Espionage, Intelligence Gathering, and Geo-Political Rivalry in the Royal Courts of Whitehall, The Hague, and Versailles during the Age of James II (1685-88).

During the reign of James II (1685-88), Whitehall, Versailles, and The Hague undertook an extraordinary programme of espionage missions on rival courts. This was spurred on by looming war between France and the Netherlands; observation of outcast Catholic and non-conformist refugee communities; and a genuine diplomatic urgency to understand James II’s increasingly frustrating religious policy which resulted in a Dutch military intervention on the English political scene.

Between the Rye House Plot (1683) and the Glorious Revolution, three special envoys were sent by the Hague in 1683, 1687, and 1688 to collect intelligence. The situation grew more advantageous for William of Orange after 1685 when Monmouth’s rebellion threatened the stability of the English nation as another civil war was expected to break out under James II. The Hague prepared its six regiments of the Anglo-Dutch brigade in anticipation that James alone would not be able to claim a decisive victory over the rebels.[i] Nevertheless, the Netherlands was in competition for gathering intelligence, as rival French agents were also deployed to evaluate the likelihood of civil war. Similar to The Hague’s method of collecting information, Louis XIV sent Sieur de Bonrepaus on three occasions in 1686, 1687, and 1688 as a special envoy. He was tasked by Versailles to appraise James and establish clandestine correspondence with the Catholic Charles Talbot, Earl of Tyrconnell.[ii]

Who, then, maintained these espionage networks that exported secretive knowledge from Whitehall? William was supported by the sword and shield of the Hague’s intelligence system, diplomat William Bentinck and Grand Pensionary Gaspar Fagel. Fagel was responsible for defending intelligence leaks from the preying gaze of the French diplomat D’Averoux. Whilst Bentinck was principally involved in aggressively cultivating knowledge of English political affairs, he worked alongside cipher expert Dr John Hutton, propagandist Dr Gilbert Burnet, and London intelligencer John Johnstone.[iii]

Hyacinthe Rigaud, (c.1698-99), Hans William Bentick 1st Earl of Portland, National Portrait Gallery. (03/10/2022)

Lord Dijkvelt’s extraordinary mission to observe the court at Whitehall, and secretly connect the later adorned Immortal Seven with William, was an unprecedented achievement in 1687.[iv] By the summer of 1688, The Hague was in a strong position to receive intrigue about the Queen’s suspected pregnancy, news of the bishop’s trial, and dispensation of the Test Act from London and Whitehall. In comparison, considerably less is known about the French connection, yet Versailles was successful in establishing a functional spy network in Ireland by 1688. Bonrepaus reported intelligence of Irish military preparedness and fortifications to his handler, the Marquis de Seignelay at Versailles, before the information was distributed to benefit James at Whitehall.[v] Indeed, this limitation was costly, since arms and ammunition for English supporters of James from Versailles, and the exiled court of St Germain, were not achieved until 1694.[vi]

To keep intelligence secret from rival powers, each court formulated their own cipher techniques. Towards the end of the seventeenth century the court of Versailles developed a highly complex 590-symbol homophonic model of turning vowels into numerical keys.[vii] These cipher designs would be exported to allies of the French King, such as the Hungarian Court, and the Jacobites would later adopt similar techniques on the turn of the eighteenth century.[viii] The English Court had hired mathematician Dr John Wallace to develop encryption techniques, yet his elaborate coding inventions were soon flawed by an indifferent English attitude to ciphered correspondence.[ix] Unfortunately, the enormous dedication of time necessary to solve and encrypt letters in England had left Whitehall lacking in enthusiasm for implementing strong cipher systems.

The Hague, meanwhile, favoured encryption techniques that were both simple and swift. Its black ink encryption resembled a weak mono-alphabetic model in which names were replaced by keywords on a shared cipher key – for instance, Clarendon was Cooke, Ireland was Jersey, and Parliament was Privilege – so even if these letters were intercepted the identities of the conspirators were protected.[x] Moreover, encryption was not limited to the content of the letter; strikingly, Lord Devonshire took the alias of Monsiour Knabbenhouwer, the Master Shoemaker of Wagenstraat.[xi] Indeed, The Hague’s real strength was in white ink developed by Dr Hutton, and favoured admirably by Johnstone who instructed his correspondent that ‘the letter should be in cypher if the cypher be not in white ink.’[xii] This powerful tool, turned writing invisible and allowed weekly intelligence to pass smoothly and undetected in the English postal system.[xiii]

Much of this intelligence functioned as the backbone of Williamite propaganda in the infamous Declaration of Reasons. Truly, it was this rigorous observation of the Palace of Whitehall, and the City of London, which enabled The Hague to outmanoeuvre its rival Versailles, and produce a substantial propaganda campaign to accompany William of Orange’s intervention.

By Joey Crozier, Aberystwyth University, UK.

Joey is a PhD student at Aberystwyth University. His research focuses on the formulation and acceptance of the Glorious Revolution through communication in the ‘British’ Atlantic World. Recently, he participated in the ‘Eighteenth Century Political Participation and Electoral Culture’ conference at Newcastle University, and the ‘Examining the Early Modern’ conference at the University of Leeds. Currently, he is now chairing the Department of History and Welsh History’s Postgraduate Seminar Series 2022-23 at Aberystwyth University. 

[i] J. R. Jones, The Revolution of 1688 in England (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1972), pp. 209-17.

[ii] Jones, pp. 209-17.

[iii] J. V. Howard, ‘Herd-boy, Court Physician, MP, Spy: the life of Dr John Hutton of Dumfries’, Journal of the Royal College of Edinburgh Physicians, 35(2) (2005), 164-168 (p. 165).

[iv] Martinus Nijhoff, Correspondence of William III and Hans William Bentinck (The Hague, 1927), pp. 22-86.

[v] ‘Letter of the Sieur de Bonrepaus, French envoy in England, to the Marquis de Seignelay, concerning troops and fortifications in Ireland and its defence against the Prince of Orange,’ Sept. 1688. MS_UR_040633. National Library of Ireland.

‘Letter of de Seignelay to M. de Bonrepaus, concerning the Irish troops available to support James II’, Sept. 1688. MS_UR_059203. National Library of Ireland.

[vi] Matthew Smith, Memoirs of Secret Service, (London, 1699), pp. 42-60.

[vii] Benedek Láng, ‘Ciphers in Hungary: the source material’, in his Real Life Cryptology: Ciphers and Secrets in Early Modern Hungary (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018), pp. 51-84 (p. 66).

[viii] Daniel Szechi, Britain’s Lost Revolution? Jacobite Scotland and French Grand Strategy 1707-8 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015), pp. 76-7.

[ix] Alan Marshall, Intelligence and Espionage in the Reign of Charles II, 1660-1685 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 91.

[x] Papers of Hans William Bentinck, 1st Earl of Portland (1649-1709), statesman, in the Portland (Welbeck) Collection, Pw A 2093, University of Nottingham Special Collections.

[xi] Pw A 2091.

[xii] Pw A 2098/2.

[xiii] Pw A 2098/2.

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1 Response

  1. David Parker says:

    Hi, absolutely fascinating. I’m a part-time PhD student looking at the re-definition of monarchy under William & the extent to which it was more accident than design

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