Intelligence in the Era of the Sun King Part I

John Wallis had been close to the Parliamentarian party, perhaps as a result of his exposure to Holbeach at Felsted School. He rendered them great practical assistance in deciphering Royalist dispatches. The quality of cryptography at that time was mixed; despite the individual successes of mathematicians such as François Viète, the principles underlying cipher design and analysis were very poorly understood. Most ciphers were ad hoc methods relying on a secret algorithm, as opposed to systems based on a variable key. Wallis realised that the latter were far more secure – even describing them as “unbreakable”, though he was not confident enough in this assertion to encourage revealing cryptographic algorithms. He was also concerned about the use of ciphers by foreign powers, refusing, for example, Gottfried Leibniz’s request of 1697 to teach Hanoverian students about cryptography.[

Louis XIV is far better remembered for self-glorification than for secret intelligence. When moving his court to the Palace of Versailles in 1682, he confined God to the chapel. The rest of the largest and grandest palace in European history was devoted to the cult of the Sun King, Louis’s favourite image of himself. By the end of his reign the resident devotees numbered about 10,000 nobles, soldiers, priests, officials, tradesmen and servants. Versailles was second only to the army as France’s largest employer. But Louis also regarded secrecy as essential to his royal authority. A medal struck to commemorate the beginning of his personal rule after the death of Cardinal Mazarin in 1661 had a portrait of the King on the front and, on the reverse, Harpocrates, the Greek god of silence and secrecy, raising a finger to his lips. A painting on the ceiling of the Versailles Hall of Mirrors, the most magnificent room in the palace, shows Louis ordering a simultaneous attack on four Dutch strongholds. By his side is an allegorical figure also holding a finger to his lips. Another figure puts his hand over his mouth as the King prepares to take the city of Ghent.

Louis XIV paid some interest to intelligence collection as well as official secrecy. He took a personal interest in the work of the cabinet noir. Like his father, Louis XIII, he honoured Antoine Rossignol, France’s leading codebreaker until his death in 1682, by visiting his château at Juvisy. Neither of the two great seventeenth-century English codebreakers, Thomas Phelippes and John Wallis, received any sign of royal appreciation from the Stuart kings. Lord Hollis, the English ambassador in Paris, complained in 1665 that his despatches were always opened and read before he received them. His successor, Ralph Montagu, made the same complaint in 1669. Their awareness, like that of some French courtiers, that their correspondence was intercepted must have diminished the value of the intelligence obtained from it by the cabinet noir. The celebrated letter-writer Madame de Sévigné sometimes made personal appeals in her correspondence to those who opened it during the second half of the seventeenth century: ‘Alas! I beseech those who take this trouble to consider the little pleasure which they gain from reading it and the sorrow they cause to us. Messieurs, at least take the trouble to put [the letters] back in their envelopes so that, sooner or later, they reach their destination.’

Louis’s first direct involvement in an intelligence operation, crucial to the establishment of his personal rule in 1661, was the plot to overthrow Mazarin’s superintendent of finance, Nicolas Fouquet, marquis de Belle-Île and vicomte de Melun et Vaux, who hoped to step into Mazarin’s shoes. Fouquet was a classic example of an overmighty subject whose power and prestige threatened royal authority. At his magnificent château at Vaux-le-Vicomte, he lived in greater opulence than the King. On the island of Belle-Île off the coast of Brittany, with the assistance of Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, the foremost military engineer of his age, he sought to construct an impregnable private fortress with its own garrison.

Fouquet’s nemesis was the shrewder and less ostentatious Jean-Baptiste Colbert, whose chilly exterior led Madame de Sévigné to give him the sobriquet le nord (‘the north’). Colbert came from a family of Rheims merchant bankers, trained as an accountant, and helped Mazarin amass the greatest private fortune in the history of the Ancien Régime. On his deathbed Mazarin recommended Colbert to Louis XIV. It was not long before Colbert succeeded in involving Louis in a plot against Fouquet, which, because of Fouquet’s numerous informants in the court and administration, had to be conducted in great secrecy. One of the first steps was to send a spy, disguised as a fisherman, to reconnoitre Fouquet’s Belle-Île fortress. The spy returned with a map of the fortress and details of its 200-man garrison, 400 cannon and the fortifications being built by 1,500 labourers to Vauban’s design. Colbert’s agents also reported that Fouquet had plans to take over the Caribbean island of Martinique and export its produce to Belle-Île. ‘In short, Fouquet was building a miniature kingdom and a small empire.’

Colbert devised a secret plan, approved by the King, for Fouquet to be arrested without warning after a meeting of the provincial Estates in Nantes, well away from his strongholds of Vaux-le-Vicomte and Belle-Île. Louis went out of his way to allay Fouquet’s suspicions by giving him repeated signs of royal favour before his sudden arrest in Nantes immediately after a meeting with the King on 5 September 1661. Since the commander of the royal bodyguard, the Garde du Corps, was an informant of Fouquet, he was arrested instead by Charles d’Artagnan, leader of the musketeers who accompanied the King on his travels. The fictional d’Artagnan in Alexandre Dumas’s celebrated mid-nineteenth-century novel The Three Musketeers, famous for the cry ‘All for one, one for all!’, has become far better known than the elusive and less romantic figure of the real musketeer. There is some evidence that the real d’Artagnan had carried out espionage missions for Mazarin and thus had the experience required for the secret operation which culminated in his arrest of Fouquet.

Colbert arranged for the simultaneous seizure of Fouquet’s files, chief among them the Cassette, a massive folio volume hidden behind a large armoire in his office containing financial secrets, evidence of corruption, and details of his agents, informers and mistresses. After a controversial three-year trial, Fouquet was sentenced to life imprisonment. Louis was proud of his own role in the sophisticated intelligence operation orchestrated by Colbert. The King later claimed that ‘the whole of France’, as well as approving the overthrow of Fouquet, ‘particularly praised’ his success in keeping secret the plan to arrest him for three or four months, despite the fact that Fouquet’s informers were all around him. Colbert’s critics said privately that his family crest of a climbing snake had proved highly appropriate.

From 1665 until his death in 1683 Colbert was Controller-General of Finance and First Minister in all but name. He regarded the royal account books, financial reports and all other state financial information as classified intelligence for official use only, believing that all ministers and government officials should take oaths of secrecy and lose their jobs if they broke them. Colbert’s ultimate aim was to assemble a classified audit of all the local resources and administrative systems of the French kingdom, sending officials to obtain information on population numbers, land holdings, economic activity, local regulations, laws and important individuals. He expanded the audit to include neighbouring states, drawing much of his inspiration from the sixteenth-century trading and banking empire of the Augsburg Fugger family, whose sophisticated filing system included regular reports from a far-flung network of correspondents. Colbert told his son (whom he hoped would succeed him) before sending him on a mission to Italy in 1671:

In each state, look at . . . its situation, its military forces, the size of its population, the greatness of the state, the number and size of cities, towns, and villages . . . ; the form of State government, and if it is aristocratic . . . the names and status of noble families that have taken or will take part in governing the Republic; their different functions; their general and particular councils; who represents the State, in whom the sovereign power lies and who resolves peace and war, who makes laws; etc . . . the results of elections; the particular councils for the militia, the admiralty, justice, for the city and for the rest of the State; the laws and the customs . . . Visit the public works, maritime and on land, all the palaces, public buildings, and generally all that is remarkable.

Faced with this demanding agenda, Colbert’s son had more than once to apologize to his father for failing to live up to his high expectations.

Colbert, concludes a recent study of him, aimed to construct a ‘secret state intelligence system’. Though only fragmentary evidence of Colbert’s use of the cabinet noir survives, his intelligence system involved the interception (and, where necessary, decryption) of correspondence. Colbert wrote to the Intendant of Toulouse in 1682 that letters from Flanders to Toulouse had revealed the existence of an important plot (possibly involving the spread of Jansenist heresy) which it was ‘very important to clarify’. Other intercepted correspondence to and from Toulouse revealed (unspecified) commercial ventures in Rome, which Colbert declared ‘prejudicial to the service of the King’.

Apart from its ambitiousness, a major obstacle to the development of Colbert’s state intelligence system was his rivalry with the marquis de Louvois, Secretary of State for War from 1662 until his death in 1691.† From 1668, Louvois was also superintendent of the posts, a position which brought him an income of about a million livres a year, as well as giving him greater authority than Colbert over the operations of the cabinet noir, which he used for military as well as political intelligence.‡ In 1668, at the request of the French military commander, the prince de Condé (‘le grand Condé’), who was in Dijon, preparing for the invasion of Franche-Comté, Louvois postponed the delivery of the post to Dijon until the invasion had begun, to prevent correspondents in Paris giving advance warning of it.

Louvois attached more importance to intelligence than any other European War Minister of his time. The growth in the size of armies in the age of Louis XIV, as well as of the munitions and rations they required, combined with the immense improvements in fortifications pioneered by Vauban to increase the importance of military intelligence. In the forty years after 1667, Vauban directed the construction of thirty-seven new fortresses and fortified harbours, as well as upgrading the fortifications of about 300 cities in France and the Low Countries. Before beginning his victorious advance along the River Meuse at the start of the Franco-Dutch War in 1672, Condé sent a fortifications expert to reconnoitre enemy fortresses. This reconnaissance probably contributed to the rapid conquest of four fortresses on the Rhine, for which Louis XIV claimed personal credit: ‘I hope no one complains that I disappointed public expectations.’ In 1673 the King’s army, after a siege conducted by Vauban, also took the Dutch fortress of Maastricht. French victories and Vauban’s fortifications increased the priority of military intelligence among France’s opponents. French military archives in the château de Vincennes contain an intelligence questionnaire given by his superiors to a military engineer in the Rhine army of the Habsburg Emperor Leopold I who was also working as a French agent. He was asked to collect intelligence on French fortifications from both their designers and builders. In addition to identifying French military units and their commanders (later known as battle-order intelligence), the engineer was also asked for details of their stocks of munitions and rations, as well as information on their finances and how recently their troops had been paid. Even at the beginning of the seventeenth century such an attempt to collect this kind of military intelligence would have been very unusual.

Improved military intelligence contributed to the superiority of French armies over their foreign opponents in the 1660s and 1670s, though the fact that, thanks largely to Louvois, Louis XIV had both the largest European army of the era (possibly the largest since the fall of the Roman Empire) and the greatest generals – Condé, the vicomte de Turenne and the duc de Luxembourg – contributed far more. Louvois acted as his own intelligence chief. In dealing with Louis XIV, however, he had to face the classic problem of ‘telling truth to power’. This problem presented itself in an acute form in the autumn of 1673, when, following a Dutch and Habsburg offensive, combined with declarations of war on France by Spain and Brandenburg–Prussia, Louvois favoured a strategic withdrawal by French forces from some conquered territory. Louis, however, regarded retreat as incompatible with gloire. ‘In the King’s present mood’, wrote Louvois gloomily, ‘he would rather give up Paris or Versailles than Maastricht.’ French forces were thus pinned down defending conquests of the previous year while Dutch and Habsburg forces advanced to the Rhine.

Over the next decade Louis XIV lost both his greatest generals and his leading intelligence experts. Turenne died in battle in 1675. Soon afterwards the 64-year-old Condé, worn out by the exertions of his long military career and tortured by gout, retired. In 1682 the death of Rossignol, regarded by Colbert as one of the ‘most illustrious Frenchmen’ of the century, deprived France of the greatest codebreaker of the French Ancien Régime. With Colbert’s sudden death (probably from a kidney stone) in 1683, his still unfinished project to create a classified database was abandoned. Louis XIV gave up the attempt to centralize official information and dispersed responsibility for its collection and management to ministries and officials who lacked the accountancy skills required to conduct serious audits. Claude Le Peletier, who became Controller-General of Finance on Colbert’s death, complained to Louis XIV that he was unable to understand the state’s financial workings, for Colbert had kept them secret – ‘enclosed in his very self’.

After Colbert’s death, Louis XIV also lost interest in state finance and gave up the attempt to balance the books. He retained an active interest, however, in the operations of the cabinet noir. Louvois wrote to the French military commander in Alsace, Baron Joseph de Montclar, during the formation in 1685 of the anti-French League of Augsburg: ‘The King has been informed that in a few days’ time a courier of the Emperor [Leopold I] is due to return from Spain [through Alsace]. H[is] M[ajesty] judges it important in present circumstances to seize the courier’s valise and take possession of the despatches.’ On royal instructions, the attack on the imperial courier was to be disguised as a robbery: ‘Make sure that those whom you instruct to seize the courier’s valise do not fail to take all his money in order to strengthen the belief that they are robbers . . .’ Louis XIV also took a personal interest in what the cabinet noir revealed about gossip at court. The main topic for gossip in the mid-1680s and beyond was the King’s morganatic marriage to his mistress, Madame de Main-tenon. The marriage remained so secret that its exact date (possibly in October 1683) will probably never be known. Three young members of leading noble families were banished from Versailles in 1685 after their intercepted letters were found to contain satirical references comparing the royal couple to a decrepit provincial noble and his ageing mistress. Maintenon, who was fifty in 1685 (slightly older than Louis) and sensitive about her age, was outraged by ‘the very great irreverence’ of such gossip, which she denounced as an ‘abominable vice’.

The expulsions from Versailles in 1685 and other sanctions against ‘irreverent’ gossip must have inspired greater prudence in courtiers’ correspondence. Among those at court who were indignant about the invasion of their personal privacy by the cabinet noir was Louis XIV’s sister-in-law the Princess Palatine, who regularly corresponded with her German relatives. In one letter to a female relative, intended to shame those who opened it, she described how, while answering an urgent call of nature, the earthenware chamber pot on which she was sitting had broken. But for the fact that she clung on to a nearby table, she believed that the jagged fragments of the broken pot would have lacerated her derrière. This ‘fine story’, the princess added for the benefit of the letter-openers, would no doubt be considered ‘worthy of the attention of the Secretary of State [for foreign affairs] and I am sure that M. de Torcy will make a report on it to the King’.

Thanks chiefly to Charles II and his successor, James II, Louis XIV’s best foreign intelligence came from Britain. Charles II concealed the Treaty of Dover, secretly negotiated with Louis in 1670, from all but two of his ministers. The French ambassador in London from 1677 to 1688, Paul Barillon, marquis de Branges, reported that Charles was ‘so secret and impenetrable that even the most skillful observers are misled’. Barillon found James II, who succeeded his elder brother in 1685, much easier to deal with. James had received military training in the French army, was converted to Catholicism by a French Jesuit, and was strongly influenced by Louis XIV in his choice of the Catholic Mary of Modena as his second wife. Sir William Trumbull, James’s ambassador in Paris, later recalled that ‘all matters of moment were to be transacted by Barillon’, who was in close contact with Louvois as well as communicating directly with Louis XIV. James, Trumbull believed, ‘no doubt communicated to Barillon all that he knew’. Louis XIV’s special envoy, Usson de Bonrepaus, was also taken into James’s confidence. But James’s often expressed hopes to Barillon and Usson de Bonrepaus of returning England to the Catholic faith proved hopelessly optimistic. Given the difficulty of telling truth to power at the court of the Sun King, it is highly unlikely that any of Louis’s advisers dared tell him, even if they realized it, that James’s impossible project of a Catholic England risked putting his throne in jeopardy.

The English ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688 was, in part, an anti-Catholic revolution. James II was overthrown by an invasion led by the Dutch Stadholder and Protestant hero William of Orange. Until 1688 William’s wife, Princess Mary, the Protestant daughter of James II by his Protestant first wife, Anne Hyde, had been James’s heir. On 10 June, however, Mary of Modena gave birth to a son and heir, James Francis Edward, thus threatening the Protestant succession. William sent his close friend William Nassau van Zuylestein (later 1st Earl of Rochford) to London, ostensibly to convey his congratulations to James and Mary of Modena on the birth of their son. Zuylestein’s real mission, however, was to continue secret talks with James’s leading opponents which he and others had begun in the previous year. He also reported to William a widespread belief that James’s alleged son was a baby who had been secretly smuggled into the Queen’s bedchamber in a warming pan. On 30 June, at William’s private request, seven of James’s opponents, later known as the ‘Immortal Seven’, sent a letter assuring him that, if he landed in England to protect English liberties, his forces would receive widespread support.

The timing of William’s landing was influenced by top-secret intelligence (‘secretum secretorum’) which he received from the court of the Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna, Leopold I. William kept the identity of his informant in Vienna so secret that he refused to reveal it even to the leading Dutch supporters of his invasion of England. Recent research shows that the informant was the Emperor himself. Leopold warned William that Louis XIV was planning an attack on the Dutch United Provinces and other Protestant states, and was trying to persuade him to join an alliance against them. Though Catholic, Leopold had hitherto been an ally of the Protestant Dutch, but he now informed William that, if Louis XIV defeated the United Provinces and James II crushed English opposition to his rule, he would be obliged to change sides. The Protestant nightmare, shared by William, of a Roman Catholic grand alliance of Bourbon France, Habsburg Austria and Stuart England would become a reality. We now know that Leopold’s claims that the French were offering him the cession of Alsace and other inducements to form an alliance were fraudulent – part of his successful campaign to win Dutch support against Louis XIV. William, however, was completely taken in by the false intelligence he received from Vienna, and used it repeatedly from July 1688 to demonstrate the urgency of intervention in England.

Though William had good intelligence from England while planning his invasion, James II had virtually none from the Dutch Republic. Deceived by disinformation from Dutch envoys, he was so confident that William’s military preparations were for war with France rather than the invasion of England that, when Louis XIV offered to place the French Atlantic fleet at his disposal, James assured him it would not be needed. By the time he discovered his mistake in September, it was too late; the fleet had been deployed elsewhere. It also took some weeks for James to discover that William had printed 60,000 copies of a declaration intended to justify his invasion for distribution in England. William declared that his purpose was ‘to preserve and maintain the liberties, laws and customs of England’. Despite the fact that he had earlier congratulated James on the birth of his son and heir, he also declared the need to investigate the circumstances of the birth, thus appearing to give credence to the conspiracy theory that the baby had arrived in the Queen’s bedchamber in a warming pan.

Obtaining intelligence on where William’s forces intended to land was impossibly difficult. When the invasion fleet first set off in mid-October, storms drove it back to port. Driven west by a ‘Protestant wind’ at the second attempt, William decided at the last minute to land at Torbay in Devon on 5 November.32 Most support for James II quickly melted away. ‘The reason we have so little intelligence’ from the West Country, complained his Secretary of State, Charles Middleton, was that ‘none of the gentry of this or adjacent counties come near the court and the common [folk] are spies to the enemy’. Government spies continued to take Stuart money only to transfer their allegiance to William’s forces at the first opportunity. Among those who changed sides was James’s ablest general, John Churchill (later Duke of Marlborough). Even his younger daughter, the future Queen Anne, deserted him.

William could not have predicted that, with a larger army than his own, James would give up without a fight. On 11 December James threw the Great Seal of England into the Thames (hoping thus to prevent the passing of legislation in his absence) and travelled in heavy disguise to the Kent coast, where a small ship was waiting to take him to France. Before he could escape, however, he was caught by fishermen looking for fleeing Catholic priests, and suffered the humiliation of becoming the only British monarch ever to be strip-searched. Not until James had been frog-marched to the nearest town (another unique experience for an English monarch) was he recognized as the King. A crucifix stolen from him by the fishermen was given back. After briefly returning to London, James made a second attempt to flee, which William allowed to succeed. James’s flight to France, where he arrived on Christmas Day 1688, enabled his opponents to claim that he had abdicated and left the throne vacant. In February 1689 William and Mary were declared joint rulers.

William became simultaneously King William III of England and Ireland, William II of Scotland and Stadholder of the Dutch Republic. He immediately embroiled England as well as the Dutch Republic in the Nine Years War (1688–97) between Louis XIV (who continued to recognize James II as King of England and Ireland, and as James VII of Scotland) and a Grand Alliance dominated by William which also included the Austrian Habsburgs, princes of the Holy Roman Empire, Spain and Savoy. Among William’s main wartime intelligence assets, little noticed by historians, was John Wallis, by now in his early seventies and in fragile health but still active as an Oxford mathematician and theologian as well as Britain’s chief cryptanalyst. Though Wallis had been distrusted by James II, probably in part because he was an Anglican priest, William was quick to recognize his talents. His correspondence with the leading Dutch statesman Anthonie Heinsius shows his admiration for Wallis as the greatest codebreaker of the era. The King’s personal interest in Wallis was in striking contrast with the distance he kept from most other British officials. He spent much of his time with foreign advisers in Hampton Court and Kensington, away from the great palace of Whitehall, the main seat of Stuart government. Unlike his sociable wife, Queen Mary, William was one of the most reserved and reclusive monarchs in British history. Mary’s death from smallpox in 1694 made the monarchy even more remote from most of its subjects.

Some of the first important decrypts produced by Wallis during William and Mary’s reign followed James II’s landing in Ireland in March 1689 with Jacobite and French forces, who began a siege of the Protestant stronghold of Londonderry (Derry) a month later. The relief of the 105-day siege, which, despite heavy loss of life, failed to starve the defenders into submission, is still celebrated by Unionists every August with the firing of a cannon to commemorate the apprentice boys who shut the city gates against James’s advancing armies. Wallis wrote to the Earl of Nottingham, one of the King’s two Secretaries of State, when sending him a decrypted despatch from an unidentified French commander soon after the relief of Londonderry: ‘I have met with better success than at first I could promise your lordship or myself and with more expedition than I could hope for.’ The decrypt gave William III welcome intelligence on dissension between Jacobite and French forces. The French commander complained that arms suppliers chosen by James II’s staff to provide munitions for his forces during the siege had defrauded him:

Orders were given for a supply of cannon and ammunition for our use, but they took care that, of the two cannon sent, only one would take the cannon balls supplied and the fuses were nearly worn out. Nothing I could do could then remedy these defects. I have made the [Jacobite] general officers understand the state of affairs so that they may inform the King, their master, of it, who I am sure will deal with those who are guilty in a fitting manner. The mistake cannot have been committed in ignorance, because, in my despatch, on which they acted, I particularly directed that the shot was to be tried, to see if it fitted the cannon and the fuses that they fitted the touch holes. If like faults are committed with impunity one cannot feel the same ardour for King [James’s] service. Shame will be acquired and reputation lost, if the public simply hear that supplies have been sent to the [French] camp without being also told that those supplies were useless. It will be thought that nothing was done, because the [French] officers were incapable. I am on my mettle, not being willing to be overcome by their malice.

As well as revealing dissension between French and Jacobite officers, increased by the failure of the Londonderry siege, the decrypted despatches of the French commander also reported disputes within James’s own high command. The Earl of Tyrconnell, commander-in-chief of his Irish army, was said to have faced ‘almost insurmountable resistance’ by James and, it was believed, his Secretary of State, Lord Melfort, to authorizing essential expenditure: ‘I am assured that Lord Tyrconnell’s discontent, as much as his indisposition, has contributed to his retirement to a country house.’ Wallis noted that one of the intercepted French despatches sent to him was in very poor condition: ‘Nor know I how it becomes so rotten and discoloured in so short a time: Unless possibly it may have been thrown overboard into salt water & recovered from thence.’ This was a distinct possibility, since some French despatches were intercepted at sea.

When sending Nottingham the decrypt from a French commander in Ireland, Wallis reported that another intercepted despatch, addressed to Louis XIV, ‘was in a hard cipher . . . I cannot yet see my way to break it.’42 Within a fortnight, however, he had begun to decrypt highly sensitive correspondence between Louis XIV and his ambassador in Warsaw:

I am almost ashamed to tell yo[u]r Lordship how much time & pains on that very perplexed cypher in the Letter from Poland, & have not yet dispatched it. But by what I have done all ready, I find two things (which seem to me) of moment. One is a Treaty (or entreaty rather) of the French King with the King of Poland presently to make a war on Prussia. The other, about a marriage of the Princess of Hanover with the Prince of Poland, promoted by the French King. How far it may be of concernment to us to know it, I am no competent Judge. But I thought it did become me to give this timely notice of it (lest there might be a prejudice by delay) while I am preparing to give a fuller account of that letter . . .

William immediately saw the opportunity to provoke a political crisis between France and Poland by revealing the contents of the decrypted French despatches. Wallis was quick to claim much of the credit: ‘The deciphering some of those letters . . . quite broke off all the French King’s measures in Poland . . . & caused his Ambassadors to be thence thrust out with disgrace. Which one thing was of much greater advantage to his Ma[jes]ty & his Allies than I am like to receive on that account.’ Contrary to his initial expectation, Wallis was given by Nottingham ‘a Present (from the King, I suppose) of Fifty pound. Which I looked upon as a handsome gratuity for the service then done and as a testimon[y] of his Ma[jes]ty’s acceptance (which I valued) and returned my acknowledgements.’ Wallis was anxious, however, that future French decrypts be kept secret in order not to lead France to change its ciphers.

Wallis’s success in revealing Louis XIV’s plans to provoke war between Poland and Prussia so impressed Frederick I, Duke (later King) of Prussia and Elector of Brandenburg, that he asked Wallis to decrypt further (probably French) despatches for him. Having done so, Wallis was told that Frederick was sending him ‘a rich medal with an honourable inscription, & a gold chain of a great value’. Two years later, Wallis had still received neither and complained to the English ambassador in Berlin of being ‘treated like a child, as if I were to be wheedled on to difficult services by a few fair words, & a promise of a few sugar-plums, which should in the issue signify nothing’. The ‘rich medal’ and gold chain did, however, eventually arrive. Both appear on a small table by Wallis’s side in a portrait of him by the leading court painter, Sir Godfrey Kneller, presented to Oxford University by Wallis’s friend and admirer Samuel Pepys. Wallis was the first, and so far the only, British codebreaker to receive an award from a foreign ruler.

By the end of 1689, Wallis had succeeded in breaking a series of French diplomatic and military ciphers used by, among others, Louis XIV’s Foreign Minister, Colbert de Croissy, as well as by Louis himself.48 When sending the Earl of Nottingham the decrypt of a despatch to Croissy in December, Wallis added:

I am very ready to serve his Majesty the best I can, gratis, and to lay [aside] all my own affairs, as I have done this half year, to attend this service. I have been indisposed as to my health all this winter, my eyesight fails me so that I must be forced to quit this service. I have had assistance from my son who with some directions from me could pretty well perform it. I have lost the sight of one eye in the service already this winter.

Nottingham replied:

I . . . am very sorry this service has so much prejudiced your health. I have acquainted the King with it, who is very sensible of your zeal and good affection, and will, I believe, in a short time give you some mark of his favour, wherein my endeavours shall not be wanting to serve you. If I have occasion, hereafter, to send you any more of these letters, I will not press you to despatch them in so much haste as formerly, but leave it to you to do them more at leisure.

In fact, despite his fragile health, Wallis continued breaking ciphers for the remainder of the reign of William III, and outlived him by nearly two years. Wallis, however, continued to resent the fact that he received no regular salary as royal codebreaker and depended on irregular payments. Anxious to provide for his family, he told Nottingham he would be grateful for ‘any kindness’ in finding employment for his son and son-in-law, both struggling lawyers. Despite his age and infirmity, Wallis also declared himself ‘capable of any promotion Ecclesiastical’. Despite complimenting Wallis on his work, Nottingham failed to respond to his requests. As Wallis complained:

. . . Having (for my Lord Nottingham) condescended to do clarks[clerk’s]-work: I might at least expect clarks-wages (without being thought mercenary or ungentle). And I presume there is never a clark his Lo[rdshi]p keeps, but is (one way or other) better payd, for the work he doth, than I am.

He may say perhaps, This is (not his, but) the King’s service. Very true. And so is all the service his Lo[rdshi]p doth as Secretary. Yet he is well payd for it. And, so well, that he may (out of his allowance) afford to gratify those that work under him.

William III’s main military priority in 1690 was to drive James II and his forces from Ireland. Convinced that ‘nothing worthwhile would be done’ to end James’s rule in Ireland unless he took personal charge of the campaign, William crossed the Irish Sea in June 1690. The intelligence provided by Wallis’s decrypts was of great importance. Had Louis XIV sent further forces to add to the French regiments already in Ireland, James’s prospect of victory would have been much greater. Though the French fleet was stronger than those of the British and Dutch combined, William knew from intelligence reports (probably including decrypts) that the French fleet had no soldiers on board, and therefore that no French reinforcements were on the way to Ireland. At the Battle of the Boyne, north of Dublin, on 1 July 1690, William won a crushing victory over James II, who left Ireland never to return, angrily blaming his poorly led Irish troops for having ‘basely fled the field’. His Irish forces conferred on James the nickname Seamus an Chaca (‘James the Shithead’). The victory of the French fleet over the British and Dutch at the Battle of Beachy Head on 10 July did nothing to restore his fortunes.


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