Friday, December 4, 2015

Secret Service, Spies and Underhanded Dealings by Katherine Pym

17th century England was volatile. The Stuarts ruled most of this century. There was civil unrest. One king was beheaded outside the Banquet House in London. Cromwell died on a cold and dreary night. His body was embalmed and dressed as an emperor’s; then whisked away to be buried (due to a noisome stink). His son was considered weak, so King Charles II was returned from exile. After he died (a pretty horrible way to go, by the way, which I should probably tell you about one day) his brother took the crown but as a Roman Catholic, he lost it almost immediately and was pretty much kicked out of England. After almost two centuries of kings and queens in religious battles, by the end of the 17th century, true-blue Protestantism held sway. The rest is history (as I swipe at my sweaty brow)

During all these different reigns, there was a lot of Espionage.

King Charles II

King Charles II professed to be Protestant and returned to England with great pomp and ceremony. His new populace greeted him with exuberance along the roads and into London. Everyone who hated him last week, loved him today. 

Our new king was not a stupid man.  He understood people are fickle. He fully expected to be assassinated or beheaded as his father was. While in exile, his life was often imperiled. Men had conspired against him. One example: During the Cromwell years, his spymaster orchestrated a plot where Charles and his brother, James, were to be lured out of exile and back to England. The plot was to kill both brothers the minute they disembarked onto home soil. Thankfully this plot failed but espionage in England had turned really devious. 

Men in power used good spymasters. Cromwell’s was John Thurloe, a brilliant man. He created a network of spies (men & women) who infiltrated the most royal of houses. His net was vast. His spies could be located in every English county, overseas, i.e., in Charles II’s exiled court, in the Americas, and the far Indies. 

John Thurloe

Thurloe compiled lists, sent spies into enemy camps, had men tortured and killed. One such fellow, Samuel Morland, confessed to witnessing a man ‘trepanned to death’ at Thurloe’s word.  ( states the following definition to trepan:  a tool for cutting shallow holes [in this case the skull] by removing a core.”)  Really really painful and a horrid way to go.   

Commonwealth spies infiltrated homes, churches, and businesses to destroy the royalist enemy, and under Charles II’s, his government did the same.  Their goal was to destroy nonconformists, or “fanaticks”. Plots were a part of political life. 

After the Restoration, Thurloe was dismissed, but not executed for crimes against the monarchy (Charles I and II). He was released in exchange of valuable Commonwealth government documents. 

King Charles II placed Sir Henry Bennet as the Secretary of State and overlord of England’s espionage, who in turn brought in Joseph Williamson, another man born to this work. He took the bull by the horns and enhanced the processes Thurloe had begun. 

Joseph Williamson

Williamson built a brilliant spy network.  He allowed informers who, for money, turned on associates.  He burrowed spies into households, businesses and churches.  He used grocers, doctors and surgeons, anyone who would send him notes against persons who were against the king. He had men overseas watch for any plots. Informants were literally everywhere. 

His tools were numerous.  Williamson loved ciphers and cipher keys.  Known as Mr. Lee in the underworld, he used the Grand Letter Office for ciphered messages to pass back and forth between the undersecretary’s office and spies. He expected his people to keep him informed by ciphered letters at the end of each day, and passed through the post office. 

Williamson obtained ambassador letters, had them opened and searched for underhanded deceit. He developed a system of local informers, letters and money crossing palms.  Under Thurloe, the secret service received £800 per year. Under Bennet, the money doubled. Most of the annual budget was spent on spies to keep them alive. 

As a result, most plots failed. Besides Williamson’s expertise and doggedness, most plotters employed too many people. Everyone around the countryside knew of one plot or another, a family member probably involved. Because of Williamson, these plots dissolved before they were brought to fruition. 

Spies seem to be a part of every decade, every century. Today is no different but electronics have replaced ciphered notes sent to spymasters through the post offices.