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Intelligence in the middle ages


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#1 kingmaker

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Posted 07 August 2006 - 08:50 AM

By Queen Elizabeth's time, Francis Walsingham and Robert Cecil had set up a spy network across both the country and the continent, but I don't think anything so sophisticated existed in medieval Britain. How was intelligence gathered in the middle ages? Before taking the field a commander would send out scourers or "scouts", as they are known, to watch and report enemy movements, but this was only a short term precaution for the battle that might take place in a few days or even hours. In the long term commanders would also want to know who was plotting against them, the chances of rebellion at home or of invasion from abroad. I believe diplomats and envoys at foreign courts were a main source of information; this was certainly the case of the Italian Dominic Mancini who came to England in 1483, and of some other diplomats caught trying to send illegal letters during Henry VIII's reign. Quite surprisingly the "spy" Dominic Mancini was actually an Augustinian friar (working for the French King Louis XI). Is appears though that this was not so uncommon a practise for men of religion at the time: apparently in England the wandering Dominicans, sworn to poverty, earned a fair bit of money by spying in the different households where they stayed! ;) ;)

The King and important noblemen had numerous "agents" in their service. These could be men who constantly stayed alert and listened for alarming or interesting gossip, sending important news when their master was to far away to hear it for himself and also men who today we certainly would call "spies"; servants and retainers who had betrayed their masters for money.

Does anybody have any more info to share? I've never really read anything on intelligence during the middle-ages - the information I've got is just bits and pieces of info mentioned here and there in some of my books, nothing the authors have looked at seriously.

Edited by kingmaker, 07 August 2006 - 08:53 AM.

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#2 Melisende

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Posted 09 August 2006 - 03:23 AM

Diplomats / ambassadors were frequently used as I believe were religious clerics. What could be more disarming than a travelling poet / troubador. Just about anyone could be employed as a spy for whatever purpose.

What do you think of the suggestion that the playwright Kit Marlowe was one of Walsingham's spies, and that his death was "staged" (pardon the pun).
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#3 kingmaker

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Posted 09 August 2006 - 05:55 AM

Yeah I've heard that theory before...it’s interesting, but I'm not sure if I buy it, simply because I have difficulty believing that a great writer like Marlowe would be prepared to abandon his work, just so he could dedicate his life to spying.

That he did work as a spy occasionally is generally accepted, but him “staging” his own death and changing his identity etc sounds a bit far fetched.

Some writers even claim that when the theatres were shut Shakespeare did the odd bit of spying… ;)
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#4 Melisende

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Posted 12 August 2006 - 06:35 PM

Have you read:

"The Elizabethan Secret Service" by Alan Haynes (Pub. Sutton 1992)

It may give some references to earlier spy networks that were the forerunners to Walsingham and Cecil.
~~~ Melisende

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#5 Melisende

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Posted 04 September 2006 - 04:53 AM

I'll also add "Elizabeth's Spymaster" by Robert Hutchinson.
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#6 Erik

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Posted 27 February 2007 - 10:04 PM

Does anybody have any more info to share? I've never really read anything on intelligence during the middle-ages - the information I've got is just bits and pieces of info mentioned here and there in some of my books, nothing the authors have looked at seriously.


Don't forget the Mongols. They conversed with travellers and merchants expressing great interest in every aspect of life in other parts of the world, which of course belonged to the Kha-khan. So when Mongol toumans crossed the Don river into Europe the commanders knew who ruled every area they entered. who their allies were, who they were married to, their religious affiliations, the numbers and types of their fighters, the strength of their fortifications and the topography of the area. Marco Polo was flattered at the fascination of Kublai Khan for news about Europe.