Episode 1 Elizabeth I's Secret Agents


Episode 1

A look at the world's first secret service. When the Pope declares Queen Elizabeth I a heretic, spymaster William Cecil must stop the Catholic assassins getting through.


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Transcript


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Britain at the time of Queen Elizabeth I was divided,

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unstable and violent.

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Despite this, Elizabeth stayed in power for over 40 years.

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The secret of her incredible reign

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is hidden in this portrait.

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Detailed in the folds of her dress,

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these eyes and ears represent a spy network.

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The world's first secret service,

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run by a father-and-son team.

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Both exceptionally intelligent and given the job of protecting

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Queen and country.

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This series tells their story over five decades

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and reveals how the secret state was born.

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Elizabethan England as it really was,

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with a network of spies battling a terrorist threat.

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And both sides will stop at nothing.

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You have to wonder what personal cost comes with that.

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That there must be some kind of damage to somebody's soul

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to commit that kind of crime.

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Leading historians have researched these events

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from different individual perspectives.

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Elizabeth was ineffably different.

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She was exceptional, she was holy, she was magical.

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They'll take us inside the mind of each of the key players,

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dissecting their motives and actions while the course of British history

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hangs in the balance.

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The double-crossings, the conspiracies

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which he holds in his head,

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it's an endless labyrinth, and it is terrifying.

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We'll see how history is really made in the corridors of power

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from just behind the throne.

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In this first episode,

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one of the most famous executions in British history -

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Mary Queen of Scots.

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In the second half of the 16th century, England finds itself alone.

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A Protestant nation surrounded by a Catholic Europe.

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Then, in 1570, 12 years into Elizabeth's reign,

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the Pope raises the stakes

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by claiming that Elizabeth is a heretic.

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This effectively gives 40,000 Catholics

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who were illegally practising in England, permission to kill her.

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Elizabeth lived constantly in fear of her life and to the despair

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of her ministers, she was very determined not to show it.

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Right until her old age, she made a point of going among her people.

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She felt that it was a gift she'd inherited from her father,

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Henry VIII, that she had I suppose what we might call now

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the common touch, and she made a point of showing herself

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to the people, even when it was quite risky to do so.

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She didn't want to appear to be cowed or afraid.

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Over the course of her reign,

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there were 14 assassination attempts on her life.

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But Elizabeth has one person who is ultimately reassuring.

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The man whose job it is to keep her alive.

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Her spy master.

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This is William Cecil.

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He is brilliant...

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..confident, cunning...

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..ruthless and loyal.

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He's second only to Elizabeth.

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Whenever she needs anything doing, however dirty it may be,

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he is the main figure.

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He runs everything.

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He was always at Elizabeth's side.

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He was her guide, her oracle,

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in many ways her political mentor. And I also think that perhaps -

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this is an opinion - he was maybe her only real friend.

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It's really Cecil who acts as a buttress...

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..between Elizabeth and the threat of Catholic terrorist conspiracy.

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He's got eyes and ears everywhere in Europe.

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He controls an enormous network

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of what's rather gloriously called spyery.

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It's such a wonderful word, isn't it, spyery?

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You want to whisper it.

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Cecil's genius was to create the world's first spy network.

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He has intelligence into Europe through the merchants

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that trade with foreign powers.

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He has people working for him inside England's diplomatic service.

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And has even penetrated England's secretive Catholic community,

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paying servants inside their households.

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By the 1570s, Cecil has informants and spies in every part of society.

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People are watching out for everything and all the information

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is coming back right to the centre of power,

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which is completely controlled by Cecil.

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In early 1571,

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Cecil's network provides something that grabs his attention.

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According to the Pope's banker,

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huge funds have been raised for a new plot to overthrow Elizabeth.

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Details of this plot have been brought into the country

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by a Catholic courier, who'll be landing at Dover.

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For days, Cecil's men watch the port.

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And when the courier arrives, he's arrested.

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He'll be taken to the Tower of London.

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The intercepted message is rushed to Cecil.

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Cecil immediately sees that these letters are in code.

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Although Cecil can't break the code, he sees that the letter is addressed

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simply to someone with the codename 40.

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If he can find out who 40 is,

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he can find the traitor who's plotting to kill the Queen.

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He heads to the Tower of London to talk to the captured courier -

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a man called Charles Bailly.

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SCREAMS ECHO

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Charles Bailly is a Roman Catholic.

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He's a relatively young man, with a degree of innocence

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to the real world.

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I don't get the feeling that he's somebody

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who has seen all the dangers and troubles of this world.

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Who is 40?

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Who is 40?

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Who is number 40?

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Cecil realises that if he can crack that,

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he'll know who stands behind the conspiracy.

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William Cecil's face looks like a very ruthless face.

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Not least because he has the authority and the power

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over life and death.

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When you see this man, you will be looking at the last face

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that you will ever see.

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Despite Cecil's threats, Bailly won't talk.

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Bailly then befriends another Catholic prisoner,

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in the cell next door.

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He thinks that he's meeting people who can help him.

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He thinks he's meeting other people that are being held on trial,

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that are Catholics like him.

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And he begins to divulge information in a confessional way.

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The other prisoner even offers to pass messages

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to the Catholic underground on the outside.

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But the prisoner in the cell next door isn't actually a prisoner.

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He's working for Cecil.

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It's classical of Cecil's techniques to introduce such a stool pigeon

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into Bailly's cell, who is a double,

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but of course can sometimes become even a treble agent,

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into the heart of the conspiracy.

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And this works very effectively in Bailly's case.

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Cecil discovers Bailly was carrying letters

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from the government of Spain.

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Spain, of course, is the big Catholic

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political and military power that at any point could invade England.

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So to have the spectre of a conspiracy,

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with Spain supporting an attempt to overthrow Elizabeth,

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is everything that Cecil has feared but is now confronting him,

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and it is terrifying.

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At some point, Bailly realised he had been tricked.

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He carved a message on his cell wall that can still be read

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over 400 years later.

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"Wise men ought circumspectly to see what they do.

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"Examine before they speak, to prove before they take in hand,

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"to beware whose company they use.

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"And above all things,

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"to consider whom they trust."

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He's talking about the various agents that have come in and out,

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who he has been duped by.

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Just three weeks after his arrest,

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Bailly writes to Cecil revealing what he knows.

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That 40 is a lord of the realm.

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Now, this is absolutely explosive.

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Cecil is probably not as shocked as he might be.

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He's always suspected that these English aristocrats may at any point

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revert to Catholicism, as much for political as religious reasons.

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For Cecil, knowing it was a lord he was dealing with, adds a new level.

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Cecil himself was born a commoner.

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He studied at Cambridge University,

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learned five languages and worked his way up.

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What he has, he earned.

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Now he has to take on a lord of the realm.

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But which one?

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For three months, there's no progress.

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Then his network makes a breakthrough.

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In August 1571,

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one of his agents in Shrewsbury arrests two men

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carrying £600 in gold.

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A fortune large enough to start a war.

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They're also carrying a coded letter.

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Brought to London for interrogation,

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they admit they're servants of a lord of the realm.

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The lord's home is searched and the key to the code

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is found in his Bible.

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The traitor is the Duke of Norfolk.

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40 turns out to be the Duke of Norfolk.

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One of the most powerful nobles in the country,

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he is related in blood to Elizabeth.

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She calls him her cousin.

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Norfolk is a widower, a keen tennis player

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and the richest man in England.

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Related to Elizabeth through a shared grandmother,

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Norfolk is very much part of the royal family.

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So this is absolutely extraordinary, that somebody so close to Elizabeth

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has been plotting to support a Spanish invasion of the country

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and to take over the realm.

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Now it is Cecil's job to tell Queen Elizabeth I

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that her cousin is trying to kill her.

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To reveal to Elizabeth that Norfolk is complicit in a plot to have her

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overthrown and probably killed, is politically explosive.

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So the information, the intelligence he has,

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has to be handled with incredible care.

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You need to have your case absolutely watertight

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and you need to do it at just the right moment,

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to ensure that Elizabeth will follow what he wants to do,

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which ultimately, of course, is to get the Duke of Norfolk.

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The Queen doesn't react as Cecil hoped.

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She suddenly gets cold feet and she stalls.

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She says, you know, "He's a kinsman of mine.

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"I can't quite accept that he has to be executed."

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Cecil is a civil servant, he's a man of the middle class.

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He does not know, and can never know, what it means to be royal.

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Elizabeth's belief in her own specialness,

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her own extraordinariness,

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was what had sustained her throughout the very difficult years.

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She had this extraordinary belief in herself and in her own right.

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It's incredibly frustrating, I think, for Cecil,

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because he's trying to say, "Look, I've got chapter and verse here,

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"proving that they've been trying to kill you.

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"You have to sign their death warrants."

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And she backs away.

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Cecil can't allow someone who has plotted to kill the Queen

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to get away with it,

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but ultimately it's the Queen's decision.

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It seems that Cecil is stuck.

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A few weeks later, a London printing press publishes a pamphlet.

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A scandal sheet that is distributed on the streets.

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It accuses Norfolk of plotting a rebellion

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and assisting England's enemies.

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The public turn against the rebel royal and demand his head.

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The scandal sheet is anonymous,

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but it came from a printing press run by Cecil.

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Cecil is pioneering something new because he is using spin,

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political manipulation of news, to influence public opinion.

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He is an absolute master at doing that

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and I think this is a new way of doing politics within the state.

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For eight months, Norfolk begs for forgiveness.

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But in June 1572, the Queen signs his death warrant.

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He is beheaded.

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There is a real pathos to watching how those people are caught

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in the spider's web.

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Cecil really does capture those people, play with them.

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They are absolutely his creatures.

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And they will be destroyed.

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Cecil seems to have won.

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But something is still niggling away inside the mind of the spy master.

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Was Norfolk working alone?

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Alongside the coded letters the courier was carrying,

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he also had this pamphlet promoting Mary Queen of Scots.

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So he can't quite make these things add up,

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and he's working relentlessly on the story,

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interrogating people again and again,

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introducing the story of Norfolk.

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It's a classic spy master's manoeuvre.

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How can he make these things work?

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He's got to keep things going.

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He can't quite lock it all down until he knows the full story.

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He interrogates Catholics connected to Norfolk.

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And in the end, he works out what Norfolk was planning.

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Norfolk will marry Mary Queen of Scots,

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he'll invite a Spanish invasion into the country.

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He will then depose Elizabeth and he will rule the country

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with Mary Queen of Scots. So it confirms all his worst fears.

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Mary Stuart was the Queen of Scotland.

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She is ill-educated, impulsive,

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romantic, proud...

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..and short-sighted.

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She has taken risks all of her life.

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She has had affairs with all the wrong men.

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She no longer has access to her son.

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Her lover is in a Danish prison.

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Her second husband was blown up, possibly with her own connivance.

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When Cecil sees Mary,

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he sees everything that's wrong about European Catholicism.

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He sees a vain, pretty but ostentatious woman.

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You can see that from the fashionability of the clothes

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that she's wearing, the hat,

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the slightly coquettish look that she gives you.

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This is everything that Cecil despises and hates.

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Mary Queen of Scots is Catholic.

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Kicked out of Scotland by her Protestant subjects,

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she's now living in the North of England.

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This is a problem because Mary and Elizabeth are first cousins.

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Elizabeth is the daughter of Henry VIII.

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Mary descends from Henry's sister.

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Cecil is deeply, deeply worried because he knows that she has

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a strong claim to the English throne

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through her family connections with Henry VIII.

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She's the only person who can make that claim against Elizabeth.

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He knows there are going to be the conspiracies.

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He's got to try and do something about it.

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There's no way in which this problem has gone away.

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This problem has only just started.

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England in the 1570s is changing fast.

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Merchant ships are bringing huge numbers

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of Protestant refugees into London.

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And Sir Walter Raleigh sets sail for America,

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hoping to set up a trading post.

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Cecil, meanwhile, is made Lord Burghley.

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And he builds himself a luxurious stately home -

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Burghley House in Lincolnshire.

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Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth I is beginning to carve out

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a kind of legendary status.

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She commissions portraits of herself.

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It's here that we see one of the first manifestations of Elizabeth

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as the Virgin Queen,

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which will continue as her brand to the end of her reign.

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No longer, really, a human being, but an icon, a statue.

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She's as much an idea as she is a person.

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What's really interesting about Elizabethan portraiture of the Queen

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is that it was designed to be looked at by people

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who on the whole couldn't even read or write.

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Elizabeth took advantage of the opportunity for publicity

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which printing offered

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and she had hundreds of images of herself diffused about the realm,

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so that people could recognise their Queen,

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they could know what she looked like,

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and that they had a sense of her

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as a powerful and present figure in their lives.

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It's a technique which has been used by many subsequent rulers,

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the idea that you have the image of the ruler in your home,

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and Elizabeth was really the first person to pick up on this.

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But behind the powerful images,

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the truth was that she was living in constant danger.

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The plots against Elizabeth keep coming.

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A disaffected Catholic aristocrat offers himself as the inside man

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to a foreign invasion.

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A Catholic extremist tries to enter the court armed with a gun.

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Even an MP has a go.

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With the blessing of a Catholic priest,

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he plans to shoot the Queen in her palace garden.

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All the assassination attempts are at the very least inspired by Mary.

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The would-be killers want to put their Catholic queen on the throne.

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For Cecil, she's like a sort of running sore

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at the heart of the country that he's trying to defend.

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He knows, really, I think, from this point onwards,

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that he has to get rid of Mary.

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For Cecil, it's an almost impossible task.

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Persuading Elizabeth to execute the Duke of Norfolk had been tricky.

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To get her to kill her first cousin, and a queen,

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that will require some real cleverness.

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But by the 1580s, his dark empire has grown.

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Alongside the traditional departments of governmental control,

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Cecil's secret state now employs some very interesting characters.

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A forger who can open and close a seal so that nobody notices.

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To break codes,

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Cambridge University's top mathematician is brought in.

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Running these expert spies is someone Cecil has picked carefully.

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Francis Walsingham,

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he's a driven man.

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If you look at those eyes...

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..there is no mercy there,

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there is no compassion there.

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He is made by what he saw on Sunday 24th August, 1572,

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when he was the English ambassador to France.

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And what was happening was the St Bartholomew's Day massacre,

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when 3,000 French Protestants were killed.

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He was surrounded by the Paris mob.

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He had his wife and four-year-old daughter in there.

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He saw Protestants being dragged out of that house and hanged.

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That left a traumatic experience,

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which he lived with for the rest of his life.

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Walsingham is an absolute dead cert for Cecil.

0:28:210:28:24

He knows he can trust him implicitly.

0:28:240:28:25

There's no formal moment where William Cecil turns to Walsingham

0:28:280:28:32

and says, "This is now what you are about,

0:28:320:28:34

"you have to go and hunt down Mary,"

0:28:340:28:37

but I think there's no question that they worked together so closely,

0:28:370:28:40

Walsingham knows that that's the number-one priority.

0:28:400:28:43

They know that it is not enough

0:28:460:28:47

for Mary to be the figurehead of a conspiracy.

0:28:470:28:51

They must catch her red-handed in a plot to kill the Queen.

0:28:510:28:55

The first thing they do is to move her to the remote Chartley Manor

0:29:080:29:12

in Staffordshire - a place with high battlements and a moat around it.

0:29:120:29:17

William Cecil is trying to absolutely isolate her,

0:29:180:29:21

cut her off from the outside world.

0:29:210:29:23

She is completely surveyed.

0:29:280:29:29

Her guardians, her jailers, really, are making sure that they can

0:29:290:29:33

see everything that goes in and everything that

0:29:330:29:36

comes out of the household.

0:29:360:29:37

Mary's allowed to receive gifts, checked carefully.

0:29:450:29:48

More than anything, Mary's life becomes very, very boring.

0:29:500:29:53

She loses her right to ride in the grounds,

0:29:530:29:57

which really upsets her.

0:29:570:29:58

She takes great pleasure in fresh air, in horsemanship

0:29:580:30:03

and she complains bitterly about wasting away

0:30:030:30:07

without access to fresh air.

0:30:070:30:09

Cecil is deliberately applying a kind of psychological pressure.

0:30:120:30:17

She gets very lonely. She gets very frustrated.

0:30:170:30:20

Stifled by these new rules,

0:30:290:30:31

Mary makes contact with some of her followers

0:30:310:30:34

and they also have espionage skills.

0:30:340:30:37

Of course Mary has a spy network.

0:30:390:30:42

Wouldn't you, if you were locked up in the middle of England,

0:30:420:30:44

not knowing what was going to happen to you?

0:30:440:30:47

This is Mary's code book

0:30:510:30:53

for communicating with the Catholic underground.

0:30:530:30:55

It's a substitution code

0:30:570:30:59

where every letter and some important words

0:30:590:31:01

are replaced by a symbol.

0:31:010:31:03

This is E.

0:31:090:31:12

This is B.

0:31:130:31:17

This is the sign for intelligence.

0:31:180:31:20

And this...is the Queen of England.

0:31:220:31:25

But how to pass the coded messages back and forth?

0:31:350:31:38

There's only one way in and out of Chartley Manor

0:31:400:31:43

and everything that passes through it is searched.

0:31:430:31:46

Every few days, a brewer brings in supplies of beer.

0:32:020:32:05

And this is how, in June 1586, Mary hears about Anthony Babington.

0:32:420:32:47

Anthony Babington is a well-born Catholic

0:32:500:32:54

and well-connected young man.

0:32:540:32:56

This is a man who does not really need for a job.

0:32:580:33:01

So, you know, you could see him

0:33:010:33:04

as a sort of young Catholic Elizabethan playboy.

0:33:040:33:07

And he sees himself as something of a man of action.

0:33:070:33:11

Via her agents, Babington relays a message to Mary,

0:33:180:33:22

describing his loyalty to her.

0:33:220:33:24

She replies direct to him, calling him a friend.

0:33:260:33:29

What attracts her to Babington

0:33:330:33:35

is that he tells her there's a whole army of young men

0:33:350:33:39

who virtually pray to her.

0:33:390:33:41

She's not forgotten, she's not alone

0:33:410:33:44

and he tells her that she has these followers and she laps it up.

0:33:440:33:48

Babington also has the potential to be useful to Mary.

0:33:500:33:53

As a gentleman, he has friends at the Royal Court.

0:33:540:33:58

They can get close enough to Elizabeth to kill her.

0:33:580:34:01

For Babington, morally, in the eyes of God, in the eyes of the church,

0:34:040:34:10

it was fine for him to be part of a plot

0:34:100:34:16

to remove her and to have her assassinated.

0:34:160:34:19

On the 7th July,

0:34:280:34:30

Babington sends a coded letter to Mary outlining his plan.

0:34:300:34:34

He, along with 100 followers,

0:34:340:34:37

are going to try and free Mary

0:34:370:34:41

from house arrest at Chartley Castle in Staffordshire.

0:34:410:34:45

But Babington is in way over his head.

0:34:490:34:51

Buried deep in Cecil's network

0:34:520:34:54

is an operative going by the codename Honest Man.

0:34:540:34:57

He's none other than the brewer who delivers Mary's beer.

0:35:020:35:06

The brewer was on to a wonderful thing.

0:35:090:35:11

He's taking the bribes from Walsingham,

0:35:110:35:13

he takes bribes from Mary Queen of Scots,

0:35:130:35:16

he even raises the price of his beer.

0:35:160:35:18

In fact, even the Catholic courier,

0:35:210:35:23

who had put Babington in touch with Mary, is a double agent

0:35:230:35:27

working for Walsingham and Cecil.

0:35:270:35:29

It is labyrinthine.

0:35:310:35:33

I mean, it's mirrors within mirrors,

0:35:330:35:35

rooms within rooms.

0:35:350:35:37

And it's Cecil who's at the heart of it,

0:35:370:35:40

who knows every room and whose inside of it

0:35:400:35:42

and whose onside and who's not.

0:35:420:35:45

And so they intercept Babington's letter.

0:35:490:35:52

The letter is given to Cecil's Cambridge University code-breaker

0:35:570:36:01

and the clock is ticking.

0:36:010:36:02

If the letter is delayed getting to Mary,

0:36:040:36:06

she'll know her correspondence is compromised.

0:36:060:36:08

How can he possibly make sense of the icons and squiggles

0:36:110:36:13

without knowing what they stand for?

0:36:130:36:16

He does something rather clever.

0:36:170:36:19

He has calculated that, in written English,

0:36:230:36:25

13% of letters are E.

0:36:250:36:27

2% are X.

0:36:280:36:30

He looks at the frequency of symbols

0:36:340:36:36

and painstakingly unpicks the code.

0:36:360:36:38

Babington tells Mary he has six nobles

0:36:500:36:53

who are ready to assassinate Elizabeth.

0:36:530:36:56

They have now caught Babington in an act of treason.

0:37:140:37:16

But he isn't the ultimate target of their operation.

0:37:180:37:21

They want Mary's written consent to the assassination attempt.

0:37:210:37:25

And if Cecil can capture that

0:37:350:37:37

and can definitively prove that that's happening,

0:37:370:37:40

Mary is finished.

0:37:400:37:41

Babington's letter reaches Mary late on the 8th July.

0:37:480:37:51

But will Mary set in motion a plot to kill her cousin Elizabeth

0:37:540:37:59

and put herself on the throne?

0:37:590:38:00

Days pass...

0:38:040:38:06

..but Mary does not reply.

0:38:060:38:08

I find that silence on Mary's part really very striking

0:38:110:38:15

because she's a very impulsive woman and yet, in this case, she waits.

0:38:150:38:21

Mary knows that if she sends this letter off,

0:38:240:38:28

the plot is going to be activated.

0:38:280:38:29

She is sending a gang of armed men

0:38:310:38:35

to ambush the Queen of England with violence.

0:38:350:38:38

That's a huge thing for anyone to do.

0:38:380:38:40

It takes quite a long time for Mary to reply.

0:38:420:38:45

Meanwhile, Babington is in London.

0:38:450:38:48

He's there with his co-conspirators.

0:38:480:38:50

One can only sort of imagine how tense,

0:38:520:38:55

how nervous he must've felt.

0:38:550:38:57

Now Walsingham and Cecil,

0:39:140:39:17

it's like two hunters in the jungle,

0:39:170:39:20

watching a baited trap

0:39:200:39:22

and your quarry comes up and sniffs all round it.

0:39:220:39:26

It hasn't taken a bite yet.

0:39:280:39:29

They must've been beside themselves...

0:39:370:39:39

..with frustration and concern that their sting operation,

0:39:410:39:45

which is what it is, has been rumbled.

0:39:450:39:49

After ten days, Mary replies to Babington.

0:40:010:40:03

She tells him to set the six gentleman to work.

0:40:050:40:08

She's having a miserable time

0:40:100:40:12

in the least-comfortable house arrest she's ever had.

0:40:120:40:15

She's almost given up hope

0:40:150:40:16

by the time she consents to the Babington plot.

0:40:160:40:19

That's why she's so desperate,

0:40:190:40:21

that's why she's prepared to go through it.

0:40:210:40:23

But it is the act of a woman who's...

0:40:230:40:25

The Babington plot is Mary's one last role of the dice.

0:40:260:40:30

The letter is given to Walsingham's agent

0:40:360:40:38

and he puts a gallows on the front cover,

0:40:380:40:42

so Walsingham will know immediately

0:40:420:40:45

that the trap has been sprung

0:40:450:40:48

and that letter is Mary Queen of Scots' death warrant.

0:40:480:40:52

It's actually the fulfilment of dreams of both Cecil and Walsingham.

0:40:570:41:02

The absolute smoking gun.

0:41:030:41:06

Cecil sees that

0:41:070:41:09

and agrees that this is now the best opportunity he has

0:41:090:41:12

to really have Mary executed.

0:41:120:41:15

But before Cecil orders Mary's arrest,

0:41:190:41:22

there's the small matter of dealing with the young Catholic

0:41:220:41:24

who provided the bait.

0:41:240:41:26

Babington has dinner one evening with one of Walsingham's informers

0:41:270:41:34

and it's partway through this dinner that he realises

0:41:340:41:39

that this man has, in fact, received orders for Babington's own arrest.

0:41:390:41:44

So Babington gets up from the dinner table,

0:41:440:41:47

goes to pay the bill

0:41:470:41:49

and scarpers.

0:41:490:41:51

Babington is brought back to London, where he's hanged,

0:42:130:42:17

cut down whilst still alive

0:42:170:42:19

and disembowelled.

0:42:190:42:21

October 1586,

0:42:380:42:40

Mary Queen of Scots is put on trial for treason.

0:42:400:42:43

Cecil conducts the prosecution himself.

0:42:440:42:47

She's found guilty.

0:42:510:42:52

Now he needs Elizabeth's approval.

0:43:040:43:06

The death warrant of a member of the royal family

0:43:070:43:10

requires the Queen's signature.

0:43:100:43:12

Cecil knows that this is one of the most crucial moments.

0:43:150:43:17

But he's been here before with Norfolk and he knows,

0:43:170:43:20

so he can assume, that she will prevaricate.

0:43:200:43:23

News of Mary's trial sends shock waves through Catholic Europe.

0:43:250:43:28

The King of France even writes to Elizabeth,

0:43:300:43:32

pleading for Mary's life to be spared.

0:43:320:43:35

For Cecil, this is still a very, very volatile moment.

0:43:360:43:40

He's got to come out completely the winner of this.

0:43:400:43:44

In January 1587,

0:43:510:43:53

Cecil visits Elizabeth at Greenwich.

0:43:530:43:55

He's impatient for Mary's sentence to be carried out.

0:43:570:43:59

Cecil tells Elizabeth, "She has to die,

0:44:060:44:08

"you have to sign the death warrant".

0:44:080:44:11

He desperately, desperately wants this to be signed off on.

0:44:110:44:13

Elizabeth's initial reaction to Mary's conspiracy -

0:44:140:44:17

she's absolutely furious.

0:44:170:44:19

I think she refers to Mary, at one point, as "this viper".

0:44:190:44:22

Undoubtedly, Elizabeth wanted Mary dead.

0:44:220:44:25

That's beyond question at this point.

0:44:250:44:27

Nonetheless, what she was nervous about

0:44:290:44:33

would be that she would be a queen who was also a regicide.

0:44:330:44:37

If Elizabeth strikes at Mary,

0:44:390:44:41

she ultimately strikes at herself.

0:44:410:44:42

So she's not quite ready to take this last political step.

0:44:450:44:48

And therefore, she doesn't wish Mary to be used too harshly.

0:44:480:44:53

Cecil and Elizabeth argue about Mary's death warrant for six weeks.

0:44:590:45:03

And he pushes and pushes because, again, Elizabeth stalls,

0:45:080:45:12

she prevaricates and he's absolutely appalled by it.

0:45:120:45:14

Because he sees it as the great weakness.

0:45:140:45:17

I don't think that Elizabeth's prevarication was a weakness at all.

0:45:190:45:23

First of all, that behaviour which,

0:45:230:45:25

in a male ruler might have been described as prudent or cunning,

0:45:250:45:29

in Elizabeth it's dismissed as kind of, you know,

0:45:290:45:31

feminine prevarication.

0:45:310:45:33

"She couldn't make up her mind."

0:45:330:45:35

She was perfectly capable of making up her mind,

0:45:350:45:38

she just chose not to make it up until it suited her to do so.

0:45:380:45:42

Elizabeth was a spectacularly good player of a long political game

0:45:420:45:46

and the fact that she survived as long as she did and died in her bed

0:45:460:45:50

is testament to how useful it was not to make hasty decisions.

0:45:500:45:54

Cecil does not relent.

0:46:010:46:03

And on the 1st of February,

0:46:030:46:05

Elizabeth finally signs Mary's death warrant.

0:46:050:46:07

But it still needs the seal of England

0:46:120:46:15

to give the warrant legal status.

0:46:150:46:16

Elizabeth asks for the warrant to be returned to her.

0:46:270:46:30

She never gets it back.

0:46:330:46:34

It's one of the murkiest moments, I think,

0:46:360:46:38

in all of Elizabethan politics.

0:46:380:46:40

How does it get to Cecil?

0:46:410:46:44

We'll never really know.

0:46:440:46:46

Elizabeth doesn't know what's going on.

0:46:460:46:48

Or does she, and she doesn't want to know

0:46:480:46:51

and she wants it just to be taken care of?

0:46:510:46:54

I think there's a lot of that that's really happening.

0:46:540:46:57

Elizabeth couldn't be seen to authorise the deed

0:47:010:47:04

and so she constructs this elaborate facade,

0:47:040:47:07

which does everything to encourage her ministers to get the deed done,

0:47:070:47:12

but without actually explicitly telling them to do so.

0:47:120:47:15

Quite clearly, what Elizabeth is doing

0:47:190:47:21

is allowing her ministers to take the decision from her,

0:47:210:47:27

to do the undoable

0:47:270:47:29

without her having to take personal responsibility.

0:47:290:47:32

So now it's up to Cecil.

0:47:390:47:41

Does he want to take the decision to execute a queen?

0:47:430:47:46

At 9am on the 8th of February,

0:48:150:48:18

Mary mounts the scaffold

0:48:180:48:20

in a ceremony carefully choreographed by Cecil.

0:48:200:48:22

OK, this is the Great Hall of Fotheringhay Castle.

0:48:310:48:34

In one corner burns an enormous fire.

0:48:360:48:40

It's a cold, cold day.

0:48:400:48:42

Here's all the gentry lined up

0:48:420:48:44

round this very low wooden scaffold.

0:48:440:48:47

But when Mary takes off her cloak,

0:49:010:49:04

she reveals a dress of brilliant scarlet,

0:49:040:49:07

the Catholic colour of martyrdom.

0:49:070:49:09

Mary has this one last chance to tell the story for herself,

0:49:120:49:16

to make herself the heroine of the chronicle

0:49:160:49:19

of the life of Mary Queen of Scots.

0:49:190:49:22

And she's very, very well aware that she is doing that,

0:49:220:49:26

even in his face, as she faces the scaffold.

0:49:260:49:29

When it comes to the moment of truth...

0:49:380:49:40

..the executioner comes up and raises the axe...

0:49:440:49:48

..and basically misses the crucial part of the neck.

0:49:490:49:55

He has to shorten his grip and chop...

0:49:550:49:58

..until, eventually, he can lift up the head and cry out, you know,

0:49:590:50:03

"Here's the head of a traitor."

0:50:030:50:05

He didn't know that Mary Queen of Scots

0:50:050:50:09

was wearing a wig.

0:50:090:50:11

So, for Mary to be exposed in that moment,

0:50:140:50:18

when the executioner holds up her head

0:50:180:50:22

and then the wig becomes detached from her skull,

0:50:220:50:26

that is the ultimate humiliation.

0:50:260:50:28

And the head falls out of his hands,

0:50:300:50:34

bounces on the straw-covered scaffold.

0:50:340:50:37

The lips are still moving.

0:50:370:50:39

And she has a dog, a pet dog, a West Highland Terrier,

0:50:420:50:47

who's hiding amongst the skirts of her dress

0:50:470:50:50

and it comes out and starts barking.

0:50:500:50:52

The two commissioners, basically, have a nervous breakdown.

0:50:520:50:55

They can't cope with what has happened.

0:50:550:50:59

They can't cope with how Mary has taken control of her own death.

0:50:590:51:03

So, as theatre,

0:51:050:51:07

it really has little parallel in the whole of British history.

0:51:070:51:11

February the 9th,

0:51:270:51:28

Elizabeth is still waiting for Mary's death warrant to be returned.

0:51:280:51:32

Cecil visits the Queen with the news that her cousin

0:51:360:51:39

has already been beheaded.

0:51:390:51:41

She goes completely crazy, she is furious with him.

0:51:540:51:57

Her rage, so profound, that he actually says afterwards

0:52:010:52:04

that he fears for her health.

0:52:040:52:06

It must be like being engulfed by this tsunami of rage.

0:52:110:52:16

I mean, she's almost biting the carpet with rage.

0:52:170:52:21

I mean, the Tudors always were redheaded,

0:52:210:52:25

pretty...full of colour

0:52:250:52:29

and Elizabeth was probably one of the worst of them.

0:52:290:52:33

In my reading of the situation,

0:52:350:52:37

she fell victim to a bit of method acting.

0:52:370:52:39

She'd talked herself into the role of the unfortunate monarch

0:52:390:52:44

who was being pushed by the necessity of good government

0:52:440:52:47

to take this terrible step.

0:52:470:52:49

And then she kind of starts believing her own shtick.

0:52:490:52:52

She starts thinking,

0:52:520:52:53

"Actually, I am angry, I am upset, I am outraged."

0:52:530:52:56

And it was easier for Elizabeth to believe

0:52:580:53:01

that Cecil had somehow cheated her,

0:53:010:53:04

that he'd acted without her authority,

0:53:040:53:06

even though that's what she'd wanted him to do all along.

0:53:060:53:08

Elizabeth has played a very, very shrewd game herself.

0:53:090:53:13

She's played Cecil as much as Cecil has played her

0:53:130:53:17

and, in the end,

0:53:170:53:18

they've got what they both understand really has to happen.

0:53:180:53:21

Mary is dead,

0:53:210:53:23

that Elizabeth can feel her hands are not quite as bloody

0:53:230:53:26

as they really are.

0:53:260:53:28

The Queen then banishes Cecil from her court.

0:53:400:53:43

He is completely cut off from power.

0:53:430:53:46

He writes to her, begging to be taken back.

0:53:470:53:49

He sorrowfully prays

0:53:510:53:53

Her Majesty will suspend her heavy censure against him.

0:53:530:53:57

The surviving correspondence around this time is very sketchy,

0:54:020:54:05

but there is an interesting fragment,

0:54:050:54:07

which tells us that Cecil believes

0:54:070:54:09

that he would rather be sent to the Tower and probably executed,

0:54:090:54:14

than just be banished and watch politics going on from afar.

0:54:140:54:18

This is how much he is such a political animal.

0:54:180:54:21

Looking at the picture, you can see how devastated he would have been.

0:54:280:54:33

Almost every single element of this portrait

0:54:330:54:36

shows the trappings of power and political influence.

0:54:360:54:40

So he holds the staff of state,

0:54:400:54:42

he's also got the Order of the Garter around his neck.

0:54:420:54:46

The robes symbolise his role as principal Secretary of State.

0:54:470:54:51

Everything tells you that this is, effectively,

0:54:510:54:53

the most powerful man in the land after the Queen.

0:54:530:54:57

It's 30 years of work, of hard graft in the offices of state,

0:55:020:55:09

working with correspondents, networks of spies.

0:55:090:55:12

It's all gone.

0:55:140:55:16

And I think you can see, just in this one picture,

0:55:160:55:18

of how awful that would have been.

0:55:180:55:20

But Cecil has one last trick up his sleeve.

0:55:400:55:43

His banishment creates an opening,

0:55:440:55:47

which there is only one man perfectly trained to fill.

0:55:470:55:50

His son, Robert.

0:55:510:55:52

For years, behind the scenes, he's been grooming young Robert,

0:56:080:56:12

teaching him all the intricacies of running the dark state.

0:56:120:56:15

There is young Robert sitting at the family occasions,

0:56:190:56:23

at the kitchen table, if you like,

0:56:230:56:25

learning from his father about statecraft.

0:56:250:56:28

And he is a prodigy, he's brilliant at maths, he's great at cosmography,

0:56:280:56:31

he learns all the languages that, of course, you need for statecraft.

0:56:310:56:34

And it has to be the fruition of everything that he's really wanted.

0:56:340:56:38

It's about legacy, it's about dynastic succession.

0:56:380:56:41

And so it is the fulfilment of everything

0:56:410:56:43

that he could possibly wish for.

0:56:430:56:45

The house,

0:56:490:56:50

the position at court,

0:56:500:56:52

and the spy network

0:56:520:56:54

are all handed down to Robert.

0:56:540:56:56

Robert Cecil is one of half a dozen statesmen

0:56:580:57:01

who changed the course of English history.

0:57:010:57:05

Robert Cecil, it turns out,

0:57:100:57:12

is even more clever and even more intense

0:57:120:57:15

than his father.

0:57:150:57:17

He is cunning...

0:57:180:57:20

..feeble...

0:57:210:57:22

..rich, lonely.

0:57:230:57:25

The Cecils meet their archenemy.

0:58:020:58:04

Priests are not social workers.

0:58:040:58:06

They are at the sharp end of a religious war.

0:58:060:58:10

An attack on Spain...

0:58:100:58:12

It's a raid.

0:58:120:58:14

It's the old way of doing things.

0:58:140:58:16

..and the death of Queen Elizabeth I.

0:58:160:58:19

"I spent all my life," Elizabeth says,

0:58:190:58:22

"in little rooms." In many ways, she lived alone.

0:58:220:58:27

In this episode, we find England alone - a protestant nation in a largely Catholic Europe. Then, 12 years into Elizabeth's reign, the Pope declares her a heretic, which in the hearts of England's Catholics gives them permission to kill her. Queen Elizabeth looks to her spymaster William Cecil to stop the Catholic assassins getting through. Cecil establishes a huge espionage network - England's first secret service. His spies break Catholic conspiracies at home and abroad.

Cecil's network is put on high alert by intelligence from a source in Catholic Europe. As a result he catches a courier carrying coded letters that lead Cecil to unravel a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and install her cousin Mary Queen of Scots on the English throne. Now Cecil will not rest until Mary Queen of Scots, the figurehead for every catholic threat and repository of Catholic hopes, is eliminated. In order to protect a queen, Cecil must kill one.

Cecil now creates an elaborate Elizabethan sting. He incubates a Catholic plot to assassinate the queen and lures Mary into it. But will Mary fall for the bait and seal her fate. Mary does walk right into Cecil's trap but even then the spymaster's aim is thwarted by a queen who refuses to execute her own cousin. Cecil knows Mary must die if Elizabeth is to live, but now that means he must defy his own queen and risk the end of his career - perhaps his life.


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