Saturday, 23 May 2015

The Cambridge Spy Ring Scandal, 1951

The infamous Cambridge Spy Ring is one of the biggest scandals to emerge in post war Britain. Unlike the Babington Spy Plot in 1586 it did not end well either.

It first occurs when Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean leave for Russia. The traitors leave many secrets to the Soviet State under Stalin allowing them to discover and execute secret British under cover agents in Russia.

Great interest is aroused by a sense of betrayal and anger at these traitors. Much confusion remains as to who these people are. In an atmosphere of outright suspicion a growing feeling emerges that a ‘Third Man’ must have been involved in tipping off Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean that they were under suspicion. Why else would they attempt an escape?

Something less understood is just how did the two men escape? Well, we now know how they did it and it reveals something about the British secret service at that time. In May 1951 Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean realise they have to leave the country quick or risk being arrested. When Burgess gets to Southampton and tries to board a ferry to France he is recognised by the ferry officer who promptly passes on this information to the MI5 headquarters and soon the intelligence services are in pursuit.

A senior intelligence official goes home to collect his passport so he can take a plane to France and intercept the two men at St Malo where they are meant to be docking. He duly does this and then arrives at the London airport only to discover that his passport is out of date and so there is nothing he can do but abandon the task and allow the defectors to escape.

As a consequence Burgess and Maclean escape to Moscow and Phiby joins them in 12 years. As for the senior intelligence official, White, he is severely reprimanded and yet remarkably goes on to a leading role in  MI5 and later still receives a knighthood.

Intriguingly an alternative interpretation also exists that says actually no mistake was made and that actually White deliberately allowed the spies to escape as he was a double agent himself. According to this theory it is improbable that he could have been so negligent. The spies are allowed to escape to avoid the embarrassment of arresting them and then the public being aware of the spying establishment’s mistakes. There is good evidence for this view. The spymasters, Hollis and White did not tail Maclean over the weekend he left despite him being a suspect at that time. The official line is that the intelligence services are not aware of his escape until Monday when he does not turn up for work.

Even after the escape is apparent the intelligence service still do not bother conducting a full investigation. On 30th May, five days after the defection, Mrs Maclean is interviewed but her home is not searched. This is once again an unusual omission given the gravity of the situation. Perhaps the most frightening thought is that MI5 did not discover who all the traitors were and that some of those who escaped got to the top of the profession and sold the nation’s secrets to the Russians.

If you like this story then you should also read 

The Babington Plot against Queen Elizabeth, 1586


Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Lambert Simnel's Rebellion against King Henry VII, 1487

Henry VII’s great victory over King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth is certainly his most famous but the strangest threat he faces comes from Lambert Simnel.

Henry’s problem post-Bosworth is that he still has many rivals. They feel he has a weak claim to power. In fact all told there are at least 29 others who can legitimately state their claim is better than his. A weak man would have collapsed under all the stresses and strains but according to one contemporary chronicler 'His body was slender but well built and strong; his height above the average. His appearance was remarkably attractive and his face was cheerful especially when speaking; his eyes were small and blue; his teeth few, poor and blackish; his hair was thin and grey; his complexion pale'.

What makes their threats so potent is that not only do they have the intent to overthrow but they also have access to large numbers of soldiers who can ensure they triumph. One major threat for Henry VII comes early on from one of the ‘Princes in the Tower’. This is significant as they are heirs to the throne. During the reign of King Richard III they had been restricted to living in the Tower of London and have mysteriously vanished. Now all of a sudden one of them reappears. As a son of the recent King Edward IV he has far greater legitimate right to the throne. He also happens to bear a strong resemblance to the boy so his claim has added legitimacy.

Many see the Princes as the rightful claimants to the throne. The boy is in fact ten year old Lambert Simnel, a pawn by others to reassert the rival House of York’s claim to the throne over Henry’s House of Tudor. Since Henry VII has only had a brief period in office his regime is not stable enough to stop this threat in its tracks right away. This allows the situation to rapidly degenerate into one that threatens his very right to be on the throne.

The instigator who raises all of this commotion is the 28 year old Richard Symonds, a priest from Oxford. An ambitious man, he secretly pines for the top ecclesiastical position of the Archbishop of Canterbury. One of his pupils happens to be Lambert Simnel. Symonds, a Yorkist, first decides to pass off Simnel as Richard of York, the younger of the two boys but then changes his mind and passes him off as the Earl of Warwick. This is another audacious move as the Earl is also a young boy and had been the heir to King Richard’s throne when Richard was still alive. To make the story seem more plausible his supporters say he somehow managed to navigate an escape from the Tower of London where he had been held under the orders of King Henry VII.

The next step for Symonds is to take Simnel to Ireland where it is hoped that a Yorkist powerbase can develop and act as a springboard to raise revolt across England. Here he is joined by the Earl of Lincoln (the closest heir to King Richard III) and Viscount Lovel who has earlier fled to Flanders to join his Aunt, Margaret of Burgundy.

Margaret of Burgundy plays a key role in fermenting trouble for Henry VII. She is the daughter of King Edward IV and niece of Richard III and so she readily blames Henry VII for slaying her brother in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth. We know about her reputation as contemporary chroniclers  eager to please the King are vociferous in their condemnation of her.  Polydore Virgil, a Tudor historian writes that Margaret ‘pursued Henry with insatiable hatred and with fiery wrath never desisted from employing every scheme which might harm him as a representative of the hostile faction’. Edward Hall goes a step further and states rather graphically that she is ‘lyke a dogge revertynge to her olde vomyte’. Famously King Henry VII describes her as a ‘diabolical duchess’.

It was also here in Ireland that the Lord Lieutenant, the Earl of Kildare, amongst other nobles proclaim Simnel as King Edward VI at Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin on 24th May 1487. For de la Pole (the Earl of Lincoln) this is a chance for himself to assert power as even though he is a supporter of Richard III his real reason for allegiance is his desire to become a Protector of England for Edward VI. As the eldest son of Elizabeth (the sister of Edward IV) by the Duke of Suffolk he has his own claim to the throne. With power safely in his own hands his hope is to rid himself of the ‘King’ at a later date and become ruler of England himself.

This development catches Henry VII by surprise as John de la Pole is one of his councillors at the time when the plot to usurp begins. Even as late as 2 February 1487 after the plot has emerged into the open the Earl of Lincoln is still attending council meetings with the King at Sheen. This act of treachery by such a close advisor helps explain why Henry is such a suspicious and cautious man. On this occasion he has the right attitude as events take an even worse turn for Henry VII when further forces begin to gather against him due to Margaret of York, the Duchess of Burgundy pledging her allegiance to the new ‘King’. Most importantly she sends a force of 2000 expert German mercenaries to Ireland to join the existing forces. This small army itself also happens to be commanded by Martin Schwarz – an able military leader.

A clear sign of the danger Henry is in comes from the senior nobility who now start to waver in their support for him. If his critics and enemies hope that Henry is all washed up they have under estimated the tactical astuteness of him and his determination to maintain his grip on power. Indeed an Italian scholar called Virgil once describes him as being ‘shrewd and prudent so that no one dared to get the better of him through deceit and guile’.

His first step is to march the real Earl of Warwick out of his prison and parade him through the streets of London. In one swift stroke he manages to destroy the credentials of Simnel as a nobleman. Henry then makes a bold rather unconventional decision. Henry is unsure how many nobles are conspiring against him and so he decides to make the conciliatory gesture of pardoning known rebels such as Thomas Broughton. His hope is to limit the extent of the rebellion by appearing fair and reasonable. It is a risky strategy but it mainly works.

All that is left now is to tackle the Earl of Lincoln and his army. Since he has arrived on the 4th June 1487, Lincoln has been seeking support across Lancashire, the Pennines in the north of England and then toward the south. However, Lincoln’s campaign now begins to falter. The locals are suspicious of the Irish soldiers who accompany Lincoln and so they refuse to rally to his cause. Many are also worn out by civil war and seek to avoid trouble.

Finally on June 16th 1487 King Henry VII meets up with Lincoln just outside of Newark at East Stoke, Nottinghamshire. All the measures taken by Henry earlier to limit the threat now take effect as he now has the upper hand. Lincoln’s army stands at 8,000 while Henry has 12,000 men. Battle commences and lasts for three hours in a closely fought encounter.

At the beginning Henry’s forces disperse a shower of arrows on the Irish forces that inflicts massive casualties on them. However rather than be  decimated the Irish decide to attack at full speed downhill right into the thick of the opposing 6,000 troops commanded by Oxford. With the well trained German mercenaries on the side of Lincoln it is a very tight contest as each side tears into the other seeking any advantage possible. The fact that Oxford’s men hold firm is crucial as they manage to regroup and make use of their superior numbers. Lacking armour the Irish are also at a disadvantage and slowly retreat. They ended up being pushed back beyond their starting point and then slaughtered at a bottleneck that becomes known as Red Gutter. The rebels do not lack courage and there is some evidence that rather than escape some of the German mercenaries alongside their Yorkist commanders decide to fight to the death.

By the end of the conflict the rebel leaders Lincoln, Schwarz, Broughton (who had not accepted his pardon) and the leader of the Irish, Thomas Geraldine, are dead and Lovell has disappeared. In total over half of Lincoln’s force die.

With this decisive victory Henry is now back in a commanding position. To cement his position as King in the country on 25th of November his wife, Elizabeth and mother of his heir, is finally crowned Queen. He has the troublesome priest Richard Symonds arrested and sentenced to life in a bishop’s prison. What happens to Lambert Simnel though is much more surprising and again shows how canny Henry is. Rather than execute him and appear callous he takes a magnaminous approach and he gives him a humiliating position in the king’s kitchen as a scullion (washer of dishes) and turnspit (turning a spit beside a fireplace). Henry does this because he recognises that Lambert is not really to blame for what has happened and is merely a puppet. By graciously allowing him to live he is not only showing his generous spirit but also sending out a sign he is so confident he is not worried about allowing a threat to remain alive.

The story does not end here. In later life Simnel is given the post of King’s falconer in recognition of how well he has worked. However those nobles who have opposed Henry fair less well. Twenty eight lose their estates to Henry. This serves a dual purpose. It sends a clear message that anyone who betrays the king will be severely dealt with. 

Henry goes on to face many more threats during his reign but all who challenge him end up losing. No matter what they do he is able to out manoeuvre them and demonstrate what a canny King he really is. If an opportunity arises to gain his vengeance he takes it. A very good example occurs many years later when he meets the Earl of Kildare and some other Irish Lords. These are the same men who had fermented trouble for him in Ireland during the rebellion so Henry takes the chance to mock them with 'My masters of Ireland, you will crown apes at length'. Initially the Irish Lords have no idea what he is talking about so you can imagine their astonishment when it is then explained to them that the person who has brought them their wine is none other than their 'new King Lambarte Symenell’ who ‘brought them wine to drink, and drank to them all'.

If you liked that story then you will also enjoy reading about 

Jack Cade and the 1450 English Rebellion in London