Sunday, May 6, 2012

Secret Service, Spies, and Underhanded Dealings during the 17th Century

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

This did not make Charles II a stupid man, but one who had gone through years of hardship. His life had often been imperiled.  Men conspired against him, or tried to rule him.  It left its mark.  To watch for underhanded dealings during his reign, he sought out men who would meet toe-to-toe those who threatened the king, and his court. 

On one hand Charles II filled his court with frivolity. He played, danced, and allowed his spaniel dogs to soil the palace. He and his brother, the Duke of York, loved the theatre, and supported their own troupes.  Charles II allowed women on stage.

On the other hand, Charles II inherited a land filled with restless and bitter malcontents whose very existence shattered at the fall of the Commonwealth.  Rarely opening up to anyone, he did not trust easily.  He expected attempts on his life, or efforts to overthrow his monarchy. 
John Thurloe
During the Cromwell days, John Thurloe was the head of espionage. As Secretary of State under Cromwell, 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.
Samuel Morland

Thurloe compiled lists, sent spies into enemy camps, had men tortured and killed. One such fellow, Samuel Morland, and assistant to Thurloe under Cromwell, confessed to witness a man ‘trepanned to death’ at Thurloe’s word.  ( states the following definition to trepan:  “a tool for cutting shallow holes by removing a core.”)  Not a nice way to go.  

Thurloe orchestrated the Sir Richard Willis Plot, wherein the king and duke would be lured out of exile to the Sussex coast.  Once the brothers disembarked, they would be instantly murdered.  Thankfully, we know this plot failed.  

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”. Depending who was in power, 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 let go for exchange of valuable Commonwealth government documents. 

During the king’s exile, Sir Edward Nicholas held the position of Secretary of State, but he was old, nearly age 70. Within two years of the Restoration, Charles II replaced him with Sir Henry Bennet, who took charge of the Crown’s espionage. October 15, 1662, he was appointed Secretary of State.  

Joseph Williamson
Joseph Williamson worked for Bennet as the undersecretary.  Williamson was born for this work. He took the bull by the horns and enhanced the processes Thurloe had begun.  Williamson built a brilliant spy network.  He enlisted informers who, for money, turned on their associates.  He burrowed spies into households, businesses, and churches.  He used grocers, doctors and surgeons, anyone who would inform him of persons against the king. He had men overseas watching for any plots. Informants were everywhere. 
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 London's Grand Letter Office for ciphered messages to pass back and forth between the undersecretary’s office and his informants and spies. He expected to be kept apprised by ciphered letters at the end of each day, 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 crossed 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. 

For more reading on spies and espionage under the reign of King Charles II, please see Of Carrion Feathers, set in London 1662.


  1. Death by trepanning? Hadn't come across that one before in our annals. As historical deaths go, it has to rank as one of the most unpleasant!

    1. I have the shivers every time I think of it...

  2. Great article! There's been a lot of discussion about spy organizations during the Regency -- whether they officially existed or not. Clearly there was a precedent in England for such. And who can forget John Andre and Benedict Arnold from the American Revolution? Great post, Katherine.

  3. Wonderful write-up! So love this period, great affinity with it... Have Just published book 1 of the Royal Series...

    Interestingly Elizabeth I had a superb spy network, not surprising we Brits are so good at espionage: been at it a long while. ;)


  4. Spying in an age without CCTV cameras and recording devices is an intriguing idea. It must have been an art form in itself, transferring sensitive information from person A to person B - I suppose if you werent intercepted transferring it, then there wouldnt have been a trail such as there is today, to catch you after the event.
    Grace x


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