A Royal Shade of Spies
The British monarchy has long dabbled in espionage, a new book recounts
GOOD TO KNOW that the British royal family does more than cut ribbons and gently wave to onlookers—to know that a king of England is more than his ceremonial presence, the equivalent of a department-store Santa Claus—that despite a reputation of dimness and decadence the royals are actually canny manipulators of intelligence.
Or so one learns from a reading of Crown, Cloak and Dagger by two British scholars who examine what happens when the kingdom’s intelligence chiefs partner with what the British like to call the “soft power” of the monarchy.
It is an odd partnership. Modern state intelligence is a bureaucracy whose dreariness is lightened by fantasies of the James Bond sort. The monarchy is a family whose foibles are lightened by ancient entitlement. The two romances combine.
Well aware of this, at the 2012 Olympics, Queen Elizabeth and Daniel Craig as James Bond staged a stunt in which they met at Buckingham Palace, then appeared to parachute together from a helicopter into the opening ceremonies at London Stadium.
The British monarchy has engaged in secret intelligence work at least since the 16th century, when Elizabeth I hired Francis Walsingham to deal with a Catholic threat from Queen Mary of Scotland. But Britain’s modern intelligence establishment was born during the long reign of Queen Victoria. Before any state intelligence apparatus existed, she extracted information from her relatives in Germany, Russia, Spain, the Netherlands, Bulgaria, Denmark, Greece and Romania. Her husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, was German. Intelligence schemes and secrets were family gossip.
At the same time, recurring assassination attempts on royalty members led to the establishment of domestic surveillance, including the reading of private mail. In the 1820s, this aroused alarm. The Times editorialized that it could not “be English, any more than masks, poisons, sword-sticks, secret signs and associations and other such dark inventions.” Of course, the Times was describing the arrival of modern intelligence. Victoria favored it as long as it supported monarchy. She said: “These horrible Republicans should be exterminated.”
Times were changing, but English oddity lived on. At a railroad station, Victoria was fired on by a man who said he had sent poems to her and had received rude replies. Eton schoolboys beat him with their umbrellas.
Intrigue and paranoia prospered. Albert was said to be a Russian spy, or a German spy. Victoria’s daughter, Vicky, married to Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia, leaked his letters, infuriating Minister President Otto von Bismarck, who placed spies in their household. Vicky took to writing her own letters in code.
Russia, Victoria said, “had secret agents everywhere.” Prime Minister William Gladstone published a pro-Russian pamphlet that infuriated Victoria, who accused him of “consorting with a Russian female spy.” One of her own spies traveled across winter Russia on horseback, accompanied by a dwarf. His memoir made him a celebrity, an early real-life James Bond.
Family and state continued to intertwine in the 20th century. Kaiser Wilhelm claimed that King Edward VII, his uncle, ran a private intelligence network to plot against him. Edward spoke of the kaiser’s plan to “throw a corps d’armee or two into England, making proclamation that he has come not as an enemy to the king but as the grandson of Queen Victoria, to deliver him from the socialistic gang which is ruining the country.” On his death in 1910, his son George took the throne and worried that “our spies are the worst and clumsiest in the world.” He had his hands full with Russian royalty, writing letters to Czar Nicholas, a cousin, beginning “My dear Nicky.”
How to keep a losing Russia in the war against Germany? How to deal with the mad monk Rasputin? And the Bolshevik revolutionaries! George saw Nicholas as stupid and weak and blamed his problems on another cousin, “Alicky,” Princess Alexandra of Hesse-Darmstadt, favorite granddaughter of Queen Victoria.
The answer was royal-approved spies. The authors proudly conjecture that Rasputin was shot to death by an Englishman. The assassin “hailed from humble origins,” they note with British class sensitivity. The son of a “draper,” he is said to have put one between Rasputin’s running lights with his Webley .455 revolver. One wonders: what exactly was a “draper”?
Another agent adopted the name of Sidney Reilly to become the famous so-called “Reilly, Ace of Spies.” He was a con-man, bigamist, agent provocateur, international adventurer and double agent who tried and failed to kill Lenin. He was executed by the Russians in 1925.
By that time they had executed Nicky, Alicky and family, too. Half a century later, still bitter, Queen Elizabeth would refuse to visit Russia.
The royals continued to create their own problems with Edward VIII, a celebrity prince who abdicated the throne after 11 months to marry a Baltimore double-divorcee named Wallis Simpson. They were friendly with the British fascists of the 1930s and sympathetic to Hitler. British intelligence kept him under surveillance. He would spend World War II tucked safely away in the Bahamas.
His brother and successor, George VI, became an ardent participant in wartime intelligence operations, traveling from theater to theater of war. His queen was fascinated by camouflaged bombs, particularly exploding horse droppings.
His daughter, Elizabeth II, is said by the authors to have known “more state secrets than anyone else alive; she acquired them over decades of reading classified intelligence. In fact, she probably knew more state secrets than anyone in history.” This is no idle claim—she reigned for 70 years.
In her time the empire went into its death throes, to be replaced by the sad ghost called the British Commonwealth, and troubled by embarrassing colonial monsters such as the cannibal Idi Amin of Uganda.
The Cold War created not just massive intelligence bureaucracies but also the spy novel as zeitgeist marker. The first James Bond book, Casino Royale, appeared the year after Elizabeth’s coronation.
Dents in the Crown
The Irish Republican Army blew up the fishing boat of royal confidant and Admiral of the Fleet Louis Mountbatten. Welsh nationalists set off bombs during Charles’ investiture as Prince of Wales.
Elizabeth continued Victoria’s support for royal rule, backing the hapless monarchs of the Middle East, particularly the Shah of Iran, even though, the authors tell us, she found him boring.
Along the way they make room for scandal, gossip, diplomacy and security that aren’t quite intelligence, but make for good reading.
They say that the royals have influence but no power. But this is a useless distinction.
We see their power in their influence, in their wielding of prestige and glamor, and in the foreign visits that occupy so much of their time.
A visit from British royalty confers legitimacy on the host, a powerful gift. Other foreign royalty lack this mysterious knack. And the main British royals have charisma. Even stuffy Charles can light up a room. Somehow, though, it’s hard to see him parachuting from a helicopter with James Bond. ###
Henry Allen, a former longtime writer and editor for The Washington Post’s Style section, won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 2000 . A Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War, he is also a poet and painter.
Crown, Cloak and Dagger:The British Monarchy and Secret Intelligence from Victoria to Elizabeth II. By Richard J. Aldrich and Rory Cormac. Georgetown University Press. 472 pp.
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