Spying for the Crown: Part 2 – French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era




“What enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is FOREKNOWLEDGE.”  –  Sun Tzu, ‘The Art of War, Chapter 13″

British National Intelligence Effort

Today we define Strategic National Intelligence as the collection, analysis, processing, and dissemination of information aimed primarily to support the national command authorities.  In the period 1793 – 1815, secret intelligence of this nature would have been for consumption by the Prime Minister, secretary of state for the Foreign Office, secretary of state for the Home Office, secretary of state for War and the Colonies, the first lord of the Admiralty, and the King.  (Maffeo, 2000)

As the end of the 18th century approached, Britain faced serious problems.  At home, times were hard, harvests failed due to poor weather and, as a result, food costs rose, sometimes resulting in food riots.  The living and working conditions of the lower classes showed little or no improvement, due to wartime inflation, even as a greater proportion of the nation’s wealth was concentrated in the hands of large merchants, bankers and the gentry.  Too often, political corruption determined who went to parliament; and political patronage, rather than ability or merit, determined most civil and military appointments.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, the Society of United Irishmen, spurred on by the example of the American Revolution, and the writings of the likes of Thomas Paine, increasingly challenged British government authority in Ireland.  Continue reading

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