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Britain, at the time of Queen Elizabeth I, was divided,
unstable and violent.
Despite this, Elizabeth stayed in power for over 40 years.
The secret of her incredible reign...
..is hidden in this portrait.
Detailed in the folds of her dress,
these eyes and ears represent a spy network.
The world's first Secret Service.
Run by a father and son team.
Both exceptionally intelligent and given the job of protecting Queen
This series tells their story over five decades,
and reveals how the Secret State was born.
Elizabethan England as it really was,
with a network of spies battling a terrorist threat.
And both sides will stop at nothing.
The Elizabethan state was mirrors within mirrors.
The double crossings, the conspiracies.
It's an endless labyrinth.
Leading historians have researched these events from different
Elizabeth was ineffably different.
She was exceptional, she was holy, she was magical.
They'll take us inside the mind of each of the key players.
Dissecting their motives and actions,
while the course of British history hangs in the balance.
By meeting Robert Cecil,
you have the feeling that you would have somehow compromised yourself.
You would have exposed yourself to his sharp eye.
And, it's because of that that he is a terrifying figure.
We'll see how history is really made in the corridors of power,
from just behind the throne.
In this episode,
a Catholic threat...
..a rival at court...
..and the death of Queen Elizabeth I.
1594, England is alone.
A Protestant country surrounded by Catholic Europe.
The Spanish Armada has just been defeated.
But there is still the fear they might try again.
Merchant ships are bringing spices, tobacco and immigrants
into the ports,
as well as Protestant refugees and the occasional Catholic terrorist.
Most people live in tremendous poverty,
but those who are close to the Queen have extraordinary wealth.
Here at Burghley House lived the Cecils, her spy masters.
The father, William Cecil,
saved Elizabeth from seven assassination attempts.
But, when he took the decision to execute Mary, Queen of Scots,
Elizabeth was furious and banished him from court.
It's 30 years of work, hard graft in the offices of state,
working with correspondents, networks of spies.
So, to have this taken away from him, it's devastating.
He would rather be sent to the tower and probably executed, than just be
banished and watch politics going on from afar.
The hope is, though, that son Robert
can take over the father's spy network and regain the family's
position at court.
Robert Cecil is trained to do the dirty work of government.
He is clever...
He dreams of following his father into becoming the Queen's
principle secretary -
the equivalent of her Prime Minister.
But she is currently a little less than impressed with Robert Cecil.
I think she was initially quite mistrustful of him.
She was quite dismissive.
I think she thought he was a bit of a prig.
And he certainly didn't have any of the swaggering glamour, which
Elizabeth usually preferred in her court favourites.
Born with a curved spine, Cecil was less than five feet tall.
Poor little pygmy, she calls him.
Although people think that pygmy was a horrible nickname,
she gave everyone nicknames, and I think it was rather affectionate.
When the Queen called him pygmy,
Cecil was deeply hurt.
And later, to his father, he writes quite candidly,
"If anyone else calls me pygmy, I would admit how much it hurts."
"But in the case of the Queen, I don't dare to."
The pressures on Elizabeth's courtiers were intense.
She had executed 15 of them since she had come to the throne.
But Robert Cecil did have something up his sleeve.
He inherited his father's spy network.
Cecil has spies watching every suspect Catholic family
in the country.
He has informants in the prisons, he has turned priests,
he has corrupted servants who are reporting back directly to Cecil.
He knows his best chance of impressing the Queen is to capture
Catholics plotting against her.
Every plot foiled can be used as a pawn in a bigger game at court.
In 1594, he hears of a Catholic priest described as very dangerous.
Cecil sends some men to arrest him.
The man they are after is Father John Gerard,
a priest who snuck into the country just after the Spanish Armada and
has been trying to win over hearts and minds in Norfolk and Suffolk.
Priests are not social workers,
they are at the sharp end of a religious war and they are prepared
to die for the cause.
If one of these agents of foreign powers get close enough
to the Queen, then her life is in danger.
Cecil then takes the news of Gerard's capture to the Queen.
She should be pleased, but the Queen's mind is elsewhere.
There's a new star at court.
The Earl of Essex was everything Cecil wasn't.
He was handsome, an expert swordsman and a war hero.
Essex was an athlete.
You can see it in the paintings.
I mean, those legs, with armour tied round them like modern skinny jeans.
He is so obviously playing up what he considers to be his strength.
For Cecil, the Catholic terrorists are the official enemy.
But Essex is the real enemy.
Everybody at the Elizabethan court knows that the court is a theatre,
it's the stage on which people compete for power.
So, Robert Cecil...
..when he sees the Earl of Essex appear,
he knows that he's no longer in full control of the plotlines.
Essex could flirt with the Queen,
there's talk of him playing cards late at night with the Queen,
suggesting a sexual closeness with the Queen,
that clearly was ridiculous and was out of the question.
Elizabeth was extremely susceptible to..
I wouldn't say it was flattery exactly,
there was a particular way to address or approach her.
Essex was extremely adept at playing this game of courtly love,
so when Essex casts himself at her feet and describes her as
his goddess and Elizabeth responds in kind, they're playing a game.
Now, she may have felt attracted to Essex,
he was a very handsome young man.
Cecil's rivalry with Essex is also deeply personal.
They grew up under the same roof.
When Essex's parents died, he was taken in by the Cecils.
He and Robert were brought up almost like brothers.
When Essex makes this great entry into court life...
..it's not just that Robert Cecil is wondering how he's going to
stay on top of the situation in the court, it's also a return of all
kinds of insecurities and worries that go back
to his earliest childhood.
There's a story of them riding along together in a carriage one day and
engaging in a furious row in which all courtliness and veneer
is stripped away.
So, I would think that Robert Cecil felt he had reason to worry.
Crucially, Essex has bought himself his own private spy network.
Essex runs agents through a handler he's stolen from Cecil's network
with an offer of more money.
Cecil's code breaker, and a double agent in the Catholic underground
also defect from Cecil's network to his rival's.
Gradually, they thin out
into two rival teams of intelligence operatives.
And the material they are generating is the grist to the mill of the
competition between Cecil and Essex.
And the spy game has changed.
No longer simply a necessary system to keep the Queen safe,
now it's about playing politics and gaining power.
The first person caught in the centre of it
is a man called Roderigo Lopez.
He's from a wealthy Portuguese merchant family,
and he's also the Queen's doctor.
Lopez is also working for Cecil.
Cecil is using Lopez as a kind of private back channel
for communication with Spain.
So, Essex gets involved in something called the Lopez plot,
which I've studied for weeks and can't get to the bottom of.
What is known is that at this point, Essex makes
a wild accusation.
He claims Lopez has taken 50,000 crowns, and in return,
he has promised to poison the Queen.
Elizabeth initially seemed to be horrified at the accusations against
Lopez, this is a man she trusted very intimately, who knew her,
arguably, physically in a way that no other man ever had.
And she was really appalled by the accusations.
However, she did appear to allow herself to be convinced.
Lopez is thrown in the tower and Cecil has a decision to make
about whether to stand by him.
Lopez may be too expensive to defend.
There is nothing at this point to suggest that Robert Cecil
believes that Lopez is guilty of conspiracy to kill the Queen.
But Cecil gets behind the investigation,
and Lopez, who is an old man...
..is shown the rack.
And that's the phrase that's used, he was shown the rack.
There is only one rack in England.
It's the one in the Tower.
It's a legendary, fearsome, and awful punishment.
Lopez is a doctor,
he knows exactly what is going to happen if he's racked.
And, so, Lopez signs the confession.
And Lopez says, "Yes, I did it.
"I offered to kill the Queen."
Essex has forced Cecil to get a false confession out of
his own agent.
Lopez is then hanged, cut down while still alive and disembowelled.
When Lopez has been executed, Robert Cecil has come to a kind
in that he has faced the full implications
of the intelligence game.
In that it is not just a matter of gathering paper and messages
and moving information around.
He's been prepared to sentence to death
a man that he knows to be innocent.
It is the behaviour of somebody who aspires
to be a supreme professional...
..to outdo his father, in that respect,
and who, to do this, is prepared to do almost anything.
And you have to wonder...
..what the personal cost is of somebody who has done this,
who has knowingly sent to the most horrific death,
to be publicly mutilated and chopped up while still alive,
knowingly done this to a long-time servant of his family
and of the Queen.
You have to wonder what personal cost comes with that.
That there must be some kind of damage to somebody's soul
to commit that kind of crime.
Whatever the Lopez plot did or did not involve, the outcome...
..did seem to boost the reputation of Essex.
He could feel that he had saved the Queen.
And now here, in this dramatic sinister area, involving Spain,
Catholics, he has apparently proved that he can be the master of that.
The Queen needs protection, um,
and he can give it just as well as Robert Cecil can.
It falls to Cecil to make the next move in their rivalry
for the Queen's favour.
Cecil believes that the priest he captured earlier is the real threat.
Now he wants to find out what Father John Gerard knows.
He was held up like that.
And was made to hang from these manacles for hours and hours on end.
And he kept passing out, so they would put a little step
underneath him, and every time he came to, they would drop it again.
And this went on for two days.
And on the second day,
he had to wear a looser robe because his hands were so swollen
and he said the pain was worse in his chest, and his belly, and his
arms, and his fingers and he felt blood was pouring out of his
fingers' ends, he felt blood was pouring out of his pores.
John Gerard is in fact a key player in the Catholic underground.
When Cecil's men had come close to arresting him before,
he had hidden in priest holes -
secret chambers cut into the floors and walls of houses.
Now Cecil wants him to reveal which families had been hiding him,
but Gerard is resisting.
You knew that Cecil would go to hell
and he, Gerard and God's children would go to heaven.
So, he has this sort of tunnel vision,
this single-minded purpose, and that gave him strength,
that undoubtedly gave him strength.
Gerard resists all his tortures.
Refusing to give up a single name.
Gerard did rightly to that he had what he called
an interior temptation.
He thought that he would give up, give in.
But then he said that he realised the worst they could do to him was
kill him, and then he would be with his brothers, he would be a martyr.
So, he said that gave him strength, the idea of suffering.
And I think with Gerard, whether this is retrospective or
in the moment, I don't know, but there's almost a sense that
him hanging there with the manacles is his passion.
It's the Passion of Christ for John Gerard.
While Cecil gets nowhere,
Essex, meanwhile, has a truly bold way to impress the Queen.
An informant Essex has at the Spanish court
tells him they are planning an invasion.
He tells Elizabeth that he will lead a pre-emptive strike,
attacking the port of Cadiz.
It's a raid. It's an attempt to inflict a bloody nose.
It's an attack on a rich Spanish port...
..where he could hope for crude booty, which he could present
to the Queen as tokens of his triumph and as gifts to her.
It's the old way of doing things.
So, Essex heads for Cadiz,
with 8,000 men on 120 ships on a raid that took three months.
With Essex away, Cecil has the Queen to himself and he takes the
opportunity of inviting her to his house and gardens -
Theobalds in North London.
He has something to show her.
Before Essex left, he had sent a note.
In it, Essex revealed his plan was not just to raid Cadiz,
but also to establish a garrison there -
something Elizabeth had expressly ordered him not to do.
Essex countermanded her orders, which she could never bear.
Elizabeth was prepared to indulge him up to a point,
but the more impetuous he grew, the more impatient with him she became.
That lovely word she used about him,
a temerarious youth.
She just thought he was too big for his very elegant golden boots, and
after a while she got tired of it.
Cecil is able to convince her to look to the future...
..beyond the Cadiz raid.
Elizabeth will know that in leaving the care of the state to
the Earl of Essex, she's committing it...
..to, in effect, endless war, and a war that can never really be won...
..against the might of Spain.
So, while Essex is away in Cadiz, Cecil gets what he's always wanted.
Like his father before him, he becomes the Queen's
The secretary is the forerunner of what will become
the Prime Minister.
The secretary has to be close to the monarch at all times.
So, to be the secretary
is to control the politics of the court and to control
the body of the monarch.
Essex's raid in Cadiz was a success,
but he returns to find Cecil in power.
When Essex came back from Spain,
Robert Cecil has got the job that really matters.
Essex can go on flirting with the Queen, he can dance with the Queen,
he can whisper sweet nothings in her ear,
but it's clear now that when it comes to business,
she's not going to listen to Essex.
It's Robert Cecil who is the coming man.
After 1596, we see quite how much Elizabeth relies on Cecil
and, in fact, has always taken Cecil far more seriously
than she ever took Essex.
Their relationship begins to look much more intimate,
at times rather stormy, but much more, um, much more
kind of reliable and trustworthy, I think, in Elizabeth's view.
Cecil seems to have won the battle with Essex, but it isn't over yet.
Cecil has got his position at exactly the wrong time.
In the late 1590s, there are bad harvests,
the Black Death breaks out again and there is rioting
reported across the country.
And Queen Elizabeth, who has ruled England for almost 40 years,
is looking tired.
I really love this picture because I think it really shows Elizabeth
as an actual human being, rather than an idea,
although she was so angry with it that it was never allowed
to be exhibited.
And here we see her for what she was, which is
an exhausted old woman.
She has bags under her eyes.
We see she's sort of flopping forward.
The ring of office has fallen from her hand and its resting very
exhaustedly on her prayer book.
She looks like someone who's given all her life and her energy to the
cares of the realm, and it's the opposite of the triumphant portraits
of the Virgin Queen that we see from mid-reign.
And yet, to me, it's Elizabeth at her most human because we finally
see her as a human being, and we have a sense of the extraordinary
weight of the burden that she carried alone for so very long.
The succession, the passing of the Crown...
..from a dead person to a living person is the moment at which
the early modern state hangs in the balance.
So, now the spy masters turned their dark attentions on to who will be
the next King or Queen of England.
Particularly interesting, as Elizabeth refuses
to name a successor.
As Elizabeth has no children,
the focus turns to her closest relations - her cousins.
But most of them are Catholics, too old, or have no successor.
But there is one, who, despite his flaws,
people are beginning to turn to.
There are other candidates, but none of them
is as serious a candidate as James.
He's Protestant, he's of the Royal blood...
..he's a man...
..and he has children.
He has two sons.
James, though, has a reputation for being devious.
He's helplessly extravagant and it's thought
that he may sleep with both men and women.
His whole life has been complicated.
James VI comes to the throne as an infant
on the back of political violence.
His father is strangled after an explosion that failed to kill him,
in which his mother and her lover are implicated.
But James would love to be King of England.
James sees himself as, by right, the only true lineal claimant.
But he's not absolutely certain that that's not going to be upset.
Elizabeth certainly didn't want James to feel that the Crown was
assuredly his, because as soon as he began to feel that,
he could gather allegiance around him, he could begin to plot,
effectively. So, she very much wanted to make him feel insecure.
The English Crown hangs in the balance.
It's a messy situation that Cecil wants to keep on top of.
Since becoming secretary,
he has been using government funds to massively expand his spy network.
Including paying an informant at the Scottish court.
This informant tells Cecil
someone using the codename Plato is offering to help James become
And he soon works out who it is.
Essex is coming to see that he NEEDS James.
If he's losing the battle for control over Elizabeth,
she's not going to last long anyway.
He also discovers that the Earl of Essex...
..is denouncing Cecil to James at every opportunity.
And that Essex is positioning himself...
..as the King's future right-hand man by the throne of England.
They were playing for the highest of stakes, and Robert Cecil had every
reason to fear what Essex's triumph, if it happened, could mean for him.
If Cecil loses, he dies.
Cecil is now in a nightmare position.
He'd love to expose Essex's secret communications with James,
but if he tells Elizabeth about it, she might rule out
James' succession -
the only real option for the future of Protestant England.
Cecil would like to talk directly to James, but that's tricky too,
because of a little personal history.
Because Cecil's father executed James's mother.
His father had masterminded the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots
and Robert Cecil was now concerned that James
might hold that against him.
But, bizarrely, in reality, James was not that bothered.
James does not bear a grudge for his mother's execution.
In many ways, I suppose his mother's execution does him a favour.
It removes, um, a, an embarrassment,
in that James is Protestant.
That can't be said of his mother.
Cecil, though, can't be certain that James feels that way.
Cecil knows that he cannot be the one to initiate contact
with the King of Scotland.
And, so, for a while, everything is stuck,
with nobody trusting anybody enough to move forward.
The Earl of Essex now visits the Queen at her vast palace
at Greenwich, and he does something he will live to regret.
He's there to suggest someone he knows for an important position
But the Queen is no longer interested in his opinion
and laughs at him.
He lost his temper.
He is so angry,
that for a moment it looks like Essex might draw his sword.
Then he turns his back on her and walks away.
Ultimately insulting gesture.
Off he storms into outer darkness.
He was no more use to her, and really not much more of an ornament.
So, I think she was quite happy to wash her hands of him.
Over the next two years, she strips Essex of all his titles.
He's banned from court.
Elizabeth must have felt...
..she was quite safe in just dispatching him...
..away from court, banning him.
And that, um, nothing more would happen.
But, in fact...
..Essex doesn't consider himself finished.
So, Essex is sort of saying,
yes, I realise I'm finished with Elizabeth, but that doesn't matter.
There's the coming man.
The great worry, of course, for Cecil is that the further
Essex is cast from the orbit of Elizabeth,
the closer he comes to the orbit of James of Scotland.
And, of course, with each passing day, the Queen gets older.
And, so, the great denouement of all of this approaches,
like the ticking of a clock.
At the turn of the century, England starts
what will later become an empire.
The East India Company is formed and merchants set sail for the
subcontinent to deal in tea, silk, and opium.
In London, at the New Globe Theatre,
Shakespeare's Hamlet is performed for the first time.
And a man known as Norton the bookseller
is making one of his regular visits to Scotland.
This time, though, he's carrying secret messages to King James
from the Earl of Essex.
Essex asks James to help him.
"Relieve my poor country that groans under her burden."
Essex is inviting James to join him in a coup d'etat.
To signal his approval,
he asks James to send a reply hidden in the pages of the books.
He must sanction the overthrow of Elizabeth I,
and accept the Crown for himself.
James signals his approval.
..on one level, it's surprising.
It's surprising in how dangerous this could have been,
this does seem pretty desperate.
Once again, Cecil's network is able to tell him everything
that's going on.
But he can't expose this conspiracy either.
This is explosive information of the kind that would absolutely destroy
James's candidacy for the throne of England.
So, he takes the risky decision to let Essex try his rebellion.
By the 7th of February 1601,
Essex has assembled a force of over 300 armed men at Essex House,
his palace on the river in London.
They'll start the rebellion the following day.
The extraordinary idea is devised, well, it seems extraordinary to us,
but it also seemed very simple to them.
The Queen, she's fallen into the hands of this sinister figure,
Robert Cecil, who is cutting Essex and his friends off
from the influence that matters.
What will they do?
Go down to Whitehall, seize control of the area,
lock up Cecil, presumably...
..execute him in due course and take physical control of what was
the centre of the Elizabethan state - Queen Elizabeth herself.
But Essex doesn't know that Cecil has had an informant
inside his house throughout the planning of it.
Robert Cecil knows pretty much every stage of the preparation.
And yet, he allows Essex to play out the whole thing.
The following day, Essex leads his 300 armed followers
onto the streets of London.
This is the playing out of treason in public.
And not only is it conclusive evidence against Essex,
but Cecil knows where Essex will go next.
Wherever Essex and his men go,
they find Cecil has larger forces waiting for them.
The conspirators went back to Essex House,
they barricaded themselves inside.
Cecil now has the whole place surrounded and Essex
has nowhere left to go.
Effectively, the conspirators came out with their hands up.
Essex was an idiot.
He was an idiot! I mean, he went flouncing around the place
as though he was some, you know, kind of medieval champion.
He didn't seem to realise he lived in a modern world which was governed
by authority, peace, prudence and civil servants.
For a young man, he was tragically behind the times.
For a few hours, Elizabeth contemplates forgiving Essex,
but ultimately decides to sign his death warrant.
He is beheaded.
He was 33.
There's a sadness at the heart of the Essex story, a poignancy.
Yes, he was a headstrong young man...
..but what he was in love with...
..the syndrome he was trying to recreate and preserve...
..the courtly lover, the courtly servant to the Queen.
The brave military hero.
Writing his poems to Elizabeth, believing she would save him
to the end.
It was a whole way of life that was doomed.
But also contained human values...
..that it was sad to see go.
Cecil is victorious.
How did Cecil feel about it is another question.
Cecil and Essex,
in relation to Elizabeth I, had been like two feuding brothers,
feuding for their mother's affection.
Cecil and Essex in childhood had been like two feuding brothers
struggling for the affection or approval of William Cecil.
So we have to assume that some kind of guilty feelings...
..it's impossible not to feel...
..some kind of pity...
..for Robert Cecil,
who, the more he succeeds,
the more isolated he becomes.
And the longer he stays in the game, the lonelier he becomes.
That he is edging up and up and up...
..and yet becoming more and more...
..single and alone and isolated.
Whatever the psychological cost, Cecil seems to be winning.
But there is only one thing that slips his attention.
In the Tower of London, the Catholic priest, John Gerard,
makes a slightly strange request.
He asks for some lemons, which his jailers can't see a problem with.
Gerard communicated with his friends on the outside with lemon juice.
When it dries, it would be invisible.
But then if you dip that paper in water, the writing comes out.
And so he begins a secret communication with Catholics
in London, asking to be rescued.
Cecil is unaware of this.
He's still thinking about how he can work with King James of Scotland.
In Scotland, news of Essex's failed rebellion reaches James.
And with Essex dead,
James needs someone else to help him become King of England.
In May 1601, two men ask to meet Cecil.
They said that James wants Cecil to work for him
inside Elizabeth's court.
Cecil has to assess... firstly whether he can believe this.
This is just after the Essex rebellion.
He knows that James and Essex were in contact.
So, Cecil's immediate worry has to be that this is a set-up.
So it takes two weeks before Cecil gives a reply.
And in that time, we can assume that he's doing everything he can to try
and see around the corners here and work out whether this is a genuine,
sincere offer and this is going to be the road that leads
quite directly to the succession,
or whether this is a dark and convoluted path, which will end up
in Cecil being implicated in a treasonous correspondence.
Robert Cecil wasn't right to think that this was a trap.
Indeed, his ambassadors write this to him.
They make plain to him
that there is a great difference between vigilancy and credulity.
You know, they didn't have coffee, but you need to wake up and
Cecil decides to go for it.
He opens the correspondence.
Cecil penetrated Essex's conspiracy with James.
He goes to elaborate lengths to ensure this won't happen to him.
Cecil refers to himself and James in code.
They are 10 and 30.
The letters are not written in Cecil's own hand,
but by a trusted proxy.
They're then given to a courier, known as the pigeon,
a hand-picked agent who uses a diplomatic bag that can't be search,
to take them to the king.
"Your best approach," he tells James,
"is to prefer quietness over needless expostulation."
He advises James to take a step back, not to press Elizabeth.
And it's into that space that Cecil will then place himself
as the intermediary, as the only intermediary who can bring about
the succession that both he and James want.
This makes perfect sense to James in those circumstances.
He can then correspond with Elizabeth less often
and in a less fraught sort of way and in a less needly sort of way.
So, in that sense,
the correspondence with Cecil does help to reduce tensions between
the two monarchs that had been developing through the 1590s.
By late 1602, Cecil has James in the palm of his hand.
But the real pawn of this manipulation
is not the Scottish King, but the ageing English Queen.
"I've spent all my life," Elizabeth says, "in little rooms."
And I thought that was the best description of her I'd ever read.
Because actually, in many ways,
she lived a very confined and constricted life.
And much of her life, although its public aspect was so splendid,
so formal, so magnificent, was spent in confined spaces,
guarded and never on her own.
This world of spiery,
of conspiracies and small candlelit rooms, where danger was always
lurking outside the door and you were never quite sure
what was going to happen when someone entered.
And I do wonder if, at the end of her life,
Elizabeth didn't feel that affinity rather regretfully.
Cecil is, in some ways, responsible for this.
Prisoners live in little rooms.
And Cecil, in guaranteeing her survival,
has boxed her in, in a small space and it does suit him, of course,
to have her manageable and contained.
Inside the Tower of London, under the noses of his jailers,
Father John Gerard has been busy running his Catholic network,
sending instructions to Catholic nobles.
Now, though, it's time to leave.
Gerard bribes the warder a little bit,
to allow him to just cross the courtyard of where his cell is,
over to the Cradle Tower.
Gerard now throws a cord down to his friends,
to create a primitive zip wire.
But he has to climb down the rope with hands swollen by torture.
He starts, he grabs the rope, and very soon he swings round, and has
to do the rest of it hanging upside down, and halfway across, he stops.
He's exhausted and he just dangles there lifelessly.
But he said he got the faith from his prayers,
the prayers of his friends and from God.
And somehow he got over that rope,
he got right to the end of the wharf, then one of his followers
grabbed his legs, hoiked him over, and got him, basically almost
had to carry him into the boat, and then they rowed for their lives.
A monarch dies in public, and so Elizabeth's court
has gathered around her bedside.
Her life has contracted down from the palaces to a few rooms,
to her bedroom, and now the bed in which she will die.
In her last 24 hours of life...
..she cannot move or speak.
And it is only then that Cecil...
..and asks, will it be the King of the Scots?
And she puts a hand to her face
when James's name is mentioned.
People do that when they have bad news.
It's Robert Cecil who interprets this gesture,
that she wanted the King of the Scots to succeed her.
The audience in this room, the councillors
squashed into this small space,
they all knew Cecil was the most powerful man in government.
So they have to play their part in this script,
regardless of what their private thoughts might be.
They have to acknowledge James...
..because Cecil has arranged...
..this as only having one outcome.
Elizabeth never recovers the power of speech
and dies in the early hours of the morning.
On the 24th of March 1603,
Cecil proclaims James as the new King of England.
For Cecil, this must have been a moment of dizzying responsibility
and gratifying power.
He now holds the reins.
He has managed the death of Elizabeth...
..and he's going to now manage...
..the arrival of James of Scotland.
When Robert Cecil comes out of the palace the morning after
Elizabeth has died...
..he has exchanged one sea of troubles for another.
..not the same as Elizabeth.
And Cecil cannot expect...
..this to be the same sort of gig.
So we enter, in the spring of 1603, into an uncertain world.
And what's more, John Gerard is on the loose.
Gerard is hungrier than ever, and he's also got this sort of aura
about him now. He has escaped.
He has escaped from the Tower of London.
There's almost a sort of sense of untouchability to him.
He will soon meet a man called Guido Fawkes,
as they devise their master plan - the Gunpowder Plot.
And it's Cecil's job to stop it.
36 barrels of gunpowder under the Houses of Parliament.
They are going to have the impact of a small-scale nuclear bomb.
It's going to be a hell of a bang.
The clock is ticking.
It's midnight in the Palace of Whitehall by now,
Parliament will open in a matter of hours.
It's Cecil's ultimate test.
And the name which comes up is that of Cecil's old enemy, John Gerard.
Robert Cecil is the son of Elizabeth I's original spymaster. He has been groomed since birth to inherit his father's network but when he finally steps into his father's shoes, the Queen's enemies are stronger than ever and Cecil must also watch his back. The Earl of Essex has established a rival network and is trying to oust Cecil as Elizabeth's spymaster.
Essex is everything Cecil is not. Cecil is bent-backed and under five foot tall. Essex is an athlete and a war hero who flirts with the Queen. But the two men have known each other since childhood. And now they are locked in a battle that is part court theatrical but which is also a lethal spy war in which people die horrifically violent deaths. The stakes are huge. For the winner, untold power. For the loser a one-way trip to the scaffold.
Cecil is also aware that the sun is setting on the reign of Elizabeth, who is in her sixties. He and Essex are not just battling for control of the Queen, but for control over who will be her successor. For the power to select the next King of England. Essex begins a spy war within the spy war by secretly approaching James VI of Scotland and striking a deal to put him on Elizabeth's throne when she has passed away. So Cecil must somehow oust Essex from Elizabeth's court without making an enemy of James who Cecil also wants to inherit the throne.
This is a secret conflict, involving double agents, coded letters, treachery and treason. It is a world that Cecil proves to be an absolute master of. Cecil ruthlessly manoeuvres Essex to the execution block and becomes the man who puts James on the English throne.