As research for an exciting project I’m reading .The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I Stephen Alford’s excellent study of the spy network in Elizabethan England.
He does a great job in portraying the reality of the Elizabethan police state. We have got used to the version of English history in which Henry VIII–a kind of sixteenth century English Idi Amin– was a great sporting sort of fellow who, “Ho, ho, had an eye for the ladies like any other red blooded English lad, and then rolled up his sleeves and got to work cleaning up that corrupt old Catholic church with all the lazy, fat monks….” Along with that myth is the story of “Good Queen Bess”–the virgin Queen who loved and served her country so devoutly that she refused to be married and remained a pure, chaste and godly woman–who completed her father’s noble work of cleansing England from the foreign Catholic menace.”
Along with that is a kind of Thomas Kincade version of “merry ole England” in which Anne Hathaway lives in a pretty thatched cottage while her hubby William Shakespeare comes home for a hearty supper of roast beef and ale after a busy day at the theater. This is the England of that fatuous film Shakespeare in Love and countless other romanticized idiocies like the two recent films about Queen Elizabeth.
In fact Alford shows us that Elizabethan London was a dark, squalid and overcrowded metropolis. It was teeming with rats–both human and the other kind. With streets full of sewage, beggars, lepers and criminals it was a dark and grim city where palaces and princes jostled with paupers and brothels. Horrible prisons, torture chambers and public executions that make the ISIS thugs look like Cinderella were commonplace.
By the time of Elizabeth’s reign the conflict between Protestant England and the Catholic powers of Europe was clear. Elizabeth and her ministers were threatened on every side by the superpowers of the papacy, Spain and France. Real plots to assassinate her brewing and Catholics were obviously the enemy. So her parliament passed statute after statute gradually clamping down on the Catholic religion and forcing the new religion on the people. What resulted was a police state. Everyone had to go to the Anglican church. Attendance was taken. To reconcile someone to the Catholic faith was an act of treason. Not to attend Protestant service brought about huge fines, confiscation of property, imprisonment and death.
Spies were everywhere. Think of Soviet Russia in a doublet and hose. Think of the Gulag in London.
It’s a fascinating and terrible time to be a Catholic in England, and Alford’s book is one of the best to take you into the intrigue of murder, torture and martyrdom that took place at the end of the sixteenth century.