This article was first published in the May 2010 edition of BBC History Magazine
In April 1787, the French diplomat François Barthélemy wrote to his superiors to excuse his failure to recruit spies to a new network in Britain. Anglo-French relations in the latter part of the 18th century were far from cordial. The two nations fought each other in the Seven Years’ War (1754-63), and then from 1778–83 they were again at war, with France allied to Britain’s rebellious colony in the American War of Independence. Barthélemy’s problem, he insisted, was that during that war, Henri-François de La Motte had been hanged, drawn and quartered for spying on British dockyards. Potential recruits were haunted by his fate.
This was the British intention. Their spies watched La Motte’s network for years before rounding up his agents and letting them squeal. La Motte offered to turn king’s evidence and testify against his accomplices. Instead, his associates testified and were pardoned. This was a shrewd move, calculated to sow fear and mutual mistrust among potential French agents.
One man, however, remained undeterred. In 1781, he volunteered to replace La Motte, was hired on a salary of £1,000, and became France’s chief spy in London. His name was Charles Théveneau de Morande.
The son of a provincial lawyer, Morande fought in the Seven Years’ War. Thereafter he gravitated to Paris, where confidence tricks and pimping subsidised his gambling and whoring. In 1770, he fled to London to escape arrest. There he published a salacious pamphlet attacking Louis XV’s mistress, Madame Du Barry. Then he began blackmailing French notables and threatened to print a scandalous account of Du Barry’s ascent from brothel to royal bed.
An incensed Louis XV attempted to extradite or kidnap Morande. When this failed, the French king decided to strike a deal with his tormentor – and the man he sent to do his negotiating was Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Best known as the dramatist who created Figaro, Beaumarchais was in disgrace in 1774 after losing two high-profile court cases. His best hope of rehabilitation, so he reasoned, was to offer his services to the king as a spy.
It was in this capacity that, shortly afterwards, Beaumarchais employed Morande, helping him run guns to Britain’s rebellious American colonists, watch over British docks, and suppress blackmail pamphlets inspired by his own example.
But what possessed the French government to hire a man like Morande? Diplomatic correspondence suggests that the foreign minister, Charles de Vergennes, hoped to pacify him. However, Vergennes also had a penchant for using rogues and renegades. Such a policy made a certain sense. Dissident Frenchmen might appear above suspicion. Some were even lionised by the British. And they often longed to earn rehabilitation.
Morande had, moreover, long traded in information. His scandalous pamphleteering and blackmailing involved ferreting out secrets. So did his mercantile and stock market speculation, which resulted in valuable contacts among naval captains.
Morande was an energetic, resourceful agent. He could boast that no warship left British ports without his having first announced its departure, and often its precise destination. He provided detailed information on armaments, technical innovations and shipboard practice. He also scrutinised the movements of diplomatic messengers, pumping contacts to learn the content of their despatches.
In addition, Morande recruited workers experienced in making British naval pulleys, which were more efficient than French equivalents. He helped lure the celebrated engineers Matthew Boulton and James Watt to Versailles. And he even suggested acts of industrial sabotage. Learning that a major Lancashire cotton merchant faced bankruptcy, he recommended that the French prevaricate over import payments to exacerbate a credit crisis. His advice was ignored.
In 1784, Morande became editor of the Courier de l’Europe, a French-language newspaper edited in London, a move that further justified his information-gathering. The Courier de l’Europe was reprinted at Boulogne-sur-Mer and circulated widely in Europe. During the American War of Independence (1775–1783), it was denounced in parliament as a “public espionage” for its news of British dispositions. Its exportation was duly banned, but its proprietor – the Scottish naval officer turned entrepreneur, Samuel Swinton – had copies smuggled across the channel and reprinted nevertheless.
Allegations against the Courier de l’Europe were truer than anyone imagined – and covered two-way espionage traffic. For, as well as being a successful businessman, Swinton was a British spy, who used the paper to keep a close eye on Beaumarchais and American representatives in Paris, and to cover his frequent trips to France.
As for Beaumarchais, he employed the paper as his mouthpiece, regularly publishing articles on its pages and sending it anonymous and flattering reviews of his own work.
Even the Americans utilised the Courier de l’Europe to further their diplomatic aims with anti-British propaganda. In fact, it was in the paper that the first French translation of the Declaration of Independence was published.
All the while, Morande used the paper as a French organ, bribing a sub-editor to publish paragraphs conveying coded messages to France.
By this means, Morande avoided confiding important matters to the post. However, he had multiple means to correspond with Versailles. Like fictional spies, he used an invisible ink, concocted from milk. The French provided him with a secret messenger, a Boulogne merchant called de Menneville, who even during wartime visited London on business.
De Menneville’s wife served as a messenger, as did Morande’s English wife, Eliza. To avoid arousing suspicions by frequent journeys, Morande also used other associates to carry his messages. However, this increased the risk of exposure. Lest they be searched, Morande devised a simple ruse: “A false lining of the finest taffeta overwritten with an ink that I prepared specially, was sewn into the clothes of the bearers [of my messages] by my wife, which allowed me during open warfare to speak totally freely without running any of the risks involved in a correspondence by letter.”
Like fictional spies, Morande used an invisible ink, concocted with milk
Once peace was restored in 1783, Morande sometimes took urgent messages to the French embassy in person. From there they would be forwarded in diplomatic bags.
Were the British fooled? Almost certainly not. They had suspicions that Morande was working for Beaumarchais by late 1776, but lacked hard evidence. Thus, when France declared war in 1778, Lord North quietly warned him to quit London. Morande took the prime minister’s hint and moved to Stanmore in Middlesex.
Furthermore, in 1783, a French pamphlet alleged that during the American war, Morande and Beaumarchais had sold out French fleets to the British and vice versa. The pamphlet incensed Morande but had little impact on his paymasters in Versailles. They continued to think highly of him until his return to France in 1791.
There is no reliable evidence to suggest that Morande was a double-agent. More likely the British, suspecting his activities, kept him under surveillance and perhaps occasionally fed him false information. But accurate naval intelligence may also have served their purposes, for it fed France’s determination in an unsustainable naval armaments race. The result was French bankruptcy and a revolution that would destroy both the monarchy and Morande’s espionage career.
Simon Burrows is professor of modern European history at the University of Leeds and the author of a biography on Morande.