Tom Ayling - Secret Service Payments Book

Tom Ayling - Secret Service Payments Book

Who pays for all the King’s secrets? In between the lines of a tired old accounts ledger, a hidden history of espionage and scandal lies in wait. Antiquarian bookseller Tom Ayling and host Alice Loxton guide us through the secret affairs of King William III - with direct access to the payments that he kept away from prying eyes.
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A History of the World in Spy Objects, Episode 16: Tom Ayling - Secret Service Payments Book

NARRATOR: What are the objects that define espionage? What secrets lie hiding in plain sight? I’m Alice Loxton, and this is A History of the World in Spy Objects. Conventional wisdom dictates that one should never judge a book by its cover. It's a rule of thumb that holds particular merit in the field of espionage, where subterfuge is the name of the game. And yet every rule must have its exceptions.

TOM AYLING: So the book we're looking at is bound in vellum and in quite grand black letter to the upper cover we have a title which reads Accounts of His Majesty's Secret Service Monies by the hand of William Lowndes Esquire [beginning in April 1695]. 

NARRATOR: The book sitting before us declares its purpose quite plainly. It's right there in black ink on the cover. Royal Secrets lie within. Those relating to the reign of one William III, at the dawn of the 18th Century.

TOM AYLING: And it's an object that is so redolent of espionage from that black letter title, Accounts of His Majesty's Secret Service Monies, which feels pretty close to the title of a James Bond novel.

NARRATOR: And yet the book in question is far more revealing about the nitty gritty of espionage than even the most esteemed work of spy fiction. At least if you know how to read it.

TOM AYLING: The fascinating thing about this document is that when we open it up and look through it line by line, column by column, and record by record, the state secrets don't come tumbling out of the page. We have to go looking for them. And that's because bibliographically speaking, this is a plain book, a very diligently kept account book in the hand of the Secretary of the Treasury. And the payments it records does cover some rather banal ground, but if you know how to seek out the clandestine activities that lie within as well, you can find the espionage, the counterintelligence, and the scandals. 

NARRATOR: All you need, to bring those clandestine details to vivid life, is the right interpreter.

TOM AYLING: I'm Tom Ayling. I'm an antiquarian bookseller which means I deal in rare books and manuscripts and historical objects just like the one we're looking at today.

NARRATOR: When Tom Ayling gets his hands on a book like this one, he feels the past rushing right into the present day. It's what drew him to this line of work in the first place.

TOM AYLING: Unique objects like this, without which we wouldn't have this record of events both grand and scandalous, is what attracts me to traveling the world to hunt out rare books and manuscripts.

NARRATOR: So enough messing around already. What exactly does this old tome reveal? First, you'll need a primer on the British king to whom it belonged.

TOM AYLING: King William III came to power following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, where he usurped the English throne from James II, who was the brother of Charles II and son of Charles I who was executed at the end of the English Civil War in 1649. The key thing about William III was that he was already king of the Netherlands and was a leading Protestant figure in Europe. And although in name Charles I and James II were supposed to be Protestant kings, they were both in practice and in private, Catholic rulers. And there was huge uncertainty and unrest about the treatment of Protestants in England and the closeness of James II to what was then the European superpower - which was Louis XIV's Catholic France - and that is the ground that precipitated William III coming to the throne in 1688.

NARRATOR: And so, King William III seized the throne with promises of better representation of his country's true interests. But that doesn't mean he abandoned all of his predecessor's habits.

TOM AYLING: The Secret Service accounts don't begin with William III. There are Secret Service accounts under his two predecessors, Charles II and James II. In fact, the Secret Service accounts in those days were far more lavish. The mistresses of Charles II outnumber any of his predecessors and the payments made to them do that as well.

NARRATOR: Indeed the mere existence of a Secret Service payments book during William III's reign is no smoking gun. It's not like every entry in this lodger points to some hidden act of cunning. Much of the book is in fact rather humdrum.

TOM AYLING: The Secret Service accounts as they are, although we use the term ‘secret’ now to think of it as a kind of MI5, MI6 organization, secret back then had this twin meaning. You've got ‘secret’ in the sense of espionage - in the sense of withholding information, in the sense of duplicity. But you also have the more traditional definition of ‘secret’ from the Latin secretus, to secrete information, to separate it, to set it apart. And that is very much what these accounts do. They are payments set apart from Parliament, made at the king's discretion without that Parliamentary oversight. And therefore they can include banal things like paying for stationery and paying for couriers.

NARRATOR: But if that's all there was to be found in this ledger, well then you wouldn't be hearing about it today.

TOM AYLING: The first thing to bring up is something that was written about William III by one of his contemporaries, Bishop Burnett, and that is that he had no vice but one sort, in which he was very cautious and secret. Historians have debated for centuries, since William's own day, about what this vice might be. But the common consensus now is that the vice was a woman in his wife's household by the name of Elizabeth Villiers. Their affair began in the 1670s, long before William came to the English throne, and their relationship continued through the Glorious Revolution right up until the death of William's wife Mary in 1694. Now, it's said that just before Mary died, she burned all her private correspondence and wrote William a final letter to be opened and read after her death. And in it, she implored him to dismiss Elizabeth Villiers from his service. 

NARRATOR: But the question is, did he fulfill his wife's dying request? Tom Ayling believes we may be able to answer that question with this very book.

TOM AYLING: Because just a week apart in the summer of 1695, we can see two payments made to Elizabeth Villiers, totaling a sizable £1,900, and these are recorded in the book as His Majesty's Free Gift and Royal Bounty. And after this, we don't see a payment made to Elizabeth Villiers again. Instead, from the following June, we see payments made to Elizabeth Countess of Orkney - £500 that June, another £500 that July, and £2,500 in September. In the meantime, as the name change suggests, she had been married off to a brave soldier, George Hamilton, the Earl of Orkney. Now, it's said that William never saw Elizabeth Villiers in public again after the death of Mary and after her marriage, but we're left to guess at any potential lingering affections because, even after 1695, we can track through the Secret Service accounts payments made to Elizabeth of Orkney totaling £4,000 a year.

NARRATOR: Elsewhere in the ledger, the revelations stray away from King William III's personal affairs and enter the realm of the geopolitical. 

TOM AYLING: Both before becoming King of England and afterward, William III was locked in conflict with the great superpower of the period, Louis XIV of France. And the impact on Britain of this conflict after he came to the throne was considerable. In 1694, the Bank of England was founded to help bankroll this very conflict. And so William, in addition to this, used the Secret Service accounts to pay French spies, to gather intelligence at the French court on his behalf.  And we can see one record very early on in this book made to a man called Monsieur Louis Puel, a Frenchman. And this is recorded as a payment made for foreign Gazettes and intelligences furnished to the Treasury Lords, being at the rate of two pistoles a month.

NARRATOR: A pistole being a French coin, for a French traitor. In times of war, a monarch was required to use every available weapon at his disposal, and espionage was nothing short of essential.

TOM AYLING: And it's not uncommon looking at this situation, the ongoing Nine Years War with France, that you would have French spies in the English court, but one of the most regular payments of the book is a rather mysterious one, and it appears in the record book usually as follows, ‘Marguerite Godet, Widow for Foreign Gazettes and Intelligences’. Her name appears 22 times as we look through this book, at regular quarterly intervals, paying her £5 and five shillings, or an annual salary of £21, which begs the question, why is this French widow being paid money so regularly by William III? And that's because she was married to Gideon Godet, who was employed as a British envoy to the court of Louis XIV and fulfilled his role as a spy, both to William III and to previous English monarchs because we see his name come up in earlier Secret Service accounts.

NARRATOR: The story of Gideon Godet is a fascinating one, one that sheds light on the mechanics of espionage at the tail end of the 17th Century.

TOM AYLING: In the spring of 1684, he was sent as a secret envoy on behalf of the Hudson Bay Company to recruit a French explorer, Pierre-Esprit Radisson, into their service. And the bargain he made with Radisson was a salary paid by the Hudson Bay Company, lodgings in London, and marriage to Godet's daughter. So Radisson ended up moving to London, living with the Godets, becoming their son-in-law, and being one of some 50,000 Huguenots who fled Catholic persecution in France. Godet's role throughout this period is fascinating, not just as spy but as spycatcher. So we're not just seeing an intelligence operation here. We're also seeing a counterintelligence operation recorded in this document. He thwarted spies working for the French crown, including one who was paid the handsome price of 100 crowns a month from François-Michel le Tellier, who was Louis XIV's secretary of war.

NARRATOR: To scroll through this centuries-old ledger, line by line, is to grow more and more acquainted with William III as both a man and a monarch. There are thousands of entries. Each one contains some kernel of a story.

TOM AYLING: One that stood out to me from a book history perspective is something that is slightly counterintuitive to one of the narratives that is often told about the Glorious Revolution. It's often heralded as a significant event for British freedoms. We get the Bill of Rights in 1689, but when we look at the entries in the Secret Service account book, we can see that this is not always the case. There is a payment, for example, to one John Gellibrand for his role in suppressing the British press and his entry reads that he is receiving payment for discovering a private printing press in Fetter Lane according to a certificate of Sir William Trumbull, one of his principal secretaries of state, pursuant to His Majesty's proclamation of the 13th of September 1692. So what's this saying in plain English? The proclamation that this private press discovered by Gellibrand is going against is one made for the better discovery of seditious libelers.

NARRATOR: In other words, William III was happy to invest the Crown's coin into finding and shutting down those who might speak against him. Evidently, he was not immune to the paranoia that so often sneaks in with power.

TOM AYLING: So we aren't just seeing payments made for foreign spies and secret lovers. We're also seeing those made to people doing the king's dirty work for him and being handsomely rewarded for doing so. 

NARRATOR: That a document like this, with all of its profound insights, has survived for three centuries is no mere accident. 

 TOM AYLING: One of the interesting things about this book is how it's come to be where it is today, which is to say its provenance. The book was completed in 1702, but later that century it comes up at auction by Samuel Baker, who was the founder of Sotheby's. And interestingly, the book was bought not by a random book collector, but by the son of the man who wrote it. It was bought by Charles Lowndes, who was one of William Lowndes - remember William III's Secretary of the Treasury - one of his 25 children. Charles Lowndes himself would go on to follow in his father's footsteps and become Secretary to the Treasury later in his life.

NARRATOR: Not every hidden record of the Monarch's secret affairs survives for future generations to pore over. But this one did.

TOM AYLING:  And the remarkable thing about this book is that it's still here. Many such documents and the secrets that they contain are lost to the ravages of time, be it fire, flood, or neglect. The survival of documents like this is uncertain and isn't guaranteed. And it's probably largely in part to the fact that the first buyer of the book at auction was the son of the man who wrote it, and keeping it in those safe hands means that over three centuries later we can explore the secrets that it contains.

NARRATOR: I’m Alice Loxton. More secrets await in the next episode of A History of the World in Spy Objects.

Guest Bio

British antiquarian bookseller Tom Ayling deals in rare books, manuscripts and historical objects.

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