Spying for the Crown: British intelligence in the Georgian era


“It is only the enlightened ruler and the wise general who will use the highest intelligence of the army for the purposes of spying, and thereby they achieve great results.  Spies are a most important element in war, because on them depends an army’s ability to move.”  – Sun Tzu

No war can be conducted successfully without early and good intelligence.” – John Churchill, The first Duke of Marlborough


Intelligence activities at the national level first developed during the middle ages in diplomatic circles, with espionage being one of the fundamental duties of ambassadors and envoys.  The first English monarch known to place a heavy emphasis on espionage was Henry VII, who in the late fifteenth century employed agents to track the activities of his enemies both domestically and abroad.  Prior to assuming the throne, it was only through employment of personal agents that Henry avoided death or capture by his rival, Richard III.  Once on the throne, he remained vigilant and kept to a small group of trusted advisers for security and information.

His son, Henry VIII, was less concerned about his own safety and left the duties of espionage to his ministers of state Thomas Wolsey, and later, Thomas Cromwell.  Cromwell in particular was adept at coordinating the various existing espionage entities, and primarily used them as an internal security force to root out opposition and combat the Catholic Church’s influence in England.

Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I's "Spymaster"

Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s “Spymaster”

Many historians consider Sir Francis Walsingham, principal secretary to Queen Elizabeth I, as the founder of the British Secret Service.  Walsingham had many of the qualities associated with today’s professional intelligence officers. He limited his reporting to the facts at hand, with limited personal opinions and biases. He devoted his time almost solely to gathering intelligence in support of the queen, keeping his personal feelings and ambitions in check, and pursuing what he perceived as good for the country and the queen. Continue reading

War on the Home Front: living in a wartime economy 1792-1815


The Morning After the Battle of Waterloo by John Heaviside Clark, 1816

On 18 June 1815, a coalition under Wellington, consisting of troops from the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, Hanover, Brunswick, and Nassau, combined with a Prussian army under Blücher to meet and defeat Napoleon’s army at Waterloo.  This victory, while not immediately ending the war, effectively put an end to almost a quarter of a century of continuous warfare between England and France.  By the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the national debt of England stood at £848,000,000, almost 240% of GDP.  How, with a population only about half that of France, was the United Kingdom able to finance 23 years of worldwide war and how did it affect the British economy and the average citizen?

Financing the Wars

As 1792 ended, the British economy already was responding to the challenges caused by previous war spending.  Unlike America, where the printing of large quantities of paper money during the Revolutionary War led to hyperinflation, an undermining of public confidence, and almost brought the American war effort to a halt, Continue reading

In Honor of the King’s Birthday

Yesterday was the birthday of George III.  In honor of that, we bring you proof that the Georgian monarchs did not spring to life fully grown!

Drawing of George III of England as a small boy.

George III of England as a small boy. Royal Collection Trust / © HM Queen Elizabeth II 2015

The drawing is of a small boy seated on the floor, reading, under a tent constructed from two chairs and some fabric. A banner bearing the initials ‘GR’ is to the left. A sword, dagger and gun lie on the floor and a bell is suspended above the boy’s head. An inscription records that the picture was taken from the life on Monday 6 July. The boy has been identified as Prince George, later George III. The drawing was probably made in 1747, when 6 July fell on a Monday, and therefore shows the Prince at the age of nine.

© Chuck Hudson  2015

The Irish Rebellion of 1798

Engraving of McArt's Fort-Cave Hill

Cave Hill


In June of 1795, several Irish Protestants gathered on top of Cave Hill, overlooking Belfast. They swore, “never to desist in our efforts until we had subverted the authority of England over our country and asserted our independence“.  Three years later as many as 100,000 rose against Britain in the first Irish republican insurrection.  (Quinn, 2002)

Ireland during the 1790s was a land of uncertainty, much of which caused by the dramatic interplay between the Society of United Irishmen (UI) and the Irish government.  The Society’s stated goals of Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform were contrary to the conservative administration’s aims, but the Society enjoyed much popular support and its numbers increased throughout the decade.  UI activities culminated in the ultimately futile 1798 rebellion.

The Origins of the Rebellion and the Society of United Irishmen

During the 1780s, a few liberal members of the ruling Protestant Ascendancy, led by Henry Grattan, organized as the Irish Patriot Party and campaigned for: reform of the Irish parliament; a lessening of British interference in Ireland’s affairs; and expanding the rights and voting franchise for Catholics and Presbyterians.   Continue reading

Weather, Famine, Disease, Migration and Monsters: 1816-1819




“We have had the most extraordinary year of drought and cold ever known in the history of America. In June, instead of 3 ¾ inches, our average of rain for that month, we only had ⅓ of an inch; in August, instead of 9 1/6 inches, our average, we had only 8/10 of an inch; and still it continues.  The summer, too, has been as cold as a moderate winter. In every State north of this there has been frost in every month of the year; in this State we had none in June and July, but those of August killed much corn over the mountains. The crop of corn through the Atlantic States will probably be less than one-third of an ordinary one, that of tobacco still less, and of mean quality.  The crop of wheat was middling in quantity, but excellent in quality.  But every species of bread grain taken together will not be sufficient for the subsistence of the inhabitants, and the exportation of flour, already begun by the indebted and the improvident, to whatsoever degree it may be carried, will be exactly so much taken from the mouths of our own citizens.  My anxieties on this subject are the greater, because I remember the deaths which the drought of 1755 in Virginia produced from the want of food.”

Thomas Jefferson writing to Albert Gallatin
September 8, 1816  (Jefferson, 1904-5)


1816 was known as ‘The Year Without a Summer’ or ‘Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death’ because of severe climate abnormalities that caused temperatures to decrease resulting in social, economic, and agricultural dislocations across the entire Northern Hemisphere.  These unusual climatic abnormalities had the greatest effect on New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, Atlantic Canada, The United Kingdom, and large parts of Western Europe. The effects were also felt in parts of Asia.


Evidence suggests the anomaly was predominantly a volcanic winter event caused by the April 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).  Tambora is just one of many volcanoes in the archipelago of Indonesia and once was a mammoth peak – almost 14,000 feet high, believed to have been silent for 5,000 years before the explosion occurred.  Then, in 1812, Tambora awoke from its slumber and small eruptions of steam and ash began to emanate from the mountain, accompanied by significant earth tremors.  This continued until 5 April, 1815, when the first great eruption occurred, generating a volcanic column over 15 miles high. This blast was heard over 600 miles away.  Five days later, on 10 April, a several colossal explosions occurred (heard almost 1600 miles away), creating columns of volcanic material that stretched up to 25 miles into the sky. Continue reading

Theatre in Colonial and Federal America

Historic Marker for the 1st Play performed in America


Last month we looked at the history and development of English theatre, beginning in the Middle Ages, and carrying up through the Regency Era.  In today’s post, we are going to look at theatre in England’s American territories during the Colonial period as well as in the early years of the American Republic.


Exactly when the first dramatic performance in America took place is impossible to say.  There are records in of a play being acted on the Eastern Shore of Virginia as early as 1665.  A play, known as “Ye Bare and ye Cubb,” was acted by three citizens of Accomac, Cornelius Watkinson, Philip Howard, and William Darby.  As soon as the report of this performance reached the King’s attorney, John Fawsett, he summoned them to court, where he subjected each of them to a rigid cross-examination.  At this session, the justices contented themselves with ordering the culprits to appear at the next meeting of the court in the costumes, which they had worn in acting the alleged play.  They were also required to bring with them for inspection a copy of the “verses, speeches, and passages” which they had performed on that occasion.  Continue reading

Richard Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington’s Older Brother


Richard Wellesley in his red East India Company Uniform

Richard Wellesley in his East India Company Uniform

Almost everyone knows the name of Sherlock Holmes’ older brother Mycroft, and most people probably know something about his employment.  Likewise, those who study the Georgian era, particularly the period of the Napoleonic Wars, know something about Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, one of the leading British military and political figures of the 19th century.  Famous for his adaptive defensive style of warfare that resulted in several victories against numerically superior forces while minimizing his own losses, he is regarded as one of the greatest defensive commanders of all time, and many of his tactics and battle plans are still studied in military academies around the world.

Fewer are familiar with Arthur’s older brother, Richard, who may actually be responsible for Arthur’s success.  Due to his mother’s concern for Arthur’s future, Richard asked his friend, the 4th Duke of Rutland (then Lord Lieutenant of Ireland), to consider Arthur for a commission in the army.  Soon after, on 7 March 1787, he became an ensign in the 73rd Regiment of Foot.  In October of that year, again with the Richard’s assistance, he was assigned as aide-de-camp to the new Lord Lieutenant of Ireland Lord Buckingham at a salary of ten shillings a day (twice his normal pay as an ensign), thus kick starting his illustrious career. Continue reading