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.  Although Walsingham uncovered a variety of internal and external plots against the Queen and provided evidence which sent Mary Queen of Scots to the gallows, his most important contribution to the security of the nation was his detailed reporting on the preparations for the Spanish Armada’s invasion of England, including its disposition, tonnage, munitions, and manning.

Throughout his career, Walsingham continued to develop the English intelligence system, particularly in the field of cryptography.  Because paper messages dispatched by courier were relatively easy to intercept, all major European powers, particularly the Venetians, developed varying degrees of encryption to hide sensitive information.  Walsingham took the encryption and decryption of ciphers to a new level in England by establishing a code breaking section operating out of his own home.

During the English Civil Wars, the abilities of the English intelligence system declined, particularly the collection of foreign intelligence from the Continent.  Upon consolidating power however, Oliver Cromwell quickly recognized this weakness and, according to Samuel Pepys, increased the intelligence budget to £70,000 a year, twenty times what Elizabeth had allotted Walsingham.  He also installed John Thurloe, an Essex lawyer, as his Secret Service chief.  Thurloe reinvigorated the intelligence service to a level rivaling that during Walsingham’s tenure.  Thurloe’s organization spent most of its time and energy monitoring the activities of Royalists and Royalist sympathizers, both domestically and abroad and was particularly successful due to being disciplined, loyal, and meticulous. Thurloe also reinvigorated the pursuit and perfection of cryptography and reinstated the practice of using secret agents abroad, recognizing that diplomats were generally too high-profile and assumed to be spies.

By the time Charles II came to power, the English government had become extremely efficient at intercepting and decrypting messages, particularly through the postal system.  In fact, the French ambassador Comignes warned his government the English had “tricks to open letters more skillfully than anywhere in the world.”  (Deacon, 1970)  Because Charles II was mostly concerned with internal threats, he almost completely abandoned the use of the postal system as a source of intelligence, as well as the English development of ciphers and the skills for breaking them.  Upon Charles’ death, this stagnation almost changed history.  The Duke of Monmouth, an illegitimate son of Charles exiled in Holland, and the Earl of Argyle planned a revolt against Charles’ successor, James, Duke of York.  The English Secret Service intercepted one of Argyle’s encrypted messages detailing the planned invasion but had no trained cryptographers to decipher it.  It was only through chance they managed to break the code and prevent the attack.  Even after this seemingly obvious warning shortfalls in the intelligence system, the regime of James II did little to repair it.

William Blathwayt

William Blathwayte

William III and his Secretary of War William Blathwayte, however, were quick to notice the obvious deficiencies in the system and immediately set about rectifying them. The focus for intelligence collection once again shifted, this time to the House of Stuart (James II), exiled in France and his active supporters the Jacobites.  William III and Blathwayte successfully reformed many aspects of the intelligence system however, the Secret Service’s focus on the Jacobites, at the expense of foreign intelligence, hampered their activities during his reign, as well as those of Queen Anne and George I, and George II.  The Jacobite defeat in 1746, at the Battle of Culloden, allowed the British Secret Service to refocus its efforts on external threats; first to the War of Austrian Succession and then the Seven Years War.

The rise of Russia and Prussia as significant strategic forces on the European continent forced King George II to shift his diplomatic efforts to the court of the Grand Duchess Catherine in St. Petersburg.  George feared the Prussians and French were plotting to take over his native Hanover and sought Catherine’s support as a counterbalance. It was in Russia the British fought their most successful intelligence campaign against the French during the Seven Years War.  Although the English-Russian alliance quickly went sour, Russian contacts continued to supply British agents with at least twenty-seven volumes of intercepted dispatches throughout the course of the war.  (Deacon, 1970)

British Intelligence in the American Revolution

When George III assumed the throne in 1760, Britain’s colonies in the Americas and particularly the Caribbean were its largest, most lucrative, and most strategically significant.  George considered them a stable source of income and support for the crown and so paid little attention to developing an intelligence and counter-intelligence system to watch them.  As a result, when a decade of American discontent and perceived oppression culminated in violence, and the colonies openly revolted and officially declared independence from the crown in 1776, George and his government were unprepared.

During the early years of the American Revolution, before the defeat at Saratoga, Britain saw little reason for concern about the American’s ability to mount a significant conventional military resistance, nor did they perceive a serious threat of external support to its American colonies.  Unfortunately, they had overestimated the king’s authority, loyalist influence on the common American, and the colonies’ dependence on the mother country after years of geographical separation and relative independence.

Portrait of Edward Bancroft

Edward Bancroft

Long before the French began providing clandestine assistance to the American cause, the Crown was aware of the American attempts to arrange for French aid to the colonies.  This was due to a British agent, Edward Bancroft, who was at the heart of the French-American negotiations.  Edward Bancroft, a Massachusetts-born scientist, author, and former student of Silas Deane, first became acquainted with Benjamin Franklin during Franklin’s time in London in the early 1770s. Franklin knew Bancroft supported American rights and eventually recruited him as a spy against the British.  When Deane arrived in France in 1776, Franklin instructed him to contact Bancroft, his trusted associate in London, and request his help during negotiations with the French.  Bancroft arrived in Paris in July to begin work with the commission.  Unbeknownst to Franklin or Deane, Bancroft had already been recruited to work as an agent for the British.

Because of Franklin’s endorsement, and Bancroft’s likable personality, he quickly became Deane’s confidant; privy to all the guidance Deane received from Congress and Franklin and even accompanied the commissioner to his meetings with Vergennes, Beaumarchais, and other French officials, acting as his translator.  Eventually, in early 1777, Bancroft became secretary to the commission and took up residence with them as one of their few trusted confidants. All the while, he was sending detailed reports back to Lord Suffolk, Colonial Secretary for Secret Service operations in the American colonies, on every detail of the negotiations. Whitehall assisted him in his ruse by providing what appeared to be important British military information to feed his American counterparts, and in one case even arranged for a temporary arrest during a trip to London to bolster his cover.

The Commander in Chief in America was responsible for British Army intelligence in North America.  In the 18th Century, and on up until the Boer War, the British Army tended to form ad-hoc intelligence organizations during campaigns to provide the commander with the necessary information and intelligence to defeat their enemies.  As the uprising in America began to become more likely, General Henry Clinton worked to develop a network of spies among those subjects loyal to the crown.

Portrait of Loyalist Officer, Oliver De Lancy, Jr.

Loyalist Officer, Oliver De Lancy, Jr.

One of the tasks ideally suited for Loyalists was that of intelligence gathering.  Loyalists came from all social, ethnic and economic classes of society, and so were able to mingle and interact easily in the countryside, under the guise of being Rebels themselves.  In addition to acting as spies, several prominent Loyalists ran intelligence networks.  Cortland Skinner, the commander of the New Jersey Volunteers, directed an elaborate spy web in New Jersey from his headquarters on Staten Island.  Beverly Robinson, colonel of the Loyal American Regiment, used members of his own corps as well as others to gather information in Westchester County, New York.  Possibly the greatest Loyalist intelligence gatherer, though, was Lieutenant Colonel Oliver De Lancey, Jr., the Adjutant General of the British Army in America after the death of Major John Andre´.  These loyalists assisted spies on their missions, helped couriers moving secretly from one area to another, as well as Loyalists hiding from the Rebel authorities and escaped prisoners of war.  Thanks to their efforts, hundreds of men and women of all descriptions were able to pass through the countryside safely.

A few weeks after the battle in Concord, a British Loyalist named Benjamin Thompson used invisible ink to send secret information to British headquarters in Boston.  After turning British deserters back over to the British, local patriots accused him of not supporting the American cause.  Harassment, by his neighbors in Boston, forced him to return to his hometown, just five miles from Lexington.  Following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, Thompson learned some of the Patriots’ military plans in New England from conversations with well-placed friends.  He never named his sources, though he stated the information came, “from a Field officer in the Rebel Army (if that mass of confusion may be called an Army) & from a member of the Provincial Congress that is now setting at Watertown.”

To relay his information, Thompson used gallotannic acid (oak galls) to create an invisible ink.  The British used ferrous sulfate to reactivate the ink.  He also used a common technique when writing with “sympathetic stain,” or invisible ink; for when the enemy intercepted the message; he wrote an ordinary message in plain ink over the hidden message.  The dark ink included nothing suspicious. It was merely a request to deliver some papers and get a receipt.  Thompson’s real message, once revealed, detailed how many men the Colonists hoped to raise and that their first movement would be against Boston.  He also revealed that the Colonists would apply to European powers for help almost immediately.  (Brown, 1950)

Portrait of Benjamin Thompson by Thomas Gainsborough

Benjamin Thompson by Thomas Gainsborough

Remaining loyal to the crown, Thompson left his wife at the outbreak of the war to serve Gen. Gage as a colonel in the Loyalist Army.  When the British evacuated Boston, he moved (without his wife and daughter) to London where he became an assistant to Lord George Germain, the Secretary of State for the American Department.

Not all of Gen. Gage’s spies fared as well as Benjamin Thompson.  Dr. Benjamin Church was perhaps the most highly placed spy Gen. Gage had among the colonists.  He was a member of the Sons of Liberty and the Committees of Correspondence and Safety in Boston, was elected as a delegate to the Massachusetts Provisional Congress, served as a liaison to the Continental Congress, and General Washington named him Chief Physician of the Continental Army, effectively the Surgeon-General; all while he spied for Gen. Gage.  Church was one of the spies that provided information about the military supplies held in Concord, and it was this information that prompted Gage to move his men to Lexington and Concord leading to the first shots of the war.

However, unlike Benjamin Thompson, when the war began, Church continued to work with the Patriots and share what he learned with Gage.  An encrypted letter, intercepted and decrypted by the patriots, brought about his downfall.  It revealed that Church was providing Gen. Gage with information on American ammunition supplies, rations, recruiting, a proposed attack on Canada, artillery in Kingsbridge, NY, troop strength in Philadelphia, and the general mood of the Continental Congress.  After being jailed, and a prisoner exchange refused, Church was finally exiled to the West Indies in 1780.  On the way there, the ship he was on sank and Church was never heard from again.

Ann Bates, one of the few known female spies on either side in the Revolutionary War, spied for the British during the Rhode Island Campaign of July and August 1778, the first time the French and American forces jointly cooperated to attack a British outpost.  Because her husband was a soldier and gun repairman in the British army, she learned about weaponry and the importance of military information, such as the enemy’s cannon, soldier and supply totals.  At some point during the British occupation of Philadelphia, Ann Bates met John Craig (sometimes Craiggie or Cregge), a civilian active in British General Sir Henry Clinton’s espionage network.  Craig judged her to be intelligent and resourceful—just the right type to thrive as a spy.

After her husband, and the rest of Clinton’s army, marched out of Philadelphia on June 18, 1778 bound for New York City, Ann followed.  When she arrived in New York, she went to British headquarters and asked to see Craig.  Instead, she met with one of Clinton’s spy handlers, Major Duncan Drummond.  Together, Drummond and Craig persuaded Bates to spy for the British army.  Drummond later wrote, “A woman whom Craig has trusted often came to town last night.  She is well acquainted with many of the R.A. [Royal Army]…It is proposed to send her out under the idea of selling little matters” in Washington’s camp and there “she will converse with Chambers and will return whenever she may have learnt anything that deserves to be known.”  (Drummond, 1778)  Craig later received a nice finder’s fee from the British secret service, for bringing Bates to Duncan’s attention.

Taking the name “Mrs. Barnes,” Bates disguised herself as a peddler.  She was given five guineas for expenses to buy items for a peddler’s pack—thread, needles, combs, knives and some medicines.  On July 2, she arrived at Washington’s camp at White Plains, New York.  As “Mrs. Barnes,” she freely traveled among the American soldiers and camp followers.  Bates, instructed by Drummond to find a disloyal soldier named Chambers, and to glean any useful intelligence from him, could not find him.  Instead of returning to New York, Bates decided to change her mission and to gather useful intelligence herself.  She began to move through the camp, selling her wares and listening in on conversations, locating gun emplacements and counting artillery pieces.  After finally selling most of her merchandise, she made her way back to Drummond in New York City.

At the end of July, Major Drummond dispatched Bates back to White Plains.  Still disguised as Mrs. Barnes, the peddler, she evaded or passed through multiple military checkpoints and finally arrived at Washington’s camp.  Once again, she was unable to find Chambers, her contact, (She later learned later that he died in a battle in the Mohawk Valley so once again she began gathering intelligence herself. For the next three or four days, she wandered about the American camp, counting 119 pieces of artillery and estimating the number of soldiers at 23,000.  She spotted ten wagons rolling into camp with wounded in them, and determined and described the locations of the American brigades.  At one point, she even entered the residence that Washington was using as headquarters and spotted the commanding general, but did not learn any useful information there.  From what she could figure, the Americans had not dispatched any troops to Rhode Island yet.  She returned to New York City on August 6, reporting her findings to Major Drummond.

letter thought to be written by Major Drummond the leader of Clinton's spy network, regarding the loyalist spy Ann Bates

A letter thought to be written by Major Drummond the leader of Clinton’s spy network, about the loyalist spy Ann Bates

Just two days later, Bates went back to White Plains for a third time, arriving on August 12.  At Washington’s headquarters she overheard an officer, whom she thought was a general, tell one of Washington’s aides-de-camp (perhaps Alexander Hamilton) that 600 boats were being prepared for an invasion of Long Island by 5,000 troops (this may have been disinformation).  Additionally, she learned that about 3,000 Continentals and 2,000 militiamen had left camp for Rhode Island, and observed that, with the departure of another detachment of 3,800 “picked men” to Dobbs Ferry, the American troop counts were not nearly as large as when she was first there, nor their parades half so full.  She estimated the strength of Washington’s army had fallen to 16,000 or 17,000 troops.  She counted fifty-one pieces of artillery on Saturday and saw nine more cannon arrive in camp the next day.

Ann Bates continued to carry out clandestine missions between 1778 and 1780.  In September 1778, when she was on another mission infiltrating Washington’s army, a deserter from the British Twenty-Seventh Regiment recognized her, but she was able to elude capture.  However, this led Ann no longer being assigned to penetrate Washington’s headquarters and being assigned to other duties.  In one case, Ann acted as an escort, for a female secret agent who had helped to turn Benedict Arnold, from Philadelphia to New York City.  A series of safe houses provided shelter for the female spies until they came to the New Jersey shore of the Hudson River.  To avoid both a storm and detection by Patriot scouts, the women had to stay hidden in a Loyalist’s cellar for three days.  Upon her return, in addition to the safe escort of the agent, Bates also provided her superiors with a report on Philadelphia shipping and estimates of the quantity of flour to in its “rebel” mills.

When her husband went to Charleston, after the British capture of the city in May 1780, Ann Bates travelled with the troops to South Carolina but did not engage in any further espionage activities.  The couple sailed to England in 1781. (British Intelligence Memorandum Book, MMC-2248, 1778)


In Part Two of this article will take a look at look at British Intelligence during the era of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. 



Brown, S. C. (1950). Benjamin Thompson and the First Secret-Ink Letter of the American Revolution. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 627-635.

Conley, S. E. (2010). British Intelligence Operations as They Relate to Britain’s Defeat at Yorktown, 1781. Fort Leavenworth: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.

Deacon, R. (1970). A history of the British secret service. New York: Taplinger Pub. Co.

Drummond, D. M. (1778, June 28). Undated Note. Henry Clinton Papers 234:27. William L. Clements Library.

Kaplan, R. (Jan, 1990). The Hidden War: British Intelligence Operations during the American Revolution. The William and Mary Quarterly, 115-138.

McBurney, C. M. (2014, December 1). Ann Bates: British Spy Extraordinaire. Retrieved from Journal of the American Revolution: http://allthingsliberty.com/2014/12/ann-bates-british-spy-extraordinaire/

The Quarterly Review. (1877, January 27). John Wilson Croaker. Littell’s Living Age, pp. 195-218.

Tzu, S. (1910). On the Art of War, the Oldest Military Treatise, Sun Tzu on the Art of War, Edited by Lionel Giles. London: Luzac and Co.

Various. (1778). British Intelligence Memorandum Book, MMC-2248. Washington : Library of Congress.

Wilcox, J. (2015, July 12). Revolutionary Secrets: The Secret Communications of the American Revolution. Retrieved from nsa.gov: https://www.nsa.gov/about/_files/cryptologic_heritage/publications/prewii/revolutionary_secrets.pdf




One comment on “Spying for the Crown: British intelligence in the Georgian era

  1. Jack says:

    Reblogged this on The Missal.


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