Spying for the Crown – Part 4: Civilian Spies for Wellington




“Tell me Mr. Robertson, are you a man of courage?”  “Try me Sir Arthur.”  “That, is what we mean to do”  –  Conversation between Sir Arthur Wellesley and Father James Robertson  (Longford, 1969)

“The French armies have no communications and one army has no knowledge of the position or of the circumstances in which the others are placed, whereas I have knowledge of all that passes on all sides.” – Sir Arthur Wellesley  (Esdaile, 2004)

Civilian Sources of Military Intelligence

During the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic period, there were a number of churchmen who served as agents for the British military.  During the Revolution, the French Republicans adopted policies, targeting the Church, attempting to de-Christianize the country.  These included:

  • Confiscation of Church lands, which were to be the security for the new Assignat currency
  • Destruction of statues, plates and other iconography from places of worship
  • Destruction of crosses, bells and other external signs of worship
  • Institution of revolutionary and civic cults, including the Cult of Reason and later the Cult of the Supreme Being
  • Enactment of a law, on October 21, 1793, making all nonjuring priests and all persons who harbored them liable to death on sight
  • Celebration of the goddess “Reason” in Notre Dame Cathedral on 10 November 1793

On the surface, Napoleon appeared to restore the Church to France through the Concordat of 1801, which established complete reorganization of the dioceses and declared Roman Catholicism France’s chief religion.  At the same time, the Church renounced their claim to the previously confiscated Church lands, and asked surviving bishops to resign their French sees. However, in 1802,  the French took unilateral action to append certain ‘Organic Articles’ to the Concordat forbidding the exercise of any papal jurisdiction in France without permission of the government.

Painting of The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David

The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques-Louis David

The Pope protested and in 1804 tried to use his formal consecration of Napoleon (Paris, December 2) to have the articles modified.  During the ceremony, when the Pope said, “Receive the imperial crown…” and traditionally have placed the crown on the Emperor’s head, Napoleon turned unexpectedly and, ignoring the Pope, removed his laurel wreath and crowned himself. He then crowned the kneeling Joséphine with a small crown surmounted by a cross.  After this, relations between the Pope and Napoleon rapidly deteriorated.  French troops occupied Rome in 1808, and, in 1809, Napoleon declared the Papal States annexed to France.  The Pope excommunicated the invaders on June 10, 1809, and was taken prisoner the following July, remaining in exile until the invasion of France by the allies in 1814.

Portrait of Lieutenant-General Caro y Sureda, 3rd marqués de La Romana

Lieutenant-General Caro y Sureda, 3rd marqués de La Romana

One of the churchmen who spied for Wellington was Father James Robertson from the Scottish monastery at Ratisbon.  Before the outbreak of the Peninsular War, Spanish King Charles IV had agreed to supply a corps of 14,000 men to Napoleon.  These troops were originally stationed in Hamburg and Lübeck under the command of General Romaña.  When Napoleon invaded Spain, he sent these Spanish troops to Denmark, where he split them between several islands under the pretense of protecting against a British attack.

London knew that General Romaña was openly pro-English so they hatched a scheme to rescue both him and his men and to transport them to Spain where they could help to fight the French.  In order to set this in motion, the British needed an agent to make contact with the General.  The French had already discovered and killed four spies searching for General Romaña when the Duke of Richmond suggested Robinson to Wellington.  Wellington interviewed Robertson, a fluent German speaker and opened with the question, “Tell me Mr. Robertson, are you a man of courage?”  Robertson replied, “Try me Sir Arthur.” to which Wellington responded, “That, is what we mean to do.

Robertson landed in Germany on board a smuggler’s boat and met another ship, whose bribed captain agreed to take him to Bremen.  Posing as a German cigar merchant, Robertson obtained a passport allowing him passage throughout Napoleon’s empire.  From a Spanish chaplain he learned that General Romaña was based on the island of Fünen, which he eventually reached and, under the pretext of selling his wares, managed to arrange a meeting with the General.  Shortly before Robertson’s arrival, General Romaña had learned of the French invasion of Spain and the local French commander had asked him to pledge allegiance to Joseph Bonaparte, the newly installed King of Spain.  Upon learning of the plan to rescue him and his men, General Romaña acted, ordering his troops to concentrate on the island of Nyborg under the pretense of swearing their loyalty to King Joseph.

Painting of The Spanish Division of the North sent to fight the British in Denmark pledging to turn against France and side with the British

The Spanish Division of the North sent to fight the British in Denmark pledging to turn against France and side with the British

Unfortunately, Robertson had no instructions for alerting the British navy and the Danes caught him on a cliff top waving a handkerchief at a British frigate.  Robertson was taken into custody, but managed to convince the Danes that he was just trying to sell his cigars to the British sailors and so they released him.  Robertson then managed to get a message through to the British base on Heligoland and, receiving the message, Admiral Keates raced to Nyborg to embark the Spanish soldiers.  When Marshal Bernadotte arrived to hear the Spaniards take the oath to King Joseph a few days later, he learned, to his horror, that 9,000 of the Spanish soldiers and their General had escaped on British ships.  All he could do was to take the remaining 5,000 Spaniards prisoner.  (Crowdy, 2006)

Another of Wellington’s ‘religious spies’ was the Reverend Dr. Patrick Curtis, a professor of Natural History and Astronomy at the University of Salamanca, who was known to the people of Salamanca as Don Patricio Cortés.  Curtis was born in Ireland in 1740, and was probably educated at the Irish College of Salamanca. He was connected with the college for thirty-three years before its dissolution in 1811 when he was arrested as a spy by the French, but was apparently released, since he entertained Wellington under his roof during the English occupation of Salamanca in 1812.  (Stephens, 1885-1900)

Photo of the Irish College at Salamanca

The Irish College at Salamanca

Curtis headed his own network of pro-British spies, which extended throughout occupied Spain and north across the Pyrenees.  There can be no doubt that he gave very valuable information to Wellington from the duke’s frequent mention of his valuable services, and high recommendations of him to the Spanish authorities, but unfortunately, there is no published document that outlines them in detail.  He was almost certainly one of those informants in high places mentioned in British dispatches, through whose information Wellington was able to strike such sudden and unexpected blows at the French armies.  As mentioned in our previous article on ‘exploring officers,’ Colquhoun Grant knew him well and he was quite likely instrumental in spiriting Grant’s intelligence information out of Salamanca while Grant was a prisoner there.

Los Guerrilleros

As mentioned in Part Three, Wellington also relied on captured French dispatches as a source of intelligence on French intentions.  Guerrilla bands, who made a particular point of targeting French messengers, acquired these dispatches.  These guerrillas killed the French dispatch riders without mercy, and took their horses, clothes, weapons, and anything else of use.  The orders and messages they carried, often written in code, were regularly hidden in secret compartments in the saddles, which the guerrillas sold to the British for ready cash.

Not all the guerrillas were mercenary however, as shown by the following passage written by General Sir William Napier in his History of the Peninsular War; “I have seen letters from Alcades (mayors) and other agents from all parts of Spain, conveying intelligence rare and useful; and it is worth noting that the best and surest spies were men who acted from patriotism and would not accept money.” (Napier, 1836)

Portrait of Don Julian Sanchez "el Charro"

Don Julian Sánchez “el Charro”

On several occasions, Wellington owed his salvation to the intelligence role of the guerrillas.  Immediately after Talavera,  Wellington confidently marched off to attack what he believed to be only 10,000 French troops with a force of 18,000-strong.  In fact, the Imperial ‘detachment’ consisted of three entire army corps and numbered well over 50,000 men.  Had Wellington not received a timely warning of his miscalculation from the guerrillas, it is extremely probable that in the ensuing battle both he and the British army would have ceased to be active factors in the Peninsular war.  As it was, he was able to retreat in time.  (Gates, 2009)

Colquhoun Grant got much of his information from Spanish and Portuguese guerrillas.  These guerrilla units, who began as bands of peasants raiding the French lines, became highly organized.  Each leader had his own territory, and they came from all social classes.  Juan Martin Diaz, a swarthy peasant, was the most famous.  Merino, who held sway near Burgos, was a priest, another guerrilla leader and former soldier, Don Julian Sánchez, surrounded Ciudad Rodrigo with his forces, prior to the arrival of Wellington’s army.  With his band of men, he captured the town’s Swiss Governor, General Reynaud, who had left the fortress to look over his herd of cows.  Other leaders included representatives of the nobility such as the Marquis of Atalayuelas; small landlords such as Francisco Espoz y Mina or the Empecinado; and professional soldiers like Juan Díaz Porlier and Francisco Milans del Bosh, who after their defeat found guerrilla warfare an excellent way to continue the fight.  To give an idea of the scope of guerrilla operations, a list drawn up in 1812 puts the number of such irregular troops in Spain alone at 38,520 men, divided into 22 guerrilla bands.  (Esdaile, 2004)

Portrait of Juan Martin Diez

Juan Martin Diaz

Because of the guerrillas’ efforts, French communications were paralyzed in Spain and Portugal.  Detachments garrisoned themselves in blockhouses and were unable to keep the roads clear.  The normal French system of building telegraph towers was of limited effectiveness as each tower found itself repeatedly attacked.  As a result, the French officers relied on messages written in plain text or a simple numerical cipher.  Since their couriers were targets, they also used Spanish spies to carry messages in places where even a strongly escorted messenger had difficulty passing; but watchful guerrilla bands rooted many of these out.  Eventually, the only way that the French could make sure of getting a message through was to send extremely strong escorts with their dispatch riders, thus tying up French troops from use against Wellington.  Napier writes, “the French could never communicate with each other nor combine their movements, except by the slow method of sending officers with strong escorts; whereas, their adversaries could correspond by post, and even by telegraph an advantage equal to a reinforcement of 30,000 men.”  (Napier, 1836)

Guerrilla Council Of War. Sketched By Sir David Wilkie

Guerrilla Council Of War. Sketched By Sir David Wilkie

This disruption of French communications, and the interception and deciphering of French dispatches, provided Wellington and his Spanish and Portuguese allies with a level of intelligence superiority that permitted the defeat of the French armies and the eventual liberation of Spain and Portugal.  Some years later a Prussian officer fighting with French regulars against Spanish guerrillas confided the level of frustration he felt to his diary: “Wherever we arrived, they disappeared, whenever we left, they arrived—they were everywhere and nowhere, they had no tangible center which could be attacked.”  (Talbot, 1978)


© 2015

Chuck Hudson



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One comment on “Spying for the Crown – Part 4: Civilian Spies for Wellington

  1. Jack says:

    Reblogged this on The Missal.


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