marriage with the Duke of Anjou—and as for the French, he remarked, “I think [it] less peril to live with them as enemies, than as friends”. His skepticism was well founded: one of his successors in the embassy, Sir Edward Stafford, supported Mary Stuart and was actually a double agent in the pay of the Spanish.

Walsingham’s nomination as private secretary to the queen in 1573 put him at the heart of government for the remaining seventeen years of his life. Cooper does a good job reminding us of the root meaning of “secretary”—“keeper of secrets.” Walsingham, however, was not really running an operation comparable to modern systems such as MI6 or the CIA since “The Elizabethan secret service was less a formal structure than a web of relationships.” In fact, as both Alford and Cooper show, Walsingham had more autonomy than is sometimes supposed by people who overestimate the extent to which Elizabeth ruled as an absolute monarch. He combined the functions of the modern home secretary and foreign secretary. He controlled the flow of information to the queen; much of his secret service work was carried on without her knowledge, although all was done in her name and for her safety. Their relationship was tempestuous—she once threw a slipper at him, and mocked his habitual somber clothing by nicknaming him “Moor”—yet Elizabeth also respected his integrity, and at least considered his advice. He often disagreed with her: Early in his tenure of office he had to endure the humiliation of her withdrawal of support for the Dutch Protestants in their struggle against Spain, which he had publicly (and financially) backed. They agreed, however, about the threat to national security posed by resurgent Catholicism.

Cooper sensibly warns us of the danger of reading history written by the victors: “The myth that Catholicism is somehow alien to Englishness has had a long and corrosive effect on the national memory of the British Isles.” The first generation of Catholic missionary priests did not seek Elizabeth’s overthrow—indeed, Pope Pius IV offered to leave the Church of England undisturbed if only Catholics were granted freedom to worship. Cardinal Allen’s seminary at Douai, founded in 1568, initially encouraged its graduates to go to England to give pastoral support to Catholic families, not to make converts. (Allen himself, however, advocated the invasion of England by the powers of France and Spain.) Several priests prayed for the queen on the scaffold. Walsingham was uneasy about so many executions—not from humane motives, but because he felt that to create martyrs was to play into the enemy’s hands. It became increasingly difficult, and finally impossible, for many Catholics to take the oath of loyalty which was imposed on every citizen, requiring them “to withstand, pursue, and suppress” anyone designing to hurt the queen. Meanwhile, parliamentary legislation of the 1570s and 1580s, steered through by Walsingham, greatly extended the legal definition of treason.

Both Alford and Cooper emphasize the social inclusiveness of Elizabethan espionage. Christopher Marlowe may be the most celebrated of Walsingham’s agents, but nobles, gentry, and the criminal fraternity could all prove useful. Walsingham’s methodical secretariat—located, with beautiful appropriateness, in Seething Lane—with its meticulous accounting, expert cryptographers, and willingness to employ known traitors in order to feed them misinformation to pass on to their “controls,” relied upon each agent’s knowing only what was necessary for the job at hand. Walsingham alone, the spider in the center of the web, saw the whole picture. Propelled by his extreme Protestant zeal, he was not above bypassing the law in order to gain his ends. He even recruited a Catholic priest, Gilbert Gifford, by whose means he was able to intercept correspondence between Mary, Queen of Scots and her contacts in Paris, and thereby unmask the Babington plot. (Among the plotters, by the way, was Chidiock Tichborne, whose poem written on the eve of his execution, “My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,” is a small masterpiece.) Gifford was trained by Thomas Phelippes, Walsingham’s chief cipher specialist, about whom Alford writes interestingly. Phelippes and Walsingham went so far as to add a coded postscript to one of Mary’s letters to Babington, using wording which would support a charge of treason against her. Also working on this case was Robert Poley, who was implicated in the death of Marlowe and was probably acting on government orders. (Alford’s downplaying of the evidence for Marlowe’s espionage activity as “sketchy and circumstantial” is questionable.) Babington realized too late that Poley might not be reliable, and wrote him a heartrending note: “I am the same I always pretended. I pray God you be so.” Babington’s inevitable execution in 1586 was made exceptionally brutal; on the personal orders of Elizabeth, “for more terror,” he was rent limb from limb. Mary, being royal, was beheaded, although Elizabeth would have preferred her quietly murdered in private, and even tried to persuade her jailer to do the deed himself.

The most famous plot with which Walsingham had to deal was the Armada. Cooper remarks that, had this succeeded, Elizabeth would not necessarily have been deposed. Philip of Spain had been Mary’s consort for five years and had no great relish to return to England; he authorized the Duke of Parma to negotiate with Elizabeth for freedom of religion, return of lands claimed by Spain, and damages for acts of piracy—all in return for leaving her in place. Cooper plausibly interprets the Armada as “an attempt to enforce Catholic toleration rather than to annihilate English liberty and religion.” In the event, the rout of the Spanish fleet was unsatisfactory to Walsingham: “our half doings breed dishonor, and leave the disease uncured.”

As Cooper notes, Walsingham’s fondness for medical analogies reflects his own lifelong struggle against illness (he may have been diabetic). Even when absent from the Council table, he worked on in his bed. He died, worn out in the royal service and deeply in debt, on April 6, 1590, and was buried, without elaborate ceremony at his own request, in the same grave as his son-in-law, Sir Philip Sidney. His state papers were preserved, but all his private papers, frustratingly for future historians, simply thrown away as if of no interest. John Cooper and Stephen Alford have enriched our knowledge of the murky world of Elizabethan espionage, a world still familiar in many ways. Some things have changed, though: It is fascinating to imagine Walsingham’s reaction could he have witnessed, in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, the amicable meeting between Queen Elizabeth II and James Bond.