Crown, Cloak, and Dagger: The British Monarchy and Secret Intelligence from Victoria to Elizabeth II (Georgetown Studies in Intelligence History)

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Release Date: 
September 1, 2023
Georgetown University Press
Reviewed by: 

“a remarkable and fascinating read, made possible by the author’s extraordinary access to royal and official government archives only recently opened to researchers.”

Americans have long been fascinated with two legendary British institutions, the Royal Monarchy and the British Secret Service. In this enthralling new volume, the authors plumb the long-standing efforts of the British monarchy to gather, understand, and ultimately exploit intelligence to defend both the crown and the realm of the British Empire, sometimes on their own, sometimes in conjunction with other elements of the British government and security services.

Queen Victoria was the first modern British monarch to take a deep interest in using intelligence not only for the benefit of her station and the empire, but for her own protection. In addition to the information provided by her Foreign Office, Victoria had her own private intelligence network, brilliantly created by marrying off her daughters to the various royal houses of Europe, setting up a prolific royal system of gathering gossip and social news from the capitals of Britain’s allies and rivals.

The ultimate example of her success was marrying off her eldest daughter Victoria, known as Vickie, to the Crown Prince of Prussia. Her daughter was keen to provide systematic reports to her mother on the state of Prussian politics, so much that she was suspected of being a spy by members of the Prussian military. Victoria also faced multiple assassination attempts during her long reign, most incompetently carried out, but all of which gave her a strong desire to begin what would ultimately become Special Branch, the group within the British police responsible for counterespionage and counterterrorism.

Victoria’s son Edward VII continued her fascination with spies and espionage as he dealt with two major foreign policy issues during his brief reign, the disastrous Boer War and the rise of Germany as a European and aspirational global power. Edward, who had a reputation as a womanizer and dilettante, did not have the relationships with his royal relatives that Victoria did, and he was not privy to nearly the same level of information that Victoria had officially received by the government. However, Edward did spur the creation of Britain’s first Secret Service Bureau, the forerunner to the modern British Secret and Security Services.

When he died in 1910, his son George V inherited a splintered and suspicious Europe divided into two armed camps on the verge of war. Just prior to the outbreak of World War I, the Secret Service Bureau was divided into a domestic security branch, the modern MI5 and the foreign intelligence service, the modern MI6. Although both organizations grew in size and capability as the war went global, Britain’s biggest intelligence challenges during the war were not the Central Powers of Germany and Turkey but the political challenges to George’s lineage and growing restlessness leading to revolution in Russia.

George faced great suspicion during the war because of his family’s German lineage and continued continental royal ties, forcing George to change the family name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to the modern Windsor still carried by King Charles III. More importantly, George V was caught up in numerous plots to first keep Russia in the war, and then to try and rescue his cousin Czar Nicholas II from the new Bolshevik government.

This intrigue includes compelling evidence that the new MI6 was involved in the assassination of Rasputin, the mad monk of the Russian Royal Court, and numerous unauthorized attempts to secret Nicholas out of Russia prior to the murder of the entire Russian Royal family, setting the stage for decades of animosity between the British Crown and the Russian Communist regime.

When George V died, Britain began its greatest royal crisis of the 20th century, the scandal of Edward VIII and his love affair with American divorcée Wallis Simpson. The question of whether Edward had to abdicate to marry his lover created a crisis between the Prime Minister and members of Parliament who were in favor of Edward VII retaining the throne. Mixed in with this intrigue were continuing contacts between Edward and Walls and members of Hitler’s Nazi regime and prominent British fascists, including Oswald Mosely. Readers may be surprised to find that during the abdication crisis of Edward VII, Britain’s MI5 tapped the phones of not only Edward, but his brother, now King George VI and Wallis Simpson because they considered Edward and his lover security risks.

When World War II broke out, the relationship between the Royal Family and the intelligence services deepened as the now Duke of Windsor and his American bride were shuffled off to anonymity as much as possible to hide their Nazi and fascist sympathies. King George VI became very involved with the contributions made by Britain’s robust intelligence, security, and new code-breaking services and was keenly aware of their contributions to the Allied war effort.

During the Cold War and beyond George’s daughter Elizabeth II had a remarkable relationship with the intelligence and security services, surviving nearly as many assassination plots as her great-great grandmother while navigating the treacherous scandals of the Cold War, particularly the Cambridge spies, one of whom—Anthony Blunt, was the Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures. The queen’s keen interest in foreign policy and active participation in overseas diplomacy brought her into contact with many U.S. Presidents as well as a succession of Prime Ministers, making her privy to some of the most significant secrets of the Cold War.

The book ends with the inevitable chapter on the many conspiracy theories about the involvement of the Royal Family, especially Prince Philip, and the British Secret Service in the death of Princess Diana. Although the authors break no new ground, they acknowledge there are still plenty of questions to keep the conspiracy alive.

For both aficionados of the royal family and serious students of the history of intelligence, this is a remarkable and fascinating read, made possible by the author’s extraordinary access to royal and official government archives only recently opened to researchers. It reads almost like an Ian Fleming novel, who was, of course, at one time almost employed as a royal speech writer. Truly sometimes life does imitate art.