Monday, August 1, 2016

The Royal Spy ~ Prince William Henry

by M.M. Bennetts

Spies.  We love them.  We love the idea of them.  So daring.  So intelligent.  So clever.  So wily.  What's not to love?  From Walsingham in the 16th century to Sidney Reilly in the early 20th (credited with being the first modern spy) to the world of John le Carre's George Smiley to Ian Fleming's James Bond, we cannot get enough of them.

Yet, for a long period, there was almost an official denial about not just their role in war or international relations but about their very existence--a very British stiff upper lip "we would never do anything so dishonourable as spying..." response to any attempt to properly investigate the subject.

However, over the last two decades, a great deal of new information has been fossicked out by some very determined historians leading to the conclusion that not just were the British spying their cotton socks off over the centuries, they were good at it--excellent at it, one might say.  Moreover, as with the 18th and early 19th century Russians, individuals of the highest birth were employed by the British government to act as spies.  And the highest ranking of them all was Prince William Henry, third son of King George III.

In 1778, when he was twelve, Prince William's concerned parents conceived the idea that he should be educated at sea in the service of the Royal Navy, as a sort of royal "leading from the front" kind of exercise.  As a dutiful parent, King George visited Portsmouth and boarded the 90-gun flagship, Prince George, to see for himself the accommodation; he "visited the three Decks to see the Men exercise as in action..." and decided firmly that the Navy was an ideal environment for the education of this starting-to-be-dangerously-wild third son.

Coincidentally, Prince William's embarkation on a naval career would also have the effect of stirring up patriotic support for the Navy during this awkward period of war with the American colonies.  A win-win situation in the king's mind.

Thus on 15 June 1779, Prince William Henry boarded the Prince George to begin his new life at sea.  He'd been kitted out with the finest naval uniform by his father--including some 3 dozen shirts and stocks, a mattress, bolster and pillows, pens, ink powder and paper, log books and journal books and a number of weighty tomes on navigation and mathematics--and a special tutor, a Cantabrigian, by the name of Mr. Majendie.  Both the Prince and his tutor were given the rank of Midshipman.

The Prince was, by all accounts, quite eager to fit in with his fellows, learning their slang and fulfilling his duties with the all the application and occasional silliness one expects from a 12-year old.  If his father had thought that the Navy would cure all Prince William's wayward tendancies, he was to be disappointed.  Even so, within two months of being at sea, William was pleased to write in his logbook that at last he had seen the decks "cleared for action," though that came to nothing as the Spanish fleet avoided them and confrontation.

Again on 8 January 1780, more enemy ships were sighted and this time Prince William was not disappointed.  He took his place beside Admiral Digby on the Quarterdeck and saw action against a Spanish fleet of merchantmen.  The Royal Navy gave chase and took prizes, much to William's glee as he "received from Captain MacBride the Colours and Pendant of the Spanish 64-gun ship named the Prince William Henry..." [It was customary to rename the ships taken as prizes...]

A few days later, his logbook recorded another encounter with a Spanish ship, this time a full-scale bombardment which led to total disintegration of the ship.  He wrote: "a most shocking and dreadful sight. Being not certain whether it was enemy or friend, I felt horror all over me..." 

Yet the Prince had just seen action in one of the great naval victories of the day, the Battle of Cape St Vincent!  During the course of the action, seven Spanish ships had surrendered to the British fleet, whilst several others had been blown up or sunk, and the Spanish admiral, Don Juan de Langara, had been taken prisoner.  And when the Prince returned home two months later, the public saw him as having led the fleet to victory and he was the hero of the hour--a very young one at that.

However, at home, the King and Queen were having to digest the unpleasant information that was filtering through about their heroic son's less-than-heroic behaviour during shore leave, which included tales of carousing and brawling in the streets of Gibralter, spending the night in the town lock-up, arrest by military patrol...And of course, now the young tearaway was starting to keep company with his dangerously dissolute elder brother, the Prince of Wales.

So his father conceived of a new plan for Prince William Henry: the war with the Colonies in North America had been dragging on now for several years and the British weren't doing all that well, so sending the young hero there would allow for the young hothead to see further action, which he craved, and rally the loyalists with the royal presence.

And, significantly, the prince was now to embark upon a further mission--after a brief schooling in the art of intelligence gathering courtesy of Mr. Majendie and others--he was to provide his father with reliable intelligence on everything he saw and everyone he met and all that he read... (Remember, the Prince was only 16...)

On 24 September 1781, the British fleet, with the Prince aboard the Prince George, arrived at Sandy Hook, the gateway to the harbour of New York.

Prince William Henry was the first member of the royal family ever to visit North America and the loyalists received him with rapturous delight, and indeed--just as the king had hoped--rallied to the royal banner.  He was feted and flocked to, he attended a council of war, and by the 28th he was dispatching to his father the following intelligence:

"...they had intelligence that Mon. de Graves' fleet from the West Indies were anchored in order to assist and cooperate with the Rebel Army against Earl Cornwallis [and] would soon reduce Lord Cornwallis to the utmost distress if he were not soon relieved...There is but one Church, all the others being converted either into magazines or Barracks...[the navy is] in a most wretched condition...The inhabitants of the town are in number 25,000.  They have 3,000 Militia, besides which there are about 1000 men raised at their own expense...There is a very great disunion between the French and American...the French treat the Americans with a great deal of hauteur."

A fortnight later, the Prince was back aboard the Prince George as the fleet was sailing to relieve Yorktown, having learned that Lord Cornwallis had surrendered on the 19th...

But still, the war dragged on and the loyalists in New York were not ready to yield.  The Prince, meanwhile, had returned to New York and was frequently to be seen over the winter, on or near "a small freshwater lake in the vicinity of the city, which presented a frozen sheet of many acres: and was thronged by the younger part of the population for the amusement of skating."  A pastime at which the young Prince apparently didn't excel, hence "as the Prince was unskilled in that exercise, he would sit in a chair fixed on runners, a crowd of officers environed on him, and the youthful multitude made the air ring with their shouts for Prince William Henry."

And then, things got interesting.  By March 1782, General George Washington was tired of waiting, tired of the winter, tired of the long war and was looking for some way to finish it and throw the British out of North America once and for all.  Across the river from New York, one Colonel Ogden, commander of the 1st Jersey regiment, conceived the breathtaking plan:

"First -- Two men with a guide, seconded by two others, for the purpose of seizing the sentinels, these men to be armed with naked bayonets and dressed in sailors' habits: they are not to wait for anything but immediately to execute their orders.

"Second -- Eight men, including guides, with myself, preceded by two men with each a crow-bar, and two with each an axe --  these for the purpose of forcing the doors, should they be fast -- and followed by four men entering the house and seizing the young Prince, the Admiral..."

It was a brilliant if daring plan.  But Washington thought it just might work.  And, he was ready to try anything.  And if it succeeded, he would trade the life of the Prince for the liberty of the American colonies. Win-win.

Unfortunately for Washington--remember those British spies that allegedly didn't exist?--the British spy network got wind of Ogden's plan and doubled the guard assigned to protecting the Prince.  With some reluctance, Washington abandoned the plot to seize the Prince...

With the signing of the Peace of Versailles in January 1783 and the freeing of the American colonies, Prince William Henry returned home to Britain, his fighting and spying career at an end. Still, no doubt it served him well in preparing him for his future as King William IV.

This Editor's Choice Post was originally published on July 19, 2013. Sadly, M.M. Bennetts is no longer with us to share her immense erudition and wit - but her words still live on! 

M.M. Bennetts was a specialist in early 19th century British and European history and the Napoleonic wars and is the author of two novels (both coincidentally about spies), May 1812 and Of Honest Fame set during the period.  

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