Secret Service

Interestingly, intelligence activities first acquired unprecedented political significance in Elizabethan England. This is all the more surprising when one considers that the geographical location did not make an intelligence service vital for defence. The main task of the spies on the continent was to reconnoitre the military strength and possible war intentions of the enemy, so that one was prepared for a possible invasion. However, an invasion by sea was far more obvious than one by land.1 Of course, there were plenty of people working directly for the English Crown or royal advisers, but none had anywhere near the skills and contacts of Francis Walsingham. He had over fifty informants working for him in about forty different cities from – Rome to Amsterdam and from Constantinople to Lisbon, but there was no such thing as a permanent staff. Spying was a secondary occupation, because almost no agent received a regular income. Most were employed according to need and pay depended on the nature of the job. Initially, Walsingham covered all costs from his own funds. It was not until 1582 that the Crown granted him an annual budget of 750 pounds. Three years later, the sum had already reached £2,000.2
In the absence of mass media, much of the information Walsingham archived was of the kind you might now read in newspapers. It goes without saying that his knowledge did not only extend to foreign citizens and dignitaries. The boundaries between the secret service, which incidentally was only called the "Secret Service" after 1603,3 and the secret police were already fluid in the 16th century. From the beginning, the collaboration of writers was relied upon. (A tradition that continues to the present day, as we know from the biographies of Daniel Defoe, Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene or Frederick Forsythe, for example).

"They were intelligent, educated, observant young men. They knew the international language, Latin, and the literary tastes of the day gave them a good smattering of French and Italian. They were mobile people: geographically mobile – young men disposed to travel and see the world – but also socially mobile. In a class-ridden society, the literary demi-monde floated free, touching at once the back street of London and the heights of the nobility."4

However, news gathering was not Walsingham’s only task. Nothing makes an army more necessary than a war. A secret service is in a similar position. If there are no planned conspiracies, assassination plots, coup attempts, an agent quickly becomes unemployed. Walsingham was forced to justify his existence, but above all the necessity of the sums at his disposal. In addition, the paid informants tended to create information in order to get paid accordingly. At that time, people were convinced that the Vatican, with the support of the Catholic rulers, wanted to force the reinstatement of Catholicism as the sole faith at all costs. Today it is known that such a "Catholic world conspiracy" never existed, but for the Protestants of the late 16th century it was a portent on the wall.5

"In ganz Europa suchte jeder eine Gelegenheit sich im Kampf für die eigenen Interessen, für die eigene Klasse oder für seinen Gott zu bewähren. Die Folge war, dass die Häuser der Diplomaten in Antwerpen, London, Paris und Amsterdam zu Zufluchtsstätten für unzufriedene Elemente wurden und dass die Gesandten die agents provocateurs des Verrats wurden."6

It was part of Walsingham’s unique talent to skilfully exploit the unexpected opportunities that arose. With the help of stool pigeons, he created threats to the state that might never have existed without his intervention, in order to then eliminate them and take political advantage of them. His masterpiece was the so-called Babington Conspiracy, which resulted in the execution of Mary Stuart.
Several of Walsingham’s spies spent a considerable amount of time in prisons, especially in England. On the one hand, they were sent there deliberately to gather information. On the other hand, an agent at that time could hardly prove his actual activity and even for the authorities it was not always obvious who was spying on whom. The loyal informant of today could be a vile traitor tomorrow. In politically unstable times, such as in the late 16th century, it was good to be secured on all sides.

"You have to take it as a kind of theatre, a political house of games, in which everything is potentially different, potentially reversible. Friends change suddenly into enemies. Patriots are revealed as traitors, and then with a flick of the wrist they are patriots again, […]"7

Especially when they were not spying out of patriotism, but for the sake of money. For example, Sir Edward Stafford, who became English ambassador to Paris in 1583, was the first known double agent of modern times.8 But Walsingham also knew how to deceive his opponents. The men he used against the Catholics were often Catholic themselves. One of her most important areas of operation was the English College in Rheims.

The Privy Council’s letter to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, gave Christopher Marlowe not only his academic degree, but centuries later a very special posthumous fame, as it forms the basis for the notion of Marlowe as a secret agent in Her Majesty’s service. Not only modern novelists but also critics see him as a precursor of James Bond, who decided to pursue a second career path alongside his career as a poet.9 Only, as mentioned, secret agent was not an established profession and had little or nothing to do with what is understood by the term today. If there had been such a thing as Marlowe’s intelligence activity, it probably corresponded most closely to that which Frederick Forsyth says numerous volunteers carry out for the British Secret Service:

"They come from a vast array of professions, something that causes them to travel a bit. They may agree while on a foreign visit for business purposes to pick up a package, deliver a letter to a hole in a tree, make a payment, or just keep their eyes and ears open and undergo a cheerful debriefing when they get home."10

Duchein, Michel. 1992. Maria Stuart: Eine Biographie. Zürich: Benziger.
Forsyth, Frederick. 2015. The Outsider: My Life in Intrigue. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
Piekalkiewicz, Janusz. 1988. Weltgeschichte Der Spionage: Agenten – Systeme – Aktionen. Frechen: Komet.
Smith, Lacey Baldwin. 1967. Zwielicht Einer Zeitwende: Königin Elisabeth Und Ihre Epoche. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt.

  1. Piekalkiewicz (1988)↩︎
  2. Nicholl (2002)↩︎
  3. Piekalkiewicz (1988)↩︎
  4. Nicholl (2002), 202↩︎
  5. Duchein (1992)↩︎
  6. Smith (1967), 180↩︎
  7. Nicholl (2002), 136-137↩︎
  8. Piekalkiewicz (1988)↩︎
  9. Kuriyama (1988)↩︎
  10. Forsyth (2015), 187↩︎

Aktualisiert am 23.05.2024

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