Spies and spying in the Civil War – a guest post by Andrew Swanston, author of The King’s Return

Last month, on 24 April, Andrew Swanston published The King’s Return, the third novel in his historical spy series on Thomas Hill, a cryptographer who survived the English Civil War only now to find the peace, the Restoration, almost as dangerous. You can read my review of this excellent novel here. I’m delighted to host a guest post today by Andrew Swanston in which he discusses the roles of spies and spying in the Civil War, a career choice that might have had its dangers but was not without its rewards, both for oneself and for one’s masters, not to mention the most significant of consequences.

The King's Return by Andrew SwantonSpies and spying in the Civil War

For ambitious spies, scouts, intelligencers and cryptographers, the Civil War offered many excellent career opportunities. With the enemy on your doorstep, intelligence was vital and all sorts of people from princes to prostitutes were used to gather it.

Spying, of course, is easier in a civil war than an overseas one. There is no language problem, travel and disguise are easier and communication times shorter. Spying in the 17th century, by the way, should not be confused with scouting, which is the gathering of military intelligence, invariably by military personnel. Prince Rupert insisted on good military intelligence, sometimes even it gathering it himself. He was reputed once to have infiltrated enemy lines to gather information, disguised as an apple-seller. Less likely, his poodle ‘Boy’ was thought by some to have been trained to go among the enemy and to report back what he heard.

Spies, whom Lord Clarendon described as ‘an ignominious tribe’ and ‘pestiferous fellows’ – were civilians, often travelling physicians, actors and innkeepers. A man in his cups was, for some reason, thought more likely to speak indiscreetly.

Casual spies were everywhere. Imagine, for example, that you are an innkeeper in Oxford in 1644. Into your inn one evening wanders a group of thirsty infantrymen. They drink a little too much, and start complaining about having to march in three days time to Reading. It occurs to you that if you can find a way of passing this information to the right person, there might be a bit in it for you. And if you embellish the story a little – say 5,000 men with horse and cannon – there might be more than a bit. All you have to do is find the right person to hand the intelligence on to.

Step forward the’ handlers’ – a familiar concept to us now, but at that time, a newish one. One such was a certain John Barwick, chaplain to the Bishop of Durham, who used what he called ‘adventurous women’ to take messages from London to the king in Oxford. In the hands of men such as Barwick, what had begun as a flow of uncoordianted rumour and gossip became organised networks of agents.

In The King’s Spy, The King’s Exile and The King’s Return, Thomas Hill’s skills as a cryptographer are put to good use. By modern standards the codes and ciphers used then were pretty simple – mainly substitution ciphers, that is replacing a letter with another letter, a symbol or a number, and codes, that is replacing a syllable, phrase or word in the same way, or nomenclators, a mixture of both. But in addition, steganography – the hiding of a message – and invisible inks were often used. A sensitive despatch from John Pym in London to the Earl of Essex in Gloucestershire, for example, might be encrytpted, written in lemon juice, and hidden in the messenger’s boot.

None of this prevented the king himself from being deceived by a piece of intelligence so disastrously wrong that it could be said to have led to his execution. In 1648 he escaped from Hampton Court and fled to the Isle of Wight, where the governor, Colonel Hammond, was ‘known’ to be sympathetic to his cause. On arrival, however, he discovered that Hammond’s wife was a cousin of Oliver Cromwell and the daughter of the late John Hampden. The king was arrested and, three months later, he was dead.

‘Plots’, said the poet and playwright John Dryden, ‘are necessary things to raise up commonwealths and kings’. And, in the case of King Charles I, to do them down.

The King’s Return


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