John Hardyng: Henry V’s secret agent

In the latest instalment of our occasional series profiling remarkable yet unheralded characters from history, Sarah Peverley introduces a royal spy and cartographer who witnessed some of the 15th century’s most extraordinary events

John Hardyng, a royal spy and cartographer who witnessed some of the 15th century's most extraordinary events. (Illustration by Sue Gent for BBC History Magazine)

The horse was tired. Its wounded rider had pushed through Scotland’s landscape for days. He couldn’t risk stopping again, not after attracting the wrong kind of attention in Ayr. The Scots were still in pursuit and he had to reach England by nightfall. Mustering all their strength, horse and rider pressed on through the Scottish Marches – a desolate place, home to bandits and reivers. But the rider was alert, scanning the hills for signs of ambush.

It was 1421 and for three-and-a-half years John Hardyng, a 43-year-old English soldier, had been living “among the enemy”. Travelling the length and breadth of Scotland on a secret mission for Henry V of England, his assignment had been two-fold. First, he had to map the terrain and report on the best route for an invading army. The king wanted to know what kind of roads were suitable for an army to ride, what towns stood on the east sea-side, and where his fleet could meet him with his supplies and all his artillery. Hardyng was also to seek evidence proving Scotland had no right to independence. Henry V, like many English monarchs before him, believed Scotland was part of his ancestral inheritance. Once Henry’s war with France was over, the fruits of Hardyng’s reconnaissance would help him pursue the Scottish crown.

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