England’s First Double Agents?

By Fred Smith | @Fred_E_Smith

The disturbing events which have recently unfolded in the small English town of Salisbury appear to belong more to the set of a Hollywood spy thriller or the pages of an Ian Fleming novel than to reality. From a historical perspective, the role of spies and informants on all sides during both the Second World War and the Cold War is well known. However, over the last twenty years, historians have increasingly come to recognise that it was during the early modern period that ‘modern’ methods and strategies of international espionage first began to develop. Stephen Alford, for example, has shone new light on Francis Walsingham’s role as Elizabeth I’s ‘Spymaster’ – research which informed a three-part BBC series last year.[1] Similarly, a recent article by Sebastian Sobecki has uncovered the importance of an English spy, John Peyton, in providing intelligence on Spanish diplomatic activity in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth around the turn of the seventeenth century.[2]

My current research into Catholic exiles from Henry VIII and Edward VI’s England is revealing a number of precedents for such activities much earlier in the sixteenth century. The existence of these emigres on the continent proved to be a persistent thorn in the side of the English government, which went to great lengths in order to keep tabs on their movements and activities through a network of diplomats and spies. For example, Robert Brancetor, who was suspected of having attempted to procure Spanish assistance for an English Catholic rebellion in late 1536 (the so-called ‘Pilgrimage of Grace’), was pursued across the continent, from Spain, to France and into the Netherlands, by the English agent, Thomas Wyatt. Despite providing the English king his assurance that Brancetor ‘shall never scape my hands’, Wyatt was persistently frustrated in his attempts to apprehend the exile.[3] In 1540 Wyatt went so far as to instruct an assassin to insinuate himself into Brancetor’s company, pretending to be an exile himself, in the hope of finally capturing him.[4] The plan fell through and Brancetor escaped to Italy, and later Vienna.

Another Catholic exile targeted by the English government and its agents was Reginald Pole. Pole, cousin to Henry VIII, fled England into exile in the early 1530s on account of his aversion to the Royal Supremacy. Moving to Italy, he was created a cardinal in 1537 and became involved in many plots and conspiracies to return England to unity with Rome. As a result, he quickly became ‘public enemy number one’ in the eyes of the English government. Throughout the late 1530s and early 1540s, a number of assassins attempted to capture or kill him. In 1537, Sir Francis Brian even suggested that ‘he would kill him with his own hand’.[5]

In response, Pole appears to have developed his own network of agents to misinform and beguile the English government. Most strikingly, he seems to have been an early pioneer in the use of ‘double agents’. Two such individuals were William Peto, a Franciscan Friar, and Michael Throckmorton, son of a wealthy gentry family. Both Peto and Throckmorton became devoted servants to Pole following their respective exiles in the early 1530s, and remained so until their deaths during Mary I’s reign. However, both also managed to persuade the English government that they remained loyal to the English king, and that they would provide him with intelligence on Reginald Pole’s movements and activities.

Throughout the late 1530s, a government agent, John Hutton, came to believe that Peto was in fact spying on Pole for him. Peto appears to have played the fool, convincing Hutton that he was one whose nature was ‘to utter…what he would keep secret if questioned directly’.[6] As a result, Peto managed to mislead Hutton as to Pole’s movements during the summer of 1537, allowing his true master to escape Flanders where he had been acting on a Papal mission. Throckmorton went even further, managing to fool Thomas Cromwell himself. He fed him various lies mixed with half-truths regarding Pole’s whereabouts and intentions throughout the 1530s. When, eventually, Cromwell realised he was being played, he sent a biting letter: ‘You have bleared myne eye once. Your credit shall never more serve you so farre to deceyue me the second time’. He vowed to exact his revenge – ‘There maye be founde wayes ynow in Italy to rydd a trayterous subject’.[7] Peto and Throckmorton, it seems, deserve to be counted amongst England’s first recorded double agents.

It would appear, therefore, that whilst the events in Salisbury seem alarming and unprecedented, the murky world of international espionage, secret agents and covert assassins has been a part of English history for at least 500 years.

Image: Sir Francis Walsingham, by John de Critz the Elder (public domain)


[1] Stephen Alford, The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I (London, 2012). The BBC series in question was ‘Elizabeth I’s Secret Agents’, released on 23 October 2017.

[2] Sebastian Sobecki, ‘‘A man of curious enquiry’: John Peyton’s Grand Tour to central Europe and Robert Cecil’s intelligence network, 1596–1601’, Renaissance Studies, 29 (2014), pp. 394-410.

[3] Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII [hereafter LP] (21 vols., London, 1862-1932), XIV (ii), no. 694.

[4] LP, XV, nos. 188, 203.

[5] LP, XII (i), no. 996.

[6] TNA, SP 1/128, fo. 101.

[7] LP, XII (ii), no. 795. For more on this episode see Anne Overell, ‘Cardinal Pole’s Special Agent: Michael Throckmorton, c. 1503-1558’, History 94 (2009), pp. 265-278.

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