Review: ‘Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents’ Series 1, Episode 1

Written by Martha Stutchbury 

BBC’S Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents aired this month for the first time since its 2017 debut and provides fascinating insight into the meaning behind Isaac Oliver’s famous portrait of the Virgin Queen, which shows her majesty’s garments adorned with eyes and ears, in a veiled reference to what the documentary refers to as a ‘the world’s first secret service’ – headed by the Queen’s ‘ruthless, cunning and loyal’ head of ‘spyery,’ William Cecil. It is because of Cecil’s network of informants, the documentary claims, that Elizabeth was able to remain on the throne for 44 years in such a politically and religiously tumultuous Europe. The first episode of this three-part mini-series from directors Durlacher and Jones outlines the increased threat posed to Elizabeth from 1570, when the Pope himself labels the monarch a heretic, effectively providing 40,000 illegally practising British Catholics with the justification for her murder. It is in this climate, the episode claims, that Cecil’s dedication is increasingly required to defuse assassination attempts on the monarch.

This episode focuses almost exclusively on Cecil’s involvement in neutralising the treasonous conspiracies of the Duke of Norfolk and Mary Queen of Scots. This is a fascinating story, maximised in its treachery by the fact that both ‘villains’ are blood relatives of the Queen herself. The documentary follows Cecil’s interception of a coded letter addressed to ’40’ at the height of religious and political tensions under Elizabeth’s reign. The documentary gains pace upon the agent’s discovery that the desired recipient for the letter is the Duke himself planning to, we eventually discover, marry Mary and invite the Spanish to overthrow the monarch, with a view to establishing himself as King. When Elizabeth learns of this, and refuses to sign the death warrant of the Duke, her cousin, the programme highlights Cecil’s hierarchy-subverting determination to protect the queen, by addressing his secret role in the distribution of a news pamphlet to the public, publicising the details of the Duke’s treason and leaving Elizabeth with little choice but to sanction the execution of her kin.

Over-dramatisation significantly decreases the validity of the piece, and seems unnecessary to the viewer in light of the story’s already compelling narrative. In an attempt to construct theatricality from the archival footage in the documentary – cited as being chiefly from the British Library, the ‘Cecil Papers’ at Hatfield House, National Archives and the National Portrait Gallery, the principal characters of Cecil and Elizabeth are reconstructed by actors. Cameras trail the two figures in slow motion as they pass along shadowy corridors or smell flowers in the palace gardens (with this particular activity being depicted more than once). These scenes are often accompanied by feverishly paced violins, adding dramatic – and sometimes tiresome – weight to the documentary’s production.

There is also an unconvincing focus from the ‘resident historians’ of the documentary on portraits of the period. When considering a painting of Francis Walsingham – referenced in the programme as Cecil’s equally cunning ‘second in command,’ it is claimed by one camera-ready historian that: ‘If you look at those eyes…there is no mercy there’. Similarly, a portrait of Cecil in later life, after his dismissal from the Queen’s favour in 1587 for carrying out the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, is narrated with the same sensationalism: ‘Looking at the picture, you can see how devastated he would have been,’ one narrator claims as the camera zooms in steadily on the (actually rather passive looking) face of the ex-spymaster.

Nevertheless, the documentary’s visual representation of Cecil’s informant network is creative and revealing, with lines being drawn across the screen to indicate the relationship of one character to another in the spymaster’s system. It seems an accurate assessment when one historian claims that the Elizabethan culture of conspiracy is an ‘endless labyrinth,’ and the audience are enticed by Cecil’s attempt to decipher the ‘maze within a maze’ of Elizabethan treachery. The role of individuals within the network is explored to a satisfying degree within the programme’s one-hour framework. For example, the role of ‘Cambridge’s top mathematician’ in unpicking the coded messages delivered from Anthony Babington – the nobleman responsible for the plotting of Elizabeth’s assassination – who is also questionably described as a ‘sort of young, Elizabethan, Catholic playboy’ in the documentary. Additionally, Mary Queen of Scots during her house arrest, is depicted with a detail that is undoubtedly arresting for the audience. Such a focus on minor characters successfully highlights the delicacy and deep-rootedness of Elizabeth’s reliance on her spymaster for continued protection, and, in light of this, ‘Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents’ is undoubtedly a compelling watch.


‘Series 1: Episode 1’ (2017) Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents. BBC 2, 23 October 2017

Image: Isaac Oliver, The Rainbow Portrait, (c.1600)

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