By Ian Arthurson
Nottingham Medieval Studies, Vol.35 (1991)
Introduction: In the period between the Wars of the Roses and the Reformation spies were used in foreign and military affairs and for reasons of domestic security. Contrary to expectations spies are not difficult to locate or document. They were a feature of classical and ancient civilisations; and the Middle Ages, which drew inspiration from the classical world, followed its example. Classical histories, the study of which was part of a prince’s education, contain examples of espionage. The works of Jean de Bueil (d.1477) and Robert de Balsac (1502), present in the Royal library, prescribed the use of spies. Christine de Pisan, synthesiser of contemporary military practice and the Vegetian canon, was translated into English and published in 1492 on the orders of Henry VII. The literature of the period suggests that spies were an everyday part of military life. Blind Hary’s Wallace, written in 1478, describes two spies being sent out at midnight to reconnoitre a castle. The chronicles of the period deal with espionage in a matter of fact way, presenting it with little or no comment, except where there a contemporary controversy. Polydore Vergil spent several paragraphs dismissing the notion that ‘as some people think’ Sir Robert Clifford and Sir Robert Curzon were spies of Henry VII. Letters of the period also evidence the work of spies. Royal accounts state openly that rewards were given for spying or in the circumnambulation of the time state that such and such an individual was ‘about the king’s business’.
It was Philippe de Commynes who made the classic pronouncement that messenger, spy and diplomat amount to the same thing. Ambassadors from friendly princes were to be suspected because ‘friendship among princes docs not endure forever’. Ambassadors from enemies were to be watched lest they stir up trouble, given an audience and sent quickly out of the kingdom. Commynes was repeating, verbatim, Louis XI who complained that the Milanese ambassador resident in France in the 1470s inhibited his freedom of action in diplomacy. Theorists of diplomacy disagreed with Commynes. From the 1430s onwards Emilio Barbaro’s maxim. The Ambassador should not behave like a spy’, was repeated in every work on diplomacy and ignored m practice. The prime function of the post of resident ambassador was as political intelligence officer. In the 1530s. when relations between England and the Holy Roman Emp1re had deteriorated sharply the Imperial ambassador’s chief activity was to develop an intelligence system in England to supply information to Charles V. He expanded his staff to take on bilinguals. He patronised the alien mercantile cOmmunity in London and he suborned the households of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell. Some European governments protected themselves with ordinances against such things. Henry VIII’s ministers and officers made a practice of opening ambassadorial letters. In 1516, Cardinal Wolsey not only opened the letters of the Papal Nuncio but when he saw their contents summoned the man to him, assaulted him, and threatened him with the rack