British Spies in France: What Does History Tell Us?

Given how popular spy stories are within the Regency romance genre there is a surprising dearth of actual historical research into espionage activities after the French Revolution and during the Napoleonic wars.  My work in progress takes place in France and has Darcy and Elizabeth interacting with actual British agents working in France, so I felt some research was in order.  After a lot of searching I was able to find one researcher who had written extensively on the topic.  A lot of her research surprised me; the history of British espionage was quite different than I had assumed.  There was a lot less cloak and dagger and a lot more suborning of people in authority.  I didn’t end up using a lot of the research in my novel, but I thought that some of the information would be of interest to fans of Jane Austen and the Regency time period.

Beginning in 1793, the Alien Office (part of the Home Office) ran Britain’s first comprehensive secret service—the forerunner of today’s MI5 and MI6.  There had been a foreign letters office that opened and read the mail of foreign embassies (apparently this was a widely known and accepted practice), but it was absorbed into the Alien Office in 1793.  Referred to in correspondence as His Majesty’s Secret Service, the new office was bureaucratically sandwiched between the navy, army, diplomatic service, and Westminster police—using personnel from all the offices as well as foreign nationals as agents.   The head of the Alien Office was a magistrate (ironically) named William Wickham.

In 1794 Wickham went abroad to meet with a Frenchmen in Switzerland who had connections to the French royals in exile.  This visit transformed the office into a true foreign office and solidified its support for the restoration of the French monarchy.  However, the people who supported the restoration of the French monarchy were themselves divided into factions.  The King and his supporters wanted to restore the throne to a pure monarchy, while other French factions and most of the British government favored a constitutional monarchy.  The British agency worked with the French monarchy and its supporters, but their stubborn desire for a pure monarchy and the infighting among the different French royalist factions were some of the biggest obstacles to the Alien Office’s success.

Initially, the agency’s tactics focused on influencing French elections and gathering allies within France.  The idea was to disrupt France internally by infiltrating its civil and military governments with royalist supporters.  For example, they supported members of the Council of the Five Hundred who were secretly royalist sympathizers.   The agency also secured the loyalty of a number of French generals, who committed their troops to the royalist cause.  The British government payed for these secret armies by funneling money through banks in Paris and Hamburg from an account that had spent 3.8 million pounds by 1800.  Money was also sent to French rebel movements in the Vendee, Normandy and Brittany.

In addition, the British secret service created a contre-police network of spies within the Parisian gendarmerie and the elite haute police force.  The records suggest a wide network of agents throughout France as well as Switzerland, Germany, and other European countries.  Many of these agents were also double agents, including one man who led (for a time) the British espionage effort in Paris and a Frenchman who worked in the London Alien Office—whose defection caused the British to abandon the plot involving the generals.

There is some evidence that Joseph Fouche, the well-known minister of police in Paris was aware of some of the espionage activities and allowed them to continue—even if he was not an official double agent.  For example, he promoted Antoine Talon to the haute police despite suspicions of his loyalty; the British agent practically ran the agency for three years until his arrest in 1803.  British agents also had such complete access to official government channels that they kept on hand blank passports with signatures from multiple high French officials, so their agents could travel freely through France.

So what was the agency’s role in the overthrow of Napoleon?  It’s all too long for one blog, so tune in next month for the second part of my story about British spies in France.





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