First hand spy quotes

For Your Eyes Only: hearing first-hand from secret 17th century papers

There is nothing like a first-hand account to get an historical novelist excited. For me, the secret papers of John Thurloe, Oliver Cromwell’s spymaster, have been a treasure trove. Hidden until the beginning of the 18th century, workmen only came across them when they dismantled a false ceiling in his former chambers at Lincoln’s Inn, London.

In my first book, Thurloe has a cameo appearance but has not yet risen to power. You can read more about him on Alison Stuart’s excellent blog: Spies, Agents and Mr Secretary Thurloe. Fortunately for me, the collection includes many papers from my novel’s timeline.

Both sides of the story

In August 2013 I spent a whole week going through the papers available at British History Online for 1653. It was a little tricky as everything is bundled together. At first glance it is difficult to work out which side the writer is on. However after a while I started seeing short-cuts. For example the Parliamentarians call Charles II ‘Rex Carolus’ or R.C. rather than King.

Sometimes the plots play out in front of you. Intercepted letters from Royalists show they were suspicious of someone. And then the government papers reveal that the suspect was indeed a traitor to the exiled King.

Intrigues across a continent

The many mentions of Ratisbon, Regensburg and Brandenburg opened up my eyes as to how Charles II was desperately scouring Europe for money and support. The following line from an intercepted letter from a Royalist exile is now uttered by one of my characters:

We are casting a hook in every pool and hoping to catch a little fish at least in all.

An insight into life at court

These first-hand accounts are a brilliant mix of gossip and politics in action. Paris in particular is an extremely good source for this. The following, with some changes, is now reported in a news pamphlet in my novel:

The last night there had like to be a most sad accident. The king, duke and prince Rupert being a swimming, prince Rupert had like to been drowned had it not been for Hamilton, that saved him when he was quite gone under water, took him up by the hair of the head, and swam ashore with him.

The image of Prince Rupert being dragged out of the Seine by his hair is rather at odds with his dashing reputation.

Mystery characters

A blessing and curse of research is how so many tantalising avenues open up. Take this quote from a Parliamentarian in Rome in May, 1653:

There is no public agent or minister now from R.C. but from his mother. The old Scottish man remains always, but is little active at present.

Oh, how I itch to find out the identity of ‘The old Scottish man’. Maybe he’ll appear in my next book…

My favourite first-hand voices

These are pinned up by my desk. If I’m floundering, they remind me that things haven’t changed that much in three hundred and sixty-odd years.

From the suffering…

It breaks my heart to be out of action, and live under a power which is so hateful to me.

Written by ‘Little John’ of London to Monsieur Flecher in Paris during 1653.

…to the partying

To end on a more light-hearted note, here’s an excuse from a Royalist in Paris:

I am sorry I have not time to send you a cypher, by reason I am going to a ball, that is to be before the court tonight.

Plus ça change, mes amis.

About the author

H.J. Reynolds has finished the first in the series of novels about Royalist spies in Oliver Cromwell’s England. An unpublished author, she is now seeking an agent. Please contact her on helen[at]