Monday, December 4, 2017

Spies and Underhanded Dealings during the 17th Century by Katherine Pym

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“The ministers of King Charles II were not chosen for their honesty…”  Violet Barbour, author of Henry Bennet, earl of Arlington, (published 1914).

King Charles II

King Charles II did not trust anyone. When in exile, and after the Restoration, his life was often imperilled. There were several assassination attempts on his and his brothers’ lives.  

During the Cromwell days, John Thurloe was head of espionage. As Secretary of State, he sent out spies to cull out plots from within the Protectorate’s government. His spy network was extensive. He employed men – and women – who were, on the surface, stalwart royalists. 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. 

The king and company considered the spies ardent Royalists and frolicked with the best of them. Everyone played as well as they could considering how poor the king was. He went from one royal house to another, hoping for shelter and sustenance. He had mistresses and already fathered the 1st Duke of Monmouth.

Mr. John Thurloe, Cromwell's Spymaster

Apparently, Cromwellian spies had too good a time or perhaps they worked too slowly. Thurloe decided it was time to murder the king and his brothers. He orchestrated the Sir Richard Willis Plot, where the brothers would be lured out of exile to the Sussex coast.  Once the brothers disembarked on shore, they would be instantly murdered.  It failed because Thurloe and Cromwell discussed this in front of the clerk, Mr Morland, whom they thought slept. Morland listened to everything the men said. As soon as he could, the clerk informed the king’s court, then located in in Bruges.   

Mr Morland, a clerk under Thurloe
Even as this plot failed, Commonwealth spies infiltrated homes, churches and businesses to destroy the royalist enemy. Thurloe compiled lists, sent spies into enemy camps, had men tortured and killed. Mr Morland confessed to witnessing a man ‘trepanned to death’ at Thurloe’s word.  

Trepanned Skull

It did not matter who was in power, plots were part of the political life. Under Charles II’s, his government did the same.  Their goal was to destroy nonconformists, or fanaticks.

The king inherited a land filled with restless people and bitter malcontents. After the Restoration, Thurloe was dismissed, but not executed for crimes against the monarchy (Charles I and II). He was let go for exchange of valuable Commonwealth secrets.

Charles II replaced Thurloe with Sir Henry Bennet and appointed him as Secretary of State. Bennet brought on board Joseph Williamson who was born to this work.

Mr Joseph Williamson, King Charles II Spymaster
Williamson took the bull by the horns and enhanced the processes Thurloe had begun.  He built a brilliant spy network. An attractive man, he persuaded men and women to turn on associates.  He burrowed spies into households, businesses, and churches.  He used grocers, doctors and surgeons, anyone who would send him notes on persons who were against the king. He had men overseas watching for any plots against the crown.

His tools were numerous.  He loved ciphers, and cipher keys. Doctor John Wallis was an expert in this who worked under Thurloe and Bennet. The man could crack a code in nothing flat.  Williamson, known as Mr. Lee in the underworld, used the Grand Letter Office for ciphered messages to pass back and forth between the undersecretary’s office and his spies. He expected them to keep him informed by ciphered letters at the end of each day, and passed through the post office.

Williamson obtained letters from ambassadors of other countries living in England. His clerks int he post office opened and searched the letters for underhanded deceit. Williamson 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 and keeping them alive.

It was an underhanded world in the 17th century but I can probably say, and be correct, almost every king and queen in every century had their spy networks. It was precarious business to sit on a throne and watch your back for daggers and pistols pointing at it. 

Life is tenuous at the top. 


Many thanks to Henry Bennet, earl of Arlington by Violet Barbour, Historian of Vasser, 1914, & wikicommons public domain for the pictures. 

For more on spies and underhanded deeds, please see my Jasper's Lament, a story of the 2nd Anglo/Dutch war buildup. 

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