King Charles: Royal Patron of Intelligence Agencies Has a Long History With Spies

King Charles has long been fascinated with secret operations and spying. He served in the Royal Air Force and Navy for five years and as Colonel-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment. So when news photographers staked out the Royals on holiday at Balmoral Castle in Scotland in 1982, the paparazzi were hoping for a few lively, candid shots and a front page exclusive. Instead, while photographers hid in the long grass, Charles stretched out on a riverbank at Balmoral Castle reading physicist Reginald Victor Jones' memoir, Most Secret War, about WWII and the origins of electronic espionage.

The King has always been reflective, so it seemed natural in 2011 when the Monarch was appointed 'Royal Patron of Intelligence Agencies' on the recommendation of Britain's MI5, MI6, and GCHQ spy agencies. But what exactly does that mean?

On His Majesty’s Secret Service

In January 2023, King Charles visited GCHQ’s Northwest Hub in Manchester for a briefing by the British signals intelligence agency responsible for cyber espionage. In 2018, 10 days after Russian GRU double agent Sergei Skripal was poisoned with the deadly nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury, England, Charles again met with the security services. Even as far back as the 1990s, the Royal was visiting MI5 chief Stella Rimington at the spy agency's Thames House HQ in London to discuss espionage.

Red box of spy secrets

As Monarch, King Charles receives regular security briefings from the spy agencies along with the daily ‘red box’ of secrets - including intelligence reports, Cabinet papers, and secret reports from Commonwealth countries - delivered wherever in the world he may be.

King Charles is also be keen to visit the agencies regularly to see first-hand how they are handling the day’s national security threats and to examine historical spy artifacts such as the NOREEN cipher machine used onboard the Royal Yacht when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was overseas or her BRENT key for the secure telephone system.

On the ceremonial side, Charles also hands out top-secret gongs to Britain’s elite spies. Since 2011, he has presided over the annual ceremony at the state apartments of St James's Palace or Clarence House to reward the country’s top agents with citations and awards.

"In a dark world where life often hangs by a thread, these awards are the equivalent of a secret Victoria Cross - for acts of gallantry or ingenuity that we will never hear about," said author and intelligence expert Rory Cormac.

King Charles: Royal Patron of Intelligence Agencies Has a Long History With Spies

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King Charles has long been fascinated with secret operations and spying. He served in the Royal Air Force and Navy for five years and as Colonel-in-Chief of the Parachute Regiment. So when news photographers staked out the Royals on holiday at Balmoral Castle in Scotland in 1982, the paparazzi were hoping for a few lively, candid shots and a front page exclusive. Instead, while photographers hid in the long grass, Charles stretched out on a riverbank at Balmoral Castle reading physicist Reginald Victor Jones' memoir, Most Secret War, about WWII and the origins of electronic espionage.

The King has always been reflective, so it seemed natural in 2011 when the Monarch was appointed 'Royal Patron of Intelligence Agencies' on the recommendation of Britain's MI5, MI6, and GCHQ spy agencies. But what exactly does that mean?

On His Majesty’s Secret Service

In January 2023, King Charles visited GCHQ’s Northwest Hub in Manchester for a briefing by the British signals intelligence agency responsible for cyber espionage. In 2018, 10 days after Russian GRU double agent Sergei Skripal was poisoned with the deadly nerve agent Novichok in Salisbury, England, Charles again met with the security services. Even as far back as the 1990s, the Royal was visiting MI5 chief Stella Rimington at the spy agency's Thames House HQ in London to discuss espionage.

Red box of spy secrets

As Monarch, King Charles receives regular security briefings from the spy agencies along with the daily ‘red box’ of secrets - including intelligence reports, Cabinet papers, and secret reports from Commonwealth countries - delivered wherever in the world he may be.

King Charles is also be keen to visit the agencies regularly to see first-hand how they are handling the day’s national security threats and to examine historical spy artifacts such as the NOREEN cipher machine used onboard the Royal Yacht when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was overseas or her BRENT key for the secure telephone system.

On the ceremonial side, Charles also hands out top-secret gongs to Britain’s elite spies. Since 2011, he has presided over the annual ceremony at the state apartments of St James's Palace or Clarence House to reward the country’s top agents with citations and awards.

"In a dark world where life often hangs by a thread, these awards are the equivalent of a secret Victoria Cross - for acts of gallantry or ingenuity that we will never hear about," said author and intelligence expert Rory Cormac.

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King Charles: The Royal Patron of Spies Has a Long History With Espionage
The King met GCHQ Director Jeremy Fleming, succeeded by Anne Keast-Butler

A lifetime of spies

The King’s life has been populated with spies. Three days after King Charles III was born in 1948, Britain’s diplomats assembled at the Foreign Office to discuss worrisome development in the Cold War with the Soviet Union.

Plans for a hypothetical WWIII and the possibility of nuclear fallout followed in the years ahead. In the event of war, the Royal Family - including the then-teenaged heir, Charles - were reportedly to be granted special protection under plans to travel to undisclosed destinations to prevent the monarchy from being wiped out in one blast.

US President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 further worried Royal security, particularly as King Charles was to begin studying at Cambridge University in 1967. As the young prince cycled around town, his security team followed in a beaten-up Land Rover at a discreet distance, pretending Charles was just another student.

King Charles: The Royal Patron of Spies Has a Long History With Espionage
King Charles at the University of Cambridge in 1967


Thwarted kidnapping

The security team stepped in when a group of female students from another university - described as 'strident women's libbers' - planned to kidnap Charles and hold him for ransom, according to The Secret Royals. A royal bodyguard also occupied a room at Trinity College, according to Cambridge's magazine Varsity, and attended the same lectures as the then-Prince, although - despite the urban myth - the bodyguard did not take the exams.

By the time Charles was studying at Aberystwyth University in Wales in 1969, Britain's intelligence services were increasingly concerned about violent Welsh nationalism and the threat of terrorism. A Special Branch Unit was established to focus specifically on the threat to Charles.

Even after the attempted kidnapping of Princess Anne in 1974, security remained lax by today's standards. Charles reportedly had two Royal Protection Officers but at the time the royal cars lacked bulletproof glass, armor plating, and decent radio communications.


King Charles: The Royal Patron of Spies Has a Long History With Espionage
King Charles served in the Air Force and Navy (1971-1976) before marrying Diana in 1981


Bomb threats and intelligence fears

The death of Lord Mountbatten in a bomb assassination in Ireland in 1979 was a wake-up call and a particularly difficult time for Charles, who confided in his diary that he viewed Mountbatten as a combination of grandfather, great uncle, father, brother, and friend: “Life will never be the same now that he has gone.” 

His security ramped up again following the marriage of Lady Diana Spencer and Prince Charles in 1981. A memo held in the FBI files detailed a bomb threat investigated in the US at the time and, in the Spring of 1981, Britain’s security services intercepted and defused a letter bomb addressed to Prince Charles, according to Lilibet: An Intimate Portrait of Elizabeth II by Carolly Erickson.

Shots were fired at the prince during his visit to Australia in 1994, coming within a meter of the royal - although dramatic television coverage of the shooting shows the prince remained calm (unlike his bodyguard). 

It appears King Charles may have been unaware of an enemy spy within the palace, however. While still a prince, Charles wrote a letter of support to KGB spy and double agent Anthony Blunt, seemingly unaware that the royal art historian was a member of Britain’s notorious Cambridge Five ring exposed as Moscow spies during the Cold War, according to Love and Deception by James Hanning. 

King Charles: The Royal Patron of Spies Has a Long History With Espionage
The Monarch travels with a team of royal protection bodyguards

Special events and royal spies

In 2010, King Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall - now Queen Camilla - found themselves in the midst of one of the biggest security breaches in years. Their car was attacked by a mob of rioting students in London during a protest over rising tuition fees. Protestors cracked a window, threw paint at their car, and jabbed the Duchess in the ribs. Three years later, Scotland Yard shelved their inquiry - without arresting the two main suspects.

Since then, during special events such as the 2012 London Olympics or the 2018 wedding of Prince Harry, Britain’s security services reportedly work with specialist royal protection teams, armed officers, and the military as part of overt and covert plans.

Daniel Craig and King Charles


Bonding over Bond

King Charles is a fan of action and adventure as well, much like his father and Queen Elizabeth II, so he couldn't resist an invitation to drop by Pinewood Studios outside of London to meet 007 actor Daniel Craig in 2019. They bonded over eight classic 1960s Aston Martin DB5s. After watching rushes from the 25th Bond movie, Charles also toured the set of Q's gadget workshop.

While he may not be a boy racer, Charles has had his eye on the DB5 since his 21st birthday when the monarch gave him a stunning present. You may not be surprised to hear that the environmentally-conscious Monarch modified his Aston Martin DB5 to be powered by bioethanol - made from surplus plants at an English vineyard.


King Charles' new team

When King Charles III became the nation’s monarch in September 2022, he inherited the Queen’s security team including Major Jonathan Thompson who served with the 5th Battalion Royal Regiment of Scotland. Thompson was also among the procession accompanying Her Majesty's coffin from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall during the September 19, 2022 funeral.

According to Thompson’s LinkedIn profile, he has served in the British Army since 2006 prior to graduating from Aberystwyth University in Wales where he studied economics, international politics, and intelligence. Wherever King Charles goes now, Britain’s spies follow - unless, of course, they arrive first.

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