Famous Spy Masters through the ages

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Famous Spy Masters through the ages

Walsingham as seen by the actor Geoffrey Rush / quacked.com

Walsingham as seen by the actor Geoffrey Rush / quacked.com

In the first of this three-part series about British and international secret services and their chiefs, three British spy-masters were described fairly extensively – those three who controlled British Intelligence from its creation as ‘SIS’, though its period as ‘MI6’, until the secret services were ‘outed’ and no longer secret in the second half of the twentieth century.

Our previous two articles made it clear that secret services (usually founded by a monarch, though not always) are by no means an imaginary cloak-and-dagger operation invented by eminent authors like John le Carré, Frederick Forsyth, Len Deighton and Ian Fleming. Alexander the Great entrusted much of the intelligence side of his staggering conquests to his most trusted general Ptolomy, aided by Alexander’s companion Hephaistion. Alfred before he became The Great had spies reporting to him from the Danish/Norwegian occupied parts of Eastern England; But perhaps the first officially set-up spy system, almost purely national, was thought up by the first Tudor king, Henry VII. His choice as spy-master was, of course, a churchman.

Morton, John (1420 – 1500)
Morton took his training as an academic lawyer, after winning holy orders. The patronage of Cardinal Bourchier led to his becoming a master in Chancery, and, most importantly, a member of the king’s Council. It was in Council meetings that Henry Tudor spotted the rising young lawyer/priest. He knew he had a job for him.
John Morton was a dedicated Lancastrian who lost everything his family had owned when the Yorkists under the Duke of York seized the throne in 1461. Morton scuttled off to France for safety. Later he changed his coat though; as the Wars of the Roses dragged on, Morton was to be found at the crucial Battle of Tewkesbury (1471) on the Yorkist side. The new King Edward IV liked Morton and made him Bishop of Ely (1479).
The next thing we know is that he had changed his coat again after Bosworth Field eliminated Richard III, and allied himself with the usurper Henry Tudor or Tydder. This is where we came in. Henry, an astute judge of character, especially if that character was ambitious, crafty and ruthless, gave Morton the ideal post for such a person – he made him Archbishop of Canterbury. When Henry II did the same a couple of centuries before, making his buddy Thomas Becket archbishop – it had not worked because Becket suddenly realised that mere friendship with the king might not necessarily ensure a safe passage into Heaven. There was none of this with Morton, who served his king faithfully, and received the Great Seal of England as a reward. He became Chancellor in 1487; he also added a Cardinal’s hat and ring to his wardrobe. My goodness! Churchmen could go far in those days.

Henry Tudor gave Morton carte blanche to develop a secret service, which would report directly to him and him alone. Morton would then tell all in secret audience with the clever king. No committies, no assemblies, certainly not a word in Parliament. Thus England’s first official secret service began.

Around this time a phrase was on everybody’s lips, for a very good reason, if they happened to be rich. Henry needed money for his reforms, war and defence plans and building plans for London. Ordinary taxation was not producing enough. So he got Morton to interview the magnates and landowners in private. Either they paid up extra taxation to the king, or they would lose practically everything, including their head. The Chancellor used this ‘Moreton’s Fork’ with (both) the very rich, and those frugal enough to save. We can imagine the scene: “Here is a large, sharp fork. I shall stick it very gently between your ribs. As money pours out of you, I will retract the fork. If the money does not pour, I shall push it in further”. So everyone ended up paying. Henry VII died leaving a coffer bursting with lucre ready for his son Henry VIII to spend. Cardinal Morton, who had survived Richard III, the Wars of the Roses, and Henry VII, lived to the extreme old age (for the fifteenth century) of eighty.

Cromwell, Thomas (1485 – 1540)
Thomas must not be confused with Oliver, who came later. He was born in the year of the Battle of Bosworth Field, which effectively ended the Wars of the Roses. His beginnings are obscure; he must have travelled abroad, because he spoke several foreign languages efficiently. He was an expert in Law, commerce, mercenary warfare – and spying. He began his spectacular life as a servant of Cardinal Wolsey, no mean master and teacher of the Machievelian arts. By 1529, when Wolsey was discredited and discarded by Henry VIII, he had already attracted the attention of the large monarch, who called him ‘my pet dog Thomas’ or ‘Crumb’ or even ‘Cremuel’ and placed him in the inner ring of the Council. He was Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1533, Vicar-General in 1535 and Lord Privy Seal in 1536. From 1553 to 1540 he was the king’s Chief Minister. It was his managerial excellence that encouraged the difficult royal divorce from Catherine of Aragon, the break from the established Church (and the dissolution of the monasteries), a new royal marriage with Ann Boleyn, and the enduring hatred of the Roman Catholic Church. His spies reported from all parts of England, Scotland and Wales. His powers, which were in fact the king’s, seemed limitless. He was responsible for the arrest, arraignment and execution of Sir Thomas More, later made a saint in Henry’s face, though Thomas More had been ardent burner of heretics.
These powerful men always make fatal mistakes however, and Thomas Cromwell’s super-protestant sympathies made him suggest Anne of Cleves as the king’s fourth wife. Henry thought her portrait resembled a ‘Flemish mare’, and the Court, most of whom had suffered one way or other from the ministrations of the king’s spymaster, ensured that he lost both royal favour and protection. His worst enemy was the Catholic Duke of Norfolk, whose faction contrived Cromwell’s execution immediately after his being raised to the Earldom of Essex. Henry VIII lost both his Chancellor and his ‘little pet dog Thomas’.

Walsingham, Francis (1530 – 1590)
Described as ‘statesman and diplomat’ Francis entered the service of Queen Elizabeth I in 1568. He had travelled extensively in Europe, and made enduring friendships there, which helped when Elizabeth made him her spymaster – both in England and abroad. He became her joint Secretary of State in 1573. There is no actual proof but it seems likely from sixteenth century letters that Walsingham was perfectly capable of murder, and later he certainly organised the death of many enemies. Even of a friend, for historians associate him with the murder in a London tavern of his own spy, the English playwright Christopher (Kit) Marlowe.
Francis Walsingham was a staunch and devout Protestant. He constantly encouraged aggression against Catholics at home and abroad. Queen Elizabeth privately preferred the quieter tactics of Cecil, but she admired Walsingham, not least because of his network of diplomats and spies, which they say spanned all Europe. He was responsible at home for destroying plots, such as Throckmorton’s and Babington’s. At his door must be laid the judicial murder of Mary, Queen of Scots, though it must be said that this poor woman brought most of her troubles on herself.
Finally it was Walsingham who laid before the Queen detailed information gathered by his spies about the impending invasion of England by King Phillip of Spain and his Grand Armada(s).

Beria, Lavrenti Pavlovitch (1899 – 1953)
He was the Soviet politician mostly responsible, through his network of spies, of the organisation and administration of the large-scale purges in the Stalinist era, including the elimination of police bureaucrats. He was born, like his master Stalin, in Georgia, and joined the Communist Party in 1917 at the age of eighteen. By 1921 he was Georgia’s Head of the Secret Police (the Cheka). He was then twenty-two.
In 1938 he took charge of the Russian secret police as Head of Internal Affairs, and managed greatly to extend the network of Soviet prison camps. He spent most of World War II intensifying armament production. Like most spymasters, he went too far, and after Stalin’s death he challenged the coalition led by Malenkov, Molotov and Kruschev, which led to his arrest in 1953 on charges of conspiracy. As he was a mass murderer on the grandest of scales the charges could have been much worse. He was tried (in secret) and executed at the age of fifty-four.

By | 2010-12-05T11:50:58+00:00 December 5th, 2010|English History, World History|3 Comments

About the Author:

‘Dean Swift’ is a pen name: the author has been a soldier; he has worked in sales, TV, the making of films, as a teacher of English and history and a journalist. He is married with three grown-up children. They live in Spain.


  1. Dean Swift December 30, 2010 at 5:02 pm - Reply

    Though I do not fully understand this comment, due to oddness of grammar ‘But had married’, I do see your point, and thank you.

  2. Leanne Beauclair June 11, 2017 at 4:10 am - Reply

    I am looking for information on a British Agent, I think his name or nickname, was Sully? I believe he was Important in WW11, possibility important . I may have read about him somewhere. Any help would be appreciated. Thank You, Leanne Beauclair. :leeb3350@gmail.com

  3. […] Swift, D., 2010. Famous Spy Masters through the ages. [online] General History. Available at: https://general-history.com/famous-spy-masters-through-the-ages/. […]

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