Around 1598, John Florio, translating the Italian words for ‘spy (spia)’ and ‘spying (spirare)’ for his English dictionary, described the functions of ‘a spy, an espial, a scout, a prier, an eavesdropper’ as those related to a specific business that consisted ‘to espy, to peer, to pry, to watch or scout with diligence, to ask or enquire for’.[1] Another word often used to describe those involved in the business of collecting valuable information, or observe closely the activities of others, was ‘intelligencer’ – a term defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as ‘a person who is employed to obtain confidential information; an informer, a spy, a secret agent’.[2] Given the connection between ‘spy’ and espie, or to observe with the eyes, ‘spy’ was often associated with travellers or observers of foreign lands. Henry Smith, in The preachers proclamacion discoursing the vanity of all earthly things (1591), compared the wise biblical king, Solomon, to a traveler or ‘a spie sent into a strange Countrie, as if he were now come home from his pilgrimage; they gather about him to enquire, what he hath heard, and seene abroad, & what he thinks of the world’.[3] A spy could be a traveller or a merchant, therefore, as well as one who occupied a more official state position such as a diplomat, whose mobility and access to spheres of power made him a source of information on foreign peoples and lands. This use of the term ‘spy’ to designate an observer is well illustrated by English pamphlets and periodicals such as The London Spy (1698-1700).

Nonetheless, the term spy became predominantly associated with individuals involved in secret activities related to political conspiracies and military operations. Thomas Styward, the author of The pathwaie to martiall discipline (1582), recommend that ‘for the greater safetie of the armie’ a captain should send ‘before faithfull spies, which shall discover the coast, and make true report of all they see, in such sort as he doth, which is sette in some promontorie, to watch and give warning, of whatsoever enimies hee shall see to appeare by sea’.[4] While these functions seem to be describing the scout or watchman, Styward clearly associated spies with the clandestine activities of gathering sensitive, strategic information. He advocated as a ‘good policy to retaine spies giving unto them great rewards that which by politique usage may be learned the state, the strength, the order, manners, & determination of the enimies: by which meanes with secret usage, thou maist many waies have due revenge’.[5] The ‘secret usage’ of spies was essential to allow them, as William Haddon noted during his heated exchange with the Catholic Jerónimo Osório, to ‘smell out either of our courtlye affayres, what the Prince doth, what her counsellers and courtyers do, what is done in the common weale’.[6]

The ability of spies to conceal their identity or intentions, and their functions as saboteurs or informers for different political agents or foreign powers, contributed to a widespread perception of spies as treacherous and morally corrupt. Around 1583, Nicholas Berden, who presented himself as a ‘Spye’, found it necessary to explain that he had embraced an ‘odious thoughe necessarie’ profession motivated ‘nott for gayne, butt for the Saffetie of my Naty[ve] Countrie.’[7] Berden’s remark reveals a distinction between the patriotic individual who embraces espionage to protect his country, and the mercenary or professional spy who served different masters for his own benefit. The English Jesuit Thomas Fitzherbert, accused of being involved in many secret Catholic conspiracies, observed critically that spies were ‘wicked instruments’ used by rulers ‘for the discovery of every mans intention, nourishing division amongst the greatest the counterpoise one with an other’.[8] Referring to spies as ‘Machiavillains’, Fitzherbert saw spies as ultimately destructive and untrustworthy, for the suspected ‘al men’ and ‘never be so much bound’ to any one person, but ‘cutting of by one meanes or other, al those whose power, courrage, or wit, he may think dangerous to his state’.[9]

Many Elizabethan English often perceived Catholic recusants as potential spies at the service of foreign masters such as the Pope or Philip II of Spain. The mounting tension between England and Spain that would culminate with the Spanish Armada, a failed attempt by Philip II to invade England with a fleet of 130 warships in 1588, generated a widespread suspicion on the activities of ‘strangers’ and ‘aliens’, as well as on the allegiances and intentions of English Catholics. In 1583, William Cecil alerted to dangers posed by several recusants who contacted ‘disguised persons (called schollars or Priestes)’ who followed the instructions ‘of the Capitall enemie the Pope or his Legates, to be secret espialles & explorers in the Realme for the pope, to deliver by secret, Romish tokens, as it were an earnest or prest, to them that shoulde be in readines to joyne with rebels or open enemies, and in like sort with their hallowed baggages from Rome to poyson the sences of the subjectes, powring Into their hearts malicious and pestilent opinions against her Majistie’.[10] In the same year, Walter Travers warned for the dangers posed by English recusants and Catholic priests since ‘wheresoeuer the R[omish] religion is, everye Prieste is an intelligencer and a spye for the pope, who both by other means, & especially by their auriculer confession come to understand the deepest secrets of every state and K. of every City, and town, village, house, familye, & person within the land’.[11] After 1588, the fears of a second Spanish attempt to invade England, increased these suspicions. Flemish, Italian and Iberian subjects of the Spanish Habsburgs were often regarded by the English authorities as potential spies or agent provocateurs. On 24 September 1598, Thomas Middleton informed Robert Cecil of the presence of a group of ‘three Spaniards here bound for Spain’ who included ‘a very parlous fellow, and was sent over from the Groyn of purpose, as may be feared, for a spy’. Middleton considered the three Spaniards to be highly suspicious, mentioning that all of them ‘carry letters from hence for Spain’, and recommended that they should be closely monitored, stressing their potential damaging effects by reminding ‘that the Spaniards that are prisoners here have great liberty, and are very bold’.[12] The Elizabethan state generated its own spy network in response: Berden, mentioned above, was one of the many spies recruited by Elizabeth’s ‘spymaster’, Sir Francis Walsingham, to monitor the activities of English intelligence-gathers at the service of the Holy See and the Catholic powers.

In the same way that Cecil and Travers feared the capacity of English Catholics to infiltrate themselves into Elizabethan society to work as spies or agent provocateurs, Catholic polities like Venice were aware that ‘the Queen of England, and the Princes of Germany had des Agens Secrets…and for these secret Employments Merchants have bin thought to be the fittest Instruments, because under the cloak of Trading they may also hide Affairs of State’.[13] Such suspicions regarding the true intentions of Catholic ‘schollars or Priestes’ and English tradesmen reveal a perception of spies as extremely mobile individuals who, thanks to their capacity to cross frontiers, would change their identities and act covertly, a competence that made spies extremely subversive. Those who were denounced or identified as spies often faced violent punishments like Richard Burligh and Thomas Wade, two English merchants who after returning from the Netherlands were accused by one John Brooke, who also travelled with them, of espionage. The two men were arrested and put into torture. Burligh was immediately executed, while Wade ‘was put in prison and died afterwards in the hospital’.[14] The fate of foreign spies often depended on their status and involvement in subversive activities. For example, Bernardino de Mendoza, Philip II’s ambassador to England between 1576 and 1584, was expelled from England after the discovery of activities of espionage following the Throckmorton plot.[15] Those who did not enjoyed the privileges of an aristocratic status or diplomatic immunity, like Roderigo Lopez, the Portuguese physician of Elizabeth I, who was accused of espionage and conspiring against the queen, and his co-conspirators, Estevão da Gama Ferreira and Manuel Luís Tinoco, faced torture and execution.[16]

The religious uncertainties of the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, and the rise of popular print discussing political ideas, contributed to a perception that the English public space was heavily surveilled by all sorts of spies. In Francis Beaumont’s The Woman Hater (1607), Count Valore points out the ability of one of his spies to live ‘in Alehouses, and Taverns’ where he ‘perceives some worthy men in this land, with much labour & great expence, to have discovered things dangerously hanging over the State; hee thinks to discover as much out of the talke of drunkards in Taphouses: hee brings me informations, pick\'d out of broken wordes, in mens common talke, which with his malitious misapplication, hee hopes will seeme dangerous, hee doeth besides bring mee the names of all the young Gentlemen in the Citie, that use Ordinaries, or Taverns’.[17] Valore’s description of the modus operandi of his spy also explored a perception that spies were a part of an underworld formed by those who frequented places of base resort like taverns and alehouses.[18] The well-travelled Fynes Moryson advised his readers to be aware of such places ‘since Theeves have their spies commonly in all Innes, to inquire after the condition of passengers’.[19] This reference to thieves and their spies suggests that those recruited to be informers and spying others tended to be viewed as criminals or corrupt. Indeed, throughout the seventeenth century, espionage was cynically portrayed as a role that could only be occupied by morally-dubious individuals who were ever ready to change sides or betray their masters.

The moral corruption of espionage was also associated with ambassadors. States often presented their diplomats as honest spies, as foreign agents sent by a prince to facilitate communication and obtain relevant information of their host society. The host countries, however, often thought differently about foreign visitors accessing the heart of the political realm. During the negotiations for the Spanish Match, in which James’ son, Charles, considered marrying the Spanish Infanta, the puritan satirist Thomas Scot anonymously published Vox Populi or News from Spain, which scathingly criticised the Spanish ambassador, Count Gondomar. Scot’s document pretended to be a secret report written by Gondomar himself, in which he enthusiastically described his spying activities: ‘I made that a cover for much intelligence, and a means to obtain whatsoever I desired, whilst the state of England longed after that marriage, hoping thereby, (though vainly) to settle peace, and fill the exchequer’.[20] In a report about a meeting between the Gunpowder Treason conspirators in November 1605, one witness reported that ‘this Taylor said that all Princes Ambassadors weare but Honorable Spyes’, a statement that must have seemed an impossible juxtaposition.[21]

Women, too, were often associated with espionage or the revelation of private information. The work of Joseph Swetnam’s The araignment of lewde, idle, forward, and unconstant women (1615) warned readers that women were unable to keep secrets: ‘if thou unfoldest any thing of secret to a woman, the more thou chargest her to keepe it close, the more she will seeme as it were to bee with childe till shee have revealed it amongst her gossips…for every woman hath one especiall gossip at the least, which shee doth love & affect above all the rest, and unto her shee runneth with al the secrets she knoweth’.[22] Such misogynist views of women as seductive, manipulative and fond of rumours and ‘any thing secret’ made them targets for accusations of espionage. In Ben Jonson’s Epicoene or the Silent Woman (performed 1609), Truewit tells Morose that Lady Haughty was able to teach ‘all the Mysteries, of writing Letters, corrupting Servants, taming Spyes’.[23] In 1642, a parliamentarian pamphlet revealed the discovery of conspiracy led by a female spy on the royalist payroll. Her confession reveals how women could exploit some of the views of women as chattering voices that delight in rumours, using that garrulity and apparent inability to keep secrets to obtain and reveal confidential information. Indeed, after being captured, this alleged royalist spy confessed that her function was to ‘bring them news from his Excellencies Army what every day shee heard, which she had to them faithfully performed to the disadvantage of the Parliaments force, and that shee had be often of late in the City of London to heare now and which way the People stood affected both to the King and Parliament’.[24]

Throughout the English civil wars, spies were regarded both as strategically useful and morally destructive. Spies, thanks to their metamorphic capacity of acting as ordinary persons or assuming different identities, were difficult to identify and able to explore their betweeness with the rest of the population to undermine the social order and cause unrest. Marchmond Nedham, who worked as a propagandist and spy for both royalists and parliamentarians, complained to Oliver Cromwell that ‘If you set Spies upon the people, and deprive them of the liberty of hearing, speaking, easing and uttering their minds to each other, then they reckon they have lost all and so grow desperate’.[25] This capacity of spies, especially those who belong to a community, to circulate without notice and disturb social life by collecting information or disseminating rumours led Nedham to present spies as amoral individuals or ‘pestiferous creatures’ and ‘mercenary varlets’ who often manipulated the intelligence they gathered according to their own interests, ‘feed[ing] their Patrons with more frivolous matters and fopperies, than realities’.[26] One of the key figures of the confusing times of the Interregnum and the Restoration, George Monck, duke of Albemarle, also shared Nedham’s negative views of spies. ‘Concerning Spies’, he wrote on his Observations upon military & political affairs (1671), one should ‘be always suspitious of them; because as it is a dangerous task for him that undertaketh, so it is also for him that imployeth them: … they should be examined severally, that by the agreement or disagreement of their advices, you may judge whether they be good: and by the verification of those which speak true or false, you shall know who betrayeth you, or doth you true Service’. Due to the uncertain loyalty of spies, those who employed them should ‘very liberal to them; for they are faithful to those who give them most’.[27] As Monck noted, the risks faced by spies and the value of the information they could obtain made them unreliable individuals who acted according to their self-interest, forcing their masters to constantly negotiate or buy their loyalty to avoid the perils of losing access to relevant intelligence or being exposed.

Despite their involvement espionage during the Civil Wars and the Restoration, Nedham’s and Monck’s comments shared a loathing of spies that had deep roots on the Elizabethan and Jacobean anxieties regarding the disturbing presence of Catholic spies and agent provocateurs. Throughout the English civil wars, the Interregnum and the Restoration, these anxieties and hatred of spies increased, especially during the brief and troubled reign of James II. The Catholic Stuart monarch relied on a vast spy network, and, as a post-Glorious Revolution tragic-comedy recalled, forced his subjects to be be ‘vigilant and careful/ Hell scarce has more Intelliegnce and Spies/ Than this suspitious Court in every Corner’.[28] Spies were projected as both a cause and a consequence of the instability of early modern England in an age of religious and political turmoil. As forms of government changed or broke down, as Protestant and Catholic monarchs took their thrones, and as rise of print and newspapers encouraged a wide network of intelligence-gathering , the ‘spy’ was a slippery figure who navigated the shadows in between. Whether he or she did so for the perceived good of the realm, or their own private benefit, was difficult to verify. Those who spied, by breaching their political or personal allegiances and disrespecting social or moral norms of conduct, were consistently defined as a subversive presence that threatened order.’ A Spy’, wrote Thomas Gipps some years after the Glorious Revolution, deserved swift justice, for ‘when he is taken, [he] is always put to death, but an open Enemy is only made a Prisoner of War’.[29]
John Thurloe, by unknown artist, Unknown date[30]
1. John Florio, A worlde of wordes (London, 1598; STC 540:02), p. 389.
2. ‘Intelligencer, n.', Oxford English Dictionary [accessed 8 August 2017].
3. Henry Smith, The preachers proclamacion (London 1591; STC 22684).
4. Thomas Styward, The pathwaie to martiall discipline (London, 1582; STC 23414), p. 125.
5. Ibid., p. 145.
6. Walter Haddon, Against Jerome Osorius Byshopp of Siluane in Portingall and against his slaunderous invectives (London, 1581; STC 12594), p. 379.
7. Quoted in Stephen Alford, ‘Some Elizabethan in the Office of Sir Francis Walsingham’, in Diplomacy and Early Modern Culture, ed. by Robyn Adams and Rosanna Cox (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 57.
8. Thomas Fitzherbert, The first part of a treatise concerning policy, and religion (London, 1606; STC 11017) pp. 384, 391.
9. Ibid., p. 391.
10. William Cecil, The execution of justice in England for maintenaunce of publique and Christian peace (London 1583; STC 4902).
11. Walter Travers, An answere to a supplicatorie epistle, of G.T. for the pretended Catholiques written to the right Honorable Lords of her Majesties privy Councell (London, 1583; STC 24181), pp. 284-5.
12. 'Doc. 722, Thomas Myddelton to Sir Robert Cecil, Sept. 24 1598’, in Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Most Hon. the Marquis of Salisbury, Preserved at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, Vol. VIII: 1598, ed. by R.A. Roberts (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1899), p. 362.
13. James Howell, Proedria vasilike (London, 1664; Wing H3109), p. 180.
14. 'Doc. 619, Relation of William Pittes, 1592’, in Calendar of the Manuscripts of the Most Hon. the Marquis of Salisbury, Preserved at Hatfield House, Hertfordshire, Vol. 4: 1590—1594, ed. by R.A. Roberts (London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1892), p. 258.
15. Rayne Allison, A Monarchy of Letters: Royal Correspondence and English Diplomacy in the Reign of Elizabeth I (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012), p. 70.
16. Edmund Valentine Campos, ‘Jews, Spaniards, and Portingales: Ambiguous Identities of Portuguese Marranos in Elizabethan England’, English Literary History, 69.3 (2002), 599-616 (p. 605).
17. Francis Beaumont, The Woman hater (London 1607; STC 1693), sig. Cr.
18. Lawrence Manley, ‘London and Urban Popular Culture’, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Popular Culture in Early Modern England, ed. by Abigail Shinn, Matthew Dimmock and Andrew Hadfield (Farnham: Ashgate, 2014), p. 367.
19. Fynes Moryson, An itinerary (London, 1617; STC 18205), sig. Eeee 6r.
20. Thomas Scot, Vox populi, or Newes from Spayne (London, 1620; STC 22100.2), sig. B1v.
21. 'Gunpowder Plot, November 1605', Hatfield House, CP 112/160r.
22. Joseph Swetnam, The araignment of lewde, idle, forward, and unconstant women (London, 1615), p. 41.
23. Ben Jonson, Epicoene, or the silent woman (London, 1620; STC 14763), sig. D1v-D2r.
24. A true discovery of a womans wickednesse, in endeavouring to betray the city of London to the Caveliers (London, 1642; Wing T2680A).
25. Marchmont Nedham, Certain considerations tendered in all humility to an honorable member of the councell of state (London, 1649; Wing N381), pp. 8-9.
26. Ibid., pp. 8-9, 13-4.
27. George Monck, Observations upon military & political affairs (London, 1671; Wing A864), p. 39.
28. Person of Quality, The Late Revolution, or the Happy Change (London, 1690; Wing L558), p. 12.
29. Thomas Gipps, Remarks on remarks (London, 1698; Wing G780), p. 53.
30. John Thurloe, by unknown artist, Unknown date, National Portrait Gallery
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