The following excerpts are taken from Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. The book is an anthology of select, fascinating posts from the first year of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog with historical tidbits from fifty-five authors gleaned from the research they did in writing their novels.
Secret Service, Spies, and Underhanded Dealings during the 17th Century
BY KATHERINE PYM
As historian Violet Barbour wrote in the biography, Henry Bennet, Earl of Arlington (published 1914), “The ministers of Charles II were not chosen for their honesty…”
This did not make Charles II a stupid man, but one who had gone through years of hardship. His life had often been in peril. Men conspired against him or tried to rule him. This left its mark. To watch for underhanded dealings during his reign, he sought out men who would meet toe-to-toe those who threatened the king and his court.
On the one hand, Charles II filled his court with frivolity. He played, danced, and allowed his spaniel dogs to soil the palace. He and his brother, the Duke of York, loved the theatre, and supported their own troupes. Charles II allowed women on stage.
On the other hand, Charles II inherited a land filled with restless and bitter malcontents whose very existence had shattered at the fall of the Commonwealth. Rarely opening up to anyone, Charles did not trust easily. He expected attempts on his life or efforts to overthrow his monarchy.
During the rule of Cromwell, John Thurloe was the head of espionage. As Secretary of State under Cromwell, he sent out spies to cull the plots from within the Protectorate’s government. His spy network was extensive. He also employed men—and women—who were, on the surface, stalwart royalists. His spies could be located in every English county, overseas (i.e., in Charles II’s exiled court), in the Americas, and the far Indies.
Thurloe compiled lists, sent spies into enemy camps, and had men tortured and killed. One such fellow, Samuel Morland, an assistant to Thurloe under Cromwell, confessed to having witnessed a man being “trepanned to death” at Thurloe’s word. (A trepan, according to Dictionary.com was “a tool for cutting shallow holes by removing a core.”) Not a nice way to go.
Thurloe orchestrated the Sir Richard Willis Plot, wherein the king and duke were intended to be lured out of exile to a meeting on the Sussex coast. Once the brothers disembarked, they would be instantly murdered. Thankfully, we know this plot failed.
Commonwealth spies infiltrated homes, churches, and businesses to destroy the enemy, and under Charles II’s rule, his government did the same. Their goal was to destroy nonconformists, or “fanaticks”. Depending on who was in power, plots were a part of political life.
After the Restoration, Thurloe was dismissed, but not executed, for crimes against the monarchy. He was released in exchange for valuable Commonwealth government documents.
During the king’s exile, Sir Edward Nicholas held the position of Secretary of State, but he was old, nearly age 70. Within two years of the Restoration, Charles II replaced him with Sir Henry Bennet, who took charge of the Crown’s espionage.
Joseph Williamson worked for Bennet as the undersecretary. Williamson was born for this work. He took the bull by the horns and enhanced the processes Thurloe had begun. Williamson built a brilliant spy network. He enlisted informers who, for money, turned on their associates. He used grocers, doctors, and surgeons, anyone who would inform him of persons against the king. Informants were everywhere. He obtained ambassadorial letters and had them opened and searched for underhanded deceit. He had men overseas watching for any plots.
His tools were numerous. He loved ciphers and cipher keys. Doctor John Wallis was an expert in this who worked under both Thurloe and Bennet. The man could crack a code in nothing flat.
Williamson, known as Mr. Lee in the underworld, used London’s Grand Letter Office for ciphered messages to pass back and forth between the undersecretary’s office and his informants and spies. He expected to be kept apprised by ciphered letters, passed through the post office, at the end of each day.
Under Thurloe’s stint as Secretary of State during the Commonwealth, the secret service received £800 per year. Under Bennet, the money doubled. Most of the annual budget was spent on spies and keeping them alive.
For more reading on spies and espionage during the reign of King Charles II, see my novel Of Carrion Feathers which is set in London, 1662.
Seven Years’ Hard Labor Overseas: Transportation as Punishment in the 17th-19th Centuries
Steal a Book BY J.A. BEARD
England, like many societies throughout history, has had to struggle with what to do with its criminal population. For a good chunk of English history, punishment was harsh and severe. Executions were common for a number of offenses. The fundamental question of how justice is best served has been explored throughout English history and influenced by shifts in historical, philosophical, and religious beliefs.
With the expansion of British colonial holdings in the 17th century, another option arose: transportation. The idea was simple in concept if occasionally more complicated in execution. Transportation at its core was exile. Instead of local imprisonment, execution, or another punishment, an offender was sent to a distant overseas holding. In this way the home country depleted its criminal population and minimized the resource impact of a growing criminal population.
Transportation was not reserved for the most heinous of offenses such as murder. A variety of crimes, both major and relatively minor, could end up with a criminal being sentenced to transportation. For example, in 1723, one man was sentenced to transportation and an accompanying seven years of labor for stealing a book.
Initially, many criminals were transported to colonies in continental North America and the West Indies. The American Revolution complicated things and ended North America as a popular choice for transportation even for non-rebellious areas. By 1787, British transportation was focused instead on Australia and some other smaller colonial holdings.
Transportation may have been exile at its core, but it was also supposed to serve the needs of the home country beyond that. In addition to the restrictions one might expect, such as the death penalty for those returning from transportation, these sentences typically carried with them a hefty labor requirement. The services expected from the convicts might be directed toward what we’d now call public works projects, or the convicts might end up as indentured servants to free citizens in a colony.
As one might expect, sending people thousands of miles away and never allowing them to return home was going to predispose them to even more anti-social behavior than whatever got them in trouble initially. If they had no hope of any sort of normal life, it would only contribute to the kind of instability and revolts one witnessed with completely enslaved populations. One way of combating this, and also serving the general idea of some form of semi-merciful justice, was to limit the main criminal penalty period to a defined number of years. After the prisoners served their sentences, they would not typically regain all of their rights, but, at minimum, would have enough that they could live a semi-normal life.
Related to the exile of general criminals, a variation on transportation was also used to sell people directly into slavery. Though your standard-issue English criminal probably would end up an indentured servant on a plantation or digging a canal or what not, hundreds of thousands of Irish and Scottish political and war prisoners taken during the 17th century ended up being sold into slavery in the West Indies and this, in some cases, continued in some forms even until nearly the end of the 18th century. Please note that in most cases these were, for all intents and purposes, true slaves and not simple indentured servants.
The interbreeding of Irish and African slaves (who were initially considerably more expensive than Irish slaves) in the West Indies became so extensive that by the end of the 17th century, specific laws were passed to prohibit it. Admittedly, the issue with the Irish and Scottish was more an offshoot of war (and rebellion) between England, Scotland, and Ireland, and even many of the laws concerning their handling were distinct from the various transportation acts passed to cover non-political/war-offenses.
Given our modern view of a more rehabilitative justice system, transportation may seem cruel. Indeed, even being a child did not necessarily protect one from a transportation sentence, though age and size (tiny laborers aren’t efficient, after all) were somewhat taken into account. There are, however, documented cases of children as young as seven years old being transported to Australia. It is important to keep in mind, though, that by the standards of the time, transportation was often considered somewhat more lenient than the more common punishments: execution or being sentenced to a disgusting and overcrowded prison on land.
Then, as now, the building of more prisons to give convicted criminals more space wasn’t high on the list of societal priorities. In addition, the general English (or general world) attitude toward punishment from the 17th through 19th centuries could more generally be defined as retribution-based rather than rehabilitation-centered. There were such severe issues with prison space that even more disgusting and overcrowded prison ships were used as supplements.
That being said, it’s hard not to notice the national self-interest served by thousands upon thousands of cheap laborers being available to help develop new colonies. Transportation would linger, as a punishment, officially until 1868, but for several reasons, including socio-economic and geopolitical changes, it had de facto ended years before.
Castles, Customs, and Kings is available at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes and Noble, and Kobo. It is an excellent gift for lovers of history and with its short topics, a great book for a waiting-room or break-room. Author Tom Williams said, "It's an amusing trot through British history and excellent bedtime reading."
Debra Brown is the author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire. She runs the English Historical Fiction Authors blog and the Goodreads group Historical Info for Historical Fiction Readers.