‘I pray you, though, tell your folk and home, lest hence ye fare suspect to wander your way as spies in Danish land. Now, dwellers afar, ocean-travellers, take from me simple advice: the sooner the better I hear of the country whence ye came.’

Passage from the oldest English epic, ‘Beowulf’, composed in the 8th century by an unknown Northumbrian bard.

The history of the British Isles is underpinned with a rich heritage of espionage operations and secret service actions. A fiercely independent island race, Britons are proud of their traditions of fair play, tolerance and freedom of speech. It is a paradox, then, to find among these same people, such a virulent penchant for ‘dirty tricks’.

Probably the greatest modern ‘conspiracy theory’ outside the existence of extraterrestrial life concerns the death of Princess Diana in August 1997. Accident or not, such was her celebrity that many people cannot accept Diana died because she was not wearing a seatbelt. It has been alleged by businessman Mohammad Al Fayed that Diana and his son Dodi were victims of a plot by the British secret service – it has furthermore been claimed that driver Henri Paul had links with the same organization. Former MI6 agent Richard Tomlinson, who was imprisoned in 1997 for breaching the Official Secrets Act by publishing a book on his time with the secret service, claims Mr Paul was regularly paid for supplying information about guests at the Paris Ritz. Also central to the conspiracy is a note written in October 1996, given by Diana to her butler, Paul Burrell, in which she seemingly predicted her death in a car crash.3 Burrell also claimed that Queen Elizabeth II cryptically warned him from being too close to the Princess – ‘Be careful Paul… There are powers at work in this country, about which we have no knowledge.’

The story of these ‘powers at work’ in Britain begins in 55 BC, when Julius Caesar brought the British Isles into recorded history for the first time. Waging a campaign to bring Gaul under Roman rule, Caesar made two expeditions against Britain. Before setting off on what he called ‘The First Invasion’, Caesar found almost nothing was known about the island. The Gallic traders he interviewed could report only on those parts of the coast facing Gaul and even then their knowledge was, from the military strategist’s point of view, utterly incomplete. Writing in the third person, Caesar commented:

And so, although he interviewed traders from all parts, he could not ascertain anything about the size of the island, the character and strength of the tribes which inhabited it, their manner of fighting and customs, or the harbours capable of accommodating a large fleet of big ships.

Faced with this lack of basic intelligence, Caesar sent a warship under the command of Volusenus to make a general reconnaissance as quickly as possible. The mission lasted four days but at no time did Volusenus dare put himself ashore for risk of capture by the natives. He made his report to Caesar who continued with his preparations to sail with two legions in 80 transports protected by a screen of warships.

While Caesar had little idea of what to expect on the other side of the Channel, he admitted that the Britons knew he was coming. Although he tells us that a number of envoys were sent by British tribes, offering hostages and submission to Rome, the reception Caesar received on the island’s beaches suggests an element of propaganda in his prose. An absence of proof does not mean the ambassadors sent to offer the hostages were not secretly spying on his build-up. Suitably forewarned of the Roman expedition, the Britons were able to muster their forces on the coast in time to dispute Caesar’s landing. The Romans landed in full view of their enemy and met fierce resistance, which was only overcome with great difficulty.

Caesar soon left Britain, returning again the following year for a second unsuccessful attempt. In fact, Britain would remain unconquered until Emperor Claudius’ expedition landed almost a century later in AD 43. Caesar had experienced the problems faced by every would-be conqueror of Britain over the next two millennia. Apart from the obvious problems of crossing a turbulent and unpredictable stretch of sea, the need to assemble a great number of ships made it impossible to keep invasion plans a secret. It also proved very difficult to infiltrate the island with spies.

In AD 410, the last Roman legions were withdrawn from Britain and Emperor Honorius informed the Romano-Britons that they should look to their own defence against the Saxon raiders. Thus began a period of strife known as the Dark Ages, which lasted until punctuated by the Norman Conquest of Britain in 1066. From what evidence survives we can deduce that this turbulent age proved fertile ground for spies and associated plotters. From the 5th-century rule of Kentish king Vortigen, who urged King Constans to hire Pictish spies to head off rebellion in the north, to the reign of King Canute (ruled 1016–35), who maintained spies in the Norwegian and Swedish armies, espionage was no stranger to British shores.

Although perhaps dismissible as legend, perhaps even myth, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth spies also had a hand to play in the death of Uther, the father of King Arthur. While Uther was at St Albans, spies disguised as beggars entered the city working for the Saxon king Colgrim. Establishing that Uther was ill and required a particular type of water from a certain spring, the spies laced the well with a lethal dose of poison. Legend or not, the story gives us an example of how spies were employed at the time.

More probable, although still in the realms of popular legend, is the story of the king who was his own spy. In 878 England faced a great Danish invasion led by Guthrum. In opposition was Alfred the Great, King of Wessex (ruled 871–899), who, it is said, dared not trust anyone but himself when it came to counting the size of the Danish forces. Legend has it that Alfred assumed the garb of a minstrel and visited the Danish camp where he played a harp and sang Saxon ballads. Impressed with his talent, Guthrum is supposed to have invited Alfred into his tent to entertain him with his harp playing.

Alfred spent a week in the Danish camp learning everything about the size and preparedness of their forces. Realizing that the Danes relied on small-scale raids to provision their men, Alfred focused on attacking these raiding parties to good effect. Suitably weakened, the Danes lost the battle of Edington and Guthrum was captured. On meeting Alfred and learning he was the minstrel, Guthrum was so stunned he converted to Christianity and consented to the division of England into two kingdoms – Wessex and Danelaw.

It is clear in the run up to the battle of Hastings in 1066 that King Harold (c.1022–66) used spies to find the strength of William of Normandy’s invasion army. From Norman sources there is a story that William caught an English spy watching his troops in Normandy and sent him back to Harold with a message that Harold should not waste money on spies because he, William, would be bringing his army to England by the end of the year and Harold would be able to see its strength for himself.

Before the battle, Harold is said to have stopped 7 miles (11km) short of the Norman encampment and sent French-speaking spies to ascertain the size of William’s army. The spies, however, did not realize that the Norman knights were soldiers on account of their being clean shaven and having short hair. Consequently they reported back to Harold that there were more priests in William’s camp than there were fighting men in Harold’s. Fortunately the Saxon king knew the Norman custom and corrected his spies.

After Hastings, with England under Norman rule, a series of dynastic struggles commenced, which were made all the more crucial by a simultaneous jockeying for position between church and state. As the centuries rolled by, events were further complicated by England’s quest for domination over the entire British Isles, bringing conflicts with Wales, Scotland, Ireland, always France and then increasingly Spain. In this blizzard of intrigue, conflict and persecution, the use of spies eventually developed into what many consider the first modern secret service.

The first of the dynastic disputes involved King Henry I (ruled 1100–35) who succeeded to the throne in 1100 largely because his brother, William Rufus, had died without an heir and his elder brother, Robert, Duke of Normandy, had not yet returned from the Crusades. Henry quickly made peace with his elder brother and, through marriage, also with Scotland. But he continued to feel his throne was vulnerable because of the powerful and reputedly sadistic Robert de Belême, Earl of Shrewsbury.

According to the historian Ordericus Vitalis, Henry used ‘private spies’ to watch Robert and prepare a list of indictments against him. Based on the spies’ reports Henry I summoned Robert to his court and accused him of committing 45 offences ‘in deed or word’ against him and his brother, the Duke of Normandy. Robert stalled and asked for time before responding to the charges, then fled. An irate Henry I finally cornered Robert at Shrewsbury Castle before banishing him to Normandy.

Perhaps more fundamental was the later clash between Henry II (ruled 1154–89) and his former chancellor, Thomas à Becket. This clash of ideas was the first of a series of conflicts that would see England ultimately reject the power of the Roman church. Henry II had made Becket Archbishop of Canterbury in 1162. In a nutshell, Henry II believed he ruled in the name of God, not in the name of the pope – Becket disagreed. To resolve the matter, in October 1164 the archbishop was summoned to Northampton to stand trial for misappropriating funds while he was chancellor. Beckett claimed the council had no right to try him and after a stormy exchange he fled the country to avoid Henry II’s spies. During six years of exile Becket kept up a secret correspondence, intriguing with supporters in England against the king. Reconciliation was attempted in 1170, but, ultimately inflexible, Becket was brutally murdered by supporters of the king in Canterbury Cathedral.

It comes as no surprise to see the Plantagenet king Edward I11 (ruled 1272–1307) use a spy to finally apprehend his implacable Scottish enemy, William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace. The identity of the spy who betrayed Wallace has long been a bone of contention, for it was never recorded to whom the ‘40 Marks’ of blood-money were paid. Many suspect that the culprit was Jack Short, Wallace’s servant who betrayed him to Sir John Menteith, a Scottish baron who recognized Edward’s reign. Menteith certainly appears to have supervised the actual capture in 1305, receiving £151 and a grant of land for his troubles – with a further 100 marks divided between those who made the arrest. In the Hollywood version, Wallace’s betrayer is none other than the father of Scottish legend Robert the Bruce. This appears unlikely as the Bruce’s father died in Palestine on crusade 15 months before Wallace’s arrest.

Aside from bludgeoning England’s Celtic neighbours, Edward Plantagenet is notable for introducing the ‘Ward and Watch’ system. This was something akin to the Persian ‘eyes and ears of the king’ and provided a system of surveillance, which served as a form of counter-espionage service. In 1283 Edward had proclaimed that the City of London was to have a night watch – then in 1285 expanded the watch throughout the kingdom. The watch was to be kept at the gates from dusk ’til dawn. All strangers were to be detained and delivered to the local sheriff the next morning. If necessary, watchmen could summon help by sounding the ‘hue and cry’ after which all freemen between the ages of 15 and 60 were required to band together in pursuit of a suspect, or, to use the parlance of the American West, form a posse. This means of surveillance, which was still in use in the 19th century, was further solidified in 1434 by Cardinal Beaufort who introduced the institution of state informer.

In other examples, during the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453) between England and France there was a huge increase in the number of spies employed in Europe. Records show that the French heroine Jeanne d’Arc was betrayed by a paid agent of the English, Bishop Pierre Cauchon de Beauvais. During the Wars of the Roses (1455–85) it was said that the espials of Richard III ‘ranged and searched in every quarter’ and had ‘the eyes of a Lynx, and open ears like Midas’.

In the later medieval period there was a marked escalation in the employment of ambassadors sent to spy on foreign courts. Previously, foreign ambassadors were received very quickly and sent packing before they had much chance to see anything of real value. However, during the Middle Ages, the practice of sending ‘resident ambassadors’ changed intelligence gathering dramatically. Although out of politeness this new breed of ambassador was not meant to behave as a spy, most did. They had been placed abroad with the sole intention of gathering intelligence, which they did by setting up their own networks of informers and agents.

Curiously, the English were slow on the uptake of placing resident ambassadors abroad. With the exception of two at the Papal Court, the first resident ambassador was not sent abroad until 1505. Instead the English relied on old-fashioned espionage for intelligence and were greatly assisted by their possession of the French port of Calais. This foothold on the European mainland allowed agents to be safely infiltrated and a special boat service was used to bring news quickly across the Channel to Dover. Calais proved a valuable watching post for French military build-ups and came into its own during wartime, when spies were sent out on reconnaissance missions. Under the reign of both Henry VII (ruled 1489–1509) and Henry VIII (ruled 1509–47) the Calais intelligence service was run by an Italian ‘professional diplomat’ named Thomas Spinelly.

Spies were mostly itinerants – people whose professions allowed them to travel without raising suspicion. These included merchants, priests and musicians (minstrels). Other spies adopted the costumes of monks, pilgrims and hermits as cover. The best spies were those who were personal servants, grooms, ushers and the like. These could either be planted in the service of an opponent or be found among existing staff and tempted with bribes to spy on their masters and mistresses.

Although the rewards could be good for a successful spy, with fixed, regular monthly payments a common perk, the punishments meted out to captured spies were particularly brutal, even by medieval standards. Execution was certain, but only after the application of various degrees of torture, which had been authorized as a legal means of interrogation by Edward IV. An agent of Catherine d’Anjou found himself locked in the Tower of London and was interrogated by having hot irons applied to the soles of his feet – under such torture most victims would confess to anything put before them, no matter how trumped-up the charge. Edward IV and Henry VII often led the interrogations personally.

Espionage continued under Henry VIII but took a back seat to the most important issue of the day – Henry’s bloody quest for a male heir. When Pope Clement VII would not permit Henry to divorce Catherine of Aragon in order to marry Anne Boleyn, Henry broke off from Rome and declared himself head of the English church. In 1534 this was confirmed by an ‘Act of Supremacy’, swiftly followed by a new, severe ‘Act of Treason’, which outlawed any opposition to the break with Rome.

In 1535, as supreme head of the church, Henry appointed Thomas Cromwell as his Principal Commissary in ecclesiastical matters. In short, Cromwell’s mission was to coerce or batter the clergy into submission. A royal commission was set up, the agents of which were sent to visit monasteries and report on their condition. This mission began in Oxford in September 1535 and resulted in the closure of 376 monasteries and the seizure of riches from religious shrines. In the process, England became a police state and Henry a brutal despot.

One of the commissioners’ most sickening abuses was the execution of the 84-year-old abbot of Glastonbury, Richard Whiting. Although the abbot had in fact accepted the supremacy of the king, one night while he slept, the commissioners searched his study and claimed to find a manuscript arguing against the divorce of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. It appears that the manuscript was a forgery planted by Cromwell’s spies. Nevertheless, Whiting was chained to a cart and taken to London to stand trial for treason. In a sign of the times, Whiting, who was both deaf and sick, was allowed no counsel and was found guilty. His body was quartered, with a piece each sent to Wells, Bath, Chester and Bridgewater. The abbot’s head was hung from the gate of Glastonbury abbey.

So far did royal spies infiltrate the kingdom that people stopped writing, gossiping, going to confession or even sending presents to one another. Everyone knew that the slightest slip of the tongue would see the finger of suspicion pointed at them. It was, many felt, ‘as if a scorpion lay sleeping under every stone’.

There was poetic justice behind Cromwell’s demise. Enjoying his new-found importance, Cromwell advised Henry VIII to marry Anne of Cleves. When this marriage proved a disaster like the rest, Cromwell’s head was on the block – literally. In an ironic twist of fate he was arrested on charges of heresy and treason. Secret agents working for his rival, the Duke of Norfolk, planted incriminating letters in Cromwell’s home confirming the charges. Cromwell was executed outside the Tower of London on 28 July 1540.

Many consider the reign of Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth I (ruled 1558–1603), the Golden Age of England. Whatever her merits may have been, hers was a reign oozing with the blood of her enemies. Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry and Anne Boleyn and only came to the throne through the misfortune of others. When Henry VIII died in 1547, the throne passed to Elizabeth’s nine-year-old half-brother, Edward VI. Smallpox and tuberculosis caused Edward’s death at the age of 15 (1553), so, according to Henry VIII’s wishes, the throne should have passed to Elizabeth’s elder half-sister, Mary Tudor. However, because Mary was a devout Catholic, the English Protestants offered the throne instead to Lady Jane Grey, the granddaughter of Henry VII. Unfortunately for Lady Jane, her succession was deemed to contravene an Act of Parliament and was annulled nine days later. As Henry VIII had intended, the throne passed to Mary, who instantly set upon a course of reconciliation with Rome. In achieving this joyful harmony, the queen gained the disturbing soubriquet ‘Bloody Mary’. First to the block was Lady Jane. Mary then unleashed her own version of the Spanish Inquisition, burning heretics at the stake in droves. It was lucky for English Protestantism that Mary’s reign was but short lived. After just five years on the throne, in 1558 she died and the throne passed to Elizabeth.

Crowned on 15 January 1559, Elizabeth re-established the Protestant church and in so doing opened a whole new conflict with Rome and Catholicism. First Elizabeth was excommunicated. Then the pope strongly hinted that anyone assassinating her was guaranteed to go straight to heaven. The Catholics even had a replacement waiting in the wings – Mary Queen of Scots. All they needed was Elizabeth dead.

With plot after plot to foil, most authorities claim that the Elizabethan era marks the true beginning of the British secret services. But is this claim justified? The chief spymaster of Elizabeth’s reign was Sir Francis Walsingham (c.1530–90), her First Minister and member of her Privy Council. Certainly Walsingham was head of a formidable network of spies, but it was a network built around him, not the state. With only occasional exceptions, this service was not state-funded. Generally speaking, Walsingham paid his spies from his own purse and died with enormous debts because of it. Most importantly, when Walsingham died, so did the service – there was no official framework in place to ensure it survived him intact.

Walsingham was a commoner by birth, but of a good enough family to study at King’s College, Cambridge. He did not take his degree, but instead went abroad to ‘places unknown’ in 1550 to broaden his horizons through travel. He returned in 1552 and went to study law at Gray’s Inn, one of four ‘Inns of Court’ around the Royal Courts of Justice in London. The Inns were fashionable places for the sons of noblemen and country gentlemen, with only a handful of members ever actually becoming barristers.

As a Protestant of strong conviction, Walsingham left England during the reign of Bloody Mary and resumed his foreign travels in order to avoid persecution. He went to the Italian city of Padua where he enrolled in its university to study law. The university was one of Europe’s great centres of learning and by December 1555 Walsingham was appointed consularius – the official representative of all resident English students. In the Tudor period, Padua was a magnet for English scholars, eager to learn and feed off the energy of the Italian Renaissance – this was, after all, the era of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), Michelangelo (1475–1564) and Machiavelli (1469–1527).

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