Queen of spies? Inside Queen Victoria’s secret intelligence network
Victoria controlled an extensive network of intelligence sources that fed explosive revelations to the British government – or direct to her. Rory Cormac and Richard J Aldrich investigate her adventures in espionage
In early 1886, Lord Rosebery, the incoming foreign secretary, waited nervously to meet Queen Victoria. He was a liberal politician in his thirties; she had been on the throne for almost half a century. As the door swung open, Victoria – vastly experienced and unafraid to express her opinion – began lecturing him on exactly what his foreign policy should be. She “urged him not to bring too many matters before the cabinet, as nothing was decided there”. Instead, he should “discuss everything with me and Mr Gladstone”, the prime minister, privately. She told him that she “frequently had intelligence of a secret nature, which it would be useful and interesting for him to hear, and which came from a reliable source”.
Queen Victoria recorded this extraordinary conversation in her diaries. Recently digitised, these paint the monarch in a remarkable new light, revealing her role as royal spymaster. Over her long reign, Victoria developed an extensive royal intelligence network involving her relatives across Europe, from Prussia to Spain. She used this royal intelligence to help successive governments manoeuvre in the complex world of 19th-century European politics.
At least, she did so when it suited her. Whenever ministerial policies clashed with her own dynastic interests, she did not hesitate to use these sources to outmanoeuvre her own governments. Far from the dour figure she’s commonly portrayed as today, clad all in black and locked away at Windsor, Victoria was in fact an adept intelligence gatherer, a covert operator, an analyst and an intelligence consumer all rolled into one. She was the queen of spies.
Listen | Richard J Aldrich and Rory Cormac discuss Queen Victoria’s love of espionage and her network of royal intelligence agents, on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast. (You can listen to an ad-free version here)
Victoria was only 18 years old when she became queen in 1837, and had led a sheltered childhood. As she reached adulthood, though, her uncle Leopold, king of the Belgians, tutored her in some of the darker arts of foreign affairs. In one early lesson on deception operations, he told her that states often intercepted, read and resealed letters. As queen, Victoria could exploit this by writing letters in such a way as to send a deliberate message – accurate or otherwise – to an intercepting state.
For Victoria, this was personal. On taking the throne, she reigned over a vast chasm of spylessness. The Metropolitan Police did not create its first small detective branch until 1842, and the Secret Service Bureau, the forerunner of MI5 and MI6, was still decades away. Her public thought espionage too continental for their tastes, associating it with despots and secret police. Of course, Victoria herself had many continental connections – and she needed intelligence not only to protect her dynasty but also to protect herself.
In the early evening of 10 June 1840, a carriage carrying Victoria and Albert left Buckingham Palace through the garden gate. As they headed towards Constitution Hill, Victoria “was deafened by the loud report of a pistol”. “Our carriage,” she wrote in her diary that night, “involuntarily stopped.”
On the path beside them she saw “a little man”, his arms “folded over his breast, a pistol in each hand”. Quickly, the attacker aimed again, and Victoria ducked as “another shot... equally loud instantly followed”.
“My God!” Albert exclaimed, before quickly regaining his composure and turning to Victoria to tell her: “Don’t be alarmed.” She assured him that she was “not the least frightened” and, as police arrived to seize the assailant, Albert ordered the driver to carry on as if nothing had happened.
The queen was morbidly fascinated by the incident. Over the following days she played forensic detective, examining a nearby wall for bullet marks, speaking at length with the prime minister about the specific bullet used and the height and direction it travelled, and inspecting the pistols that “might have finished me off & perhaps Albert too”.
She insisted on being updated about the investigation, and learned that the police had arrested a young man, Edward Oxford. Intriguingly, they also uncovered letters at his house about a revolutionary secret society named Young England. Oxford claimed that its 400 members included the king of Hanover – who would have assumed the throne had Victoria died – and even Lord Palmerston, the foreign secretary. It turned out to be a figment of his imagination, but it fuelled Victoria’s interest in intelligence, secrecy and intrigue.
Read letter days
Four years later, as undercover policing was evolving in Britain, a major spy scandal erupted. Giuseppe Mazzini, an Italian revolutionary living in London, was communicating with others fomenting revolt in Calabria. Convinced that the British government was opening his mail, he tested his theory by placing strands of hair, poppy seeds and grains of sand in envelopes, sealing them with wax and sending them to himself. Sure enough, they arrived sealed – but without their telltale contents. Incensed, Mazzini alerted a political ally, radical MP Thomas Slingsby Duncombe, who presented a petition about the issue to parliament.
As word of this incident spread, MPs expressed outrage about this political espionage. Such underhand practices, one thundered, were “singularly abhorrent to the genius of the English people”. Soon the home secretary acquired the unflattering nickname “Fouché”, after Napoleon’s police chief who was infamous for his use of political spies.
Victoria needed intelligence not only to protect her dynasty but also to protect herself
In the palace, Victoria was unmoved. She both sympathised with her royal relatives across Europe who faced violent republican revolutionaries, and was unsurprised by the exposés, having become an experienced reader of intercepted letters herself. She wrote in her diary that some were “most impertinent”, others “curious”, while some simply made her laugh. She just could not understand the hysteria provoked by the Mazzini affair, declaring that the home secretary “must have, in moments of difficulty”, the ability to intercept letters.
At the time, republicanism was on the rise. By 1848, revolutions sweeping across Europe were existentially challenging monarchical rule. The British government adopted a position of procrastination and pragmatic neutrality, quietly enjoying the chaos in the capitals of its European competitors. Victoria, by contrast, was agitated. She read report after report from well-placed relatives describing murder across the continent, and worried about the ease with which the revolutions were unfolding.
She was particularly livid when she found out that Palmerston had authorised a covert operation to secretly sell arms to Sicilian rebels fighting against the king of Naples, scrawling in her diary that she was “startled [to learn that] this was done and sanctioned by Lord Palmerston!!” Her private sources told her that leaders across Europe now assumed Britain was covertly supporting rebellion everywhere. In damage-limitation mode, she pushed (albeit unsuccessfully) for Palmerston’s resignation.
Victoria demanded that her government take the threat from revolutionaries based in London more seriously. Her royal intelligence – a network of agents, but also her family and friends across the European capitals, especially in Germany – warned her of “rumours of plots directed from London” aiming for the “assassination of all monarchs”. Her relatives begged her to intervene and instruct her government to step up surveillance or deportation. After hearing of violence in Vienna, she feared for her “dear ones” stuck in the “possession of the mob”, and didn’t mince her words: “These horrible Republicans should be exterminated.”
Frustrated at the lack of action, Victoria increasingly turned to her own sources whenever her dynastic interests clashed with those of the government. In the late 1850s and 1860s, this led her to use a rather special spy in the palace in Prussia. After her eldest daughter, Princess Victoria (“Vicky”), married the future king of Prussia and German emperor Frederick (“Fritz”) in 1858, she began sending back sensitive material from the Prussian court, giving Victoria an advantage over her ministers.
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When war broke out between Denmark and Prussia in 1864 over the disputed regions of Schleswig and Holstein, Victoria used her royal intelligence network to run rings around her government. Palmerston intended to intervene in support of Denmark. Victoria’s sympathies lay with the Germans and, desperate to avoid war with Prussia, she insisted that Palmerston tone down his threats in defence of Denmark.
Vicky’s intelligence proved invaluable in helping the queen rebuff calls for British intervention. She sent bundles of sensitive material on Prussian plans, the progress of battles and weather conditions, and even letters written by her husband’s aide-de-camp. Attempting to undercut rival intelligence channels, Vicky criticised information Britain had gathered through the Foreign Office. She told her mother that the ambassador in Berlin “understands nothing whatever of German affairs”, was “continually misinformed” and used “bad sources”.
Victoria’s sources extended beyond her immediate family. She also drew on intelligence from Laurence Oliphant, a celebrated mystic, author and traveller, who spent time in Schleswig-Holstein and then with Vicky in Prussia before reporting back to the queen in person at Windsor Castle.
She even had her own spy inside the cabinet. Lord Granville was a former foreign secretary who became lord president of the council, a role that brought him into regular contact with the queen. He discreetly reported individual ministers’ opinions back to the palace without their knowledge.
Armed with the latest intelligence and a mole in the cabinet, Victoria managed to persuade the government not to intervene militarily in support of Denmark. In October 1864, Denmark ceded Schleswig and Holstein to Prussia and Austria.
Vicky’s intelligence became more alarming. She warned about the growing power of Otto von Bismarck, minister-president of Prussia. He manipulated the Prussian king and, by 1866, intended to provoke a war with Austria. The Foreign Office were completely in the dark on the matter, underscoring the importance of royal intelligence.
Indeed, Vicky’s intelligence proved to be highly accurate, and so sensitive that she started writing in a code to which even the Foreign Office did not have access. Queen Victoria also began to receive a flood of letters from royal houses across Europe, warning that war was becoming more likely. The duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, for example, boasted of “confidential and trustworthy” contacts in Vienna and Berlin keeping him up to date with “the most secret proceedings”.
Intelligence from Victoria’s daughter was so sensitive that she started writing in a code to which even the Foreign Office did not have access
These communications bypassed the British government – much to the frustration of the foreign secretary. Without telling ministers, Victoria warned the Prussian king about Bismarck’s ambition and deception. “You are deceived,” she wrote, continuing: “you are made to believe that you are to be attacked, and I your true friend and sister hear your honoured name attacked and abused, for the faults and recklessness of others – or rather more of one man.” She insisted the message be hand delivered to evade Bismarck’s spies.
Victoria had assessed the incoming royal intelligence astutely and, fearing war, pressed for intervention. By contrast, diplomats in the Foreign Office clung to the wishful assumption that Germany was heading irreversibly towards liberalism. They failed to properly understand Bismarck, and insisted that war would not break out.
Against Victoria’s wishes, the cabinet advocated strict neutrality. On this occasion, Victoria was not able to persuade them to change their minds. War broke out in June 1866; seven weeks later, it ended in Prussian victory. Even so, Victoria continued to argue against isolationism. She told the foreign secretary that she would share “any private intelligence which she may receive” – or rather, in truth, she would share any intelligence that backed up her stance.
Playing the Great Game
Victoria was less well connected when it came to Russia and the “Great Game” of empire. When her second son, Alfred, married the tsar’s daughter Maria Alexandrovna in 1874, she hoped for similar inside information on the Russian court. Unfortunately, their union did not result in the same kind of intelligence coup achieved by Vicky. For one thing, it was a less-happy marriage, and the couple spent little time in Russia. Alfred managed to supply only the odd titbit from time to time.
Instead, Victoria took a close interest in a different kind of spy: the traveller-cum-adventurer-cum-soldier. One such was Frederick Burnaby, who provided intelligence from the imperial frontline. In the autumn of 1875 he travelled across Russia and central Asia on horseback, evading the twin dangers of Russian officers and frostbite.
On his return to Britain, Victoria summoned him to Windsor to be regaled with tales of his adventures and to hear his intelligence on the Russian threat. The queen listened avidly, agreeing vociferously with his characterisation of Russia as duplicitous and dangerous. In 1877, he sent more intelligence back from the frontline when Russia declared war on the Ottoman empire.
Russia moved troops into the Balkans, leaving Victoria convinced that it had Constantinople firmly in its sights. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, more trusting of the tsar, took Russia at its word – that it would stop short of the Ottoman capital. Armed with royal intelligence, Victoria thought she knew better. This time her secret source was Arthur Balfour Haig, equerry to her son Alfred. She passed the intelligence on to Disraeli – while keeping the source secret – and melodramatically warned that if the Russians reached Constantinople, she “would be so humiliated that she thinks she would have to abdicate at once”.
Throughout the Turko-Russian conflict, the queen was fiercely bellicose towards Russia. Shamelessly, she scoured her intelligence to cherry-pick information, which she then used to manipulate her government into remonstrating with the Russians. On one occasion she quoted a vague report indicating that some source had supposedly heard that Russian artillery had fired on ambulances. This was hardly a slam-dunk, and neither the prime minister nor the foreign secretary was aware of it. So their subsequent admonition of the Russians was, according to her private secretary, “entirely the queen’s doing”.
Demanding ever more intelligence, the queen put constant pressure on the government. The wife of one minister complained that Victoria had “lost control of herself, badgers her ministers and pushes them towards war”. The queen even accused the foreign secretary’s wife of leaking secrets to the Russians, and urged Disraeli to “be bold”, but the cabinet was split. In particular, the foreign secretary was reluctant to get involved.
So Victoria turned to her own covert diplomacy. She sent an unofficial message to the tsar, warning that Britain would intervene militarily if Russia attacked Constantinople. She had not consulted the foreign secretary, so the message deliberately exaggerated Britain’s position – it was a royal bluff. The tsar ultimately backed down, but not until his armies were just days from Constantinople.
“No punishment is bad enough”
By 1881, assassination was back on the intelligence agenda. Victoria was getting older and approaching her golden jubilee when news reached her of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by revolutionaries. “No punishment is bad enough for the murderers,” she wrote in her diary. “Hanging is too good.”
Though the conspirators had no connection to Britain, the assassination resurrected the thorny issue of London’s disinclination to spy on political discontents. Sympathising with beleaguered sovereigns, Victoria wanted to evict all refugees from Britain. The prime minister, Gladstone, was horrified by this very un-British suggestion. However, the anarchist threat only grew and, within the following two decades, terrorists killed French president Sadi Carnot (in 1894) and Empress Elisabeth of Austria-Hungary (1898). Victoria remonstrated that Britain’s willingness to allow “these monstrous anarchists and assassins to live here and hatch their horrible plots in our country” was doing the government “incalculable harm abroad”.
Fearing the anarchist threat, Victoria became an impressively early advocate for international cooperation in counterterrorism
In response, she became an impressively early advocate for international cooperation in counterterrorism. Influenced by the queen’s lobbying, in 1898 the British prime minister, the Marquess of Salisbury, sent a delegation to a conference in Rome to discuss just that. Although Britain abstained from many of the votes, its delegate did agree to increase intelligence sharing across borders. Victoria knighted him for his services.
When Victoria died in 1901, she had spent more than 63 years on the throne. She had enjoyed a remarkable career in her own secret service, of sorts. She had demanded intelligence, wined and dined spies, and conducted her own DIY intelligence analysis – albeit not very objectively. Far from being isolated from politics, Victoria persistently berated ministers, pressing them to be tougher on surveillance. She insisted on access to intelligence received by her ministers, while developing her own private networks that she used to outmanoeuvre her governments. As her reign progressed, she increasingly saw security policy as her own fiefdom. She used intelligence to pursue her own interests, creating tensions between the crown and ministers in the process. Knowledge, after all, is power.
The downfall of the queen's 007How Vicky’s battle of wits with Bismarck ended in failure for the British agent
Prussia’s ambitious leader Otto von Bismarck in 1866. He viewed Queen Victoria’s daughter as a British spy
Princess Victoria (known to her family as Vicky), wife of the Prussian crown prince Fritz, was one of her mother’s most prized assets in intelligence gathering. And Prussia’s ambitious minister-president Otto von Bismarck was under no illusions about her. He saw Vicky as nothing less than an English agent, and interpreted her intimacy with Queen Victoria as potentially treasonous.
He had a point. Vicky wrote to her mother: “I send you all the papers so that you may see what Fritz has done, said and written!” As his influence grew, Bismarck sought to freeze her out. Under constant surveillance from his spies, Vicky, Fritz and the queen increasingly communicated by cypher.
Those efforts became futile as Vicky and Fritz were cut out of the inner circle and their letters contained ever less-sensitive information. By the end of the 1880s, Vicky warned Queen Victoria that Bismarck’s “creatures” had infiltrated her entourage. When she returned from one trip abroad, she discovered that someone had broken into her rooms and searched her desks and filing cabinet.
As tensions grew, the British ambassador warned Vicky not to write anything incriminating on paper. The best spy in Britain’s royal intelligence network had been neutralised, and Victoria’s ability to outmanoeuvre her government dramatically declined.
Rory Cormac is professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham. Richard J Aldrich is professor of international security at the University of Warwick. Their new book, The Secret Royals: Spying and the Crown, from Victoria to Diana, published by Atlantic Books, is available now
This article first appeared in the January 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine