.
I

t should be no surprise to regular readers of these reviews that I am a self-confessed anglophile. Having lived, studied, and worked in London, I came to adore my adopted home and all of its quirks. Living in the United Kingdom, one thing I never fully understood, but grew to appreciate was the Royal Family and its role in life and politics.

For an American, it is a decidedly curious institution. Sure, the pomp and circumstance are both delightful and impressive, but it is simply so far removed from an American understanding of politics and society that it is hard to fully appreciate—the unwritten constitution, the power of the monarchy, the feelings of pride, disinterest, or disdain the crown can inspire. There is no analogous institution in America, one that is both fundamentally a part of the political landscape, but inherently separate by tradition, design, and consequence. The office of the presidency today is no longer revered as having the impeachability of George Washington; and Congress, well, these days one would be forgiven for thinking there are undoubtedly kindergartens that are both better informed and better behaved.

"The Secret Royals: Spying and the Crown, from Victoria to Diana" | Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac | Atlantic Books | October 2021.

The Crown captures the imagination almost as much as British intelligence. Due in no small part to Ian Fleming and James Bond, but also the rich history of subversion, deception, and covert action, Britain’s spies are as much a feature of the cultural landscape as they are part of the “Great Game.” Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac bring both worlds together in their delightful new book, “The Secret Royals: Spying and the Crown, from Victoria to Diana”.

Despite the title, this is not about the Queen parachuting from helicopters, as a stand-in did with actor Daniel Craig at the opening of the 2012 Olympics (brilliantly choreographed by Danny Boyle). Rather, it is about the real intersection of proper intelligence and the royal family, a subject that is so fascinating and thrillingly told by the authors, that it doesn’t need to borrow any gadgets from Q or sophistication from 007.

Aldrich and Cormac have found a particular niche, one that ticks all of the proverbial interest boxes for me: intelligence and espionage? Check. Its intersection with British politics and history? Check. Great Britain’s history and role in the world? Check and check again. Individually, they are exceptional historians and writers—Aldrich’s “GCHQ” is a fascinating look at the signals intelligence organization and Cormac’s “Disrupt and Deny” is a deep exploration of the UK’s approach to covert action. Together, they are a literary force with which to be reckoned.

I was first introduced to this duo via their outstanding book “The Black Door” which explored the relationship between the UK’s intelligence establishment and the revolving door of prime ministers at 10 Downing Street. A massive tome of a book—I had to order the hardcover copy after receiving the paperback as a gift, out of fear I would crack the spine—it was a riveting and breezy read. When I found out there was a sequel of sorts in the works, I was eagerly clicking refresh on both Amazon UK and Waterstones waiting for the pre-order to open. After a lengthy trans-Atlantic journey, including a mysterious “shipper delay,” the book finally arrived and it was well worth the wait.

“The Secret Royals” is deeply researched (with over 40 pages of endnotes) and an incredibly rich book that is about more than just the intersection of the crown and the intelligence services. It is also a history of the establishment and professionalization of the intelligence services, the evolution of the constitutional monarchy, and a royal history of global politics. That Aldrich and Cormac manage to pull these threads together so successfully is a testament to their skill. There isn’t a page that doesn’t have some fascinating anecdote or piece of trivia. It is a compelling read and one that again belies its physical heft.

Given its breadth and depth, it’s hard to do this book proper justice in so short a review. From Elizabeth I’s competing sources and networks of intelligence to Victoria’s use of familial connections across the continent to obtain information—a network that far surpassed her own embryonic official channels and included her daughter Vicky, married to Germany’s Fredrick III—through to Queen Elizabeth II’s modern mastery of espionage both as a consumer of information and as an adjunct to SIS’ overseas efforts, Aldrich and Cormac leave few stones unturned.

“The Secret Royals” goes beyond the primary school history lessons and offers depth on some of the more interesting episodes in British history. The abdication of Edward VIII and his flirtation with fascism, for example, was far more complex than cursory histories present. It was fascinating to read just how fearful the Royal Family and 10 Downing Street were about his dalliances, and that of his wife, Wallis Simpson, with Nazi collaborators. Indeed, the Nazis hoped to use the one-time king as a potential counter to George VI. “The Secret Royals” presents a fuller picture of Edward VIII as far more vile, self-absorbed, and greedy than the history books otherwise offer, conduct which is mildly echoed by the recent behavior of some royals.  

On the other side of that relationship was the noble and consequential role that George VI himself played in supporting Operation Fortitude, the military deception campaign aimed at protecting the invasion of Normandy. Planners used the king’s movements as part of a screen to throw Nazi intelligence off as to where and when the invasion would happen, a role the king very much enjoyed. Indeed, he and many within the Royal Family were enamored with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the Political Warfare Executive (PWE).

It is also interesting to read how late the professionalization and modernization of Britain’s intelligence services was. Indeed, it wasn’t really until Edward VII that what we would consider to be formal arms of intelligence began to form, and even then, it was limited at best to officer-adventurers on the frontiers of empire and efforts to prevent the assassination of the monarch. This is ironic, given the great lengths that Elizabeth I went to ensure a consistent flow of information about what was going on in Europe, information that was largely provided by competing intelligence privateers on their own, at potentially ruinous or fatal expense.

Photo via Unsplash.

Monarchs found themselves facing similar dilemmas to today’s intelligence practitioners: whether to disclose obtained information for propaganda value, versus waiting and acting on it accordingly. Surprisingly, despite the demonstrable value of human intelligence, the early days of royal intelligence were more consistently focused on cryptography and code-breaking than anything else.

Perhaps equally as surprising is the reality that the concept of royal protection was very ad hoc and even after an attempted kidnapping of Princess Anne in 1974 by a mentally unstable man, and the IRA’s assassination of Lord Mountbatten in 1979, the hardening of security around the Royal Family was slow to develop.

“The Secret Royals” also reinforces the impressiveness of the reign of Elizabeth II—from her unexpected rise to heir to the throne after the abdication of Edward VIII and her father’s assumption of the throne to her coronation in 1953 to today. From the Suez Crisis in 1956 through to the last days of the Empire, and onto the 21st Century, she has been and remains a constant in Great Britain. In nearly every one of the events of the 20th Century the Queen played a key role, questioning, advising, and probing her government’s policies. In many cases, she was better informed than her ministers as to what the country was doing overseas. In one anecdote recounted by Aldrich and Cormac, she meets with the CIA’s Jack Devine, the Director of Operations at the time, asking “How are my boys treating you?”—clearly indicating she knew who he was and what his real position was. Indeed, here, she helped bring the intelligence services out of the shadows.

That the book closes largely surrounding Princess Diana, her death, and the allegation of conspiracy surrounding the events of Paris is unsurprising. One imagines that there is notably less in the public record about the royal family and its interactions with SIS, MI5, and GCHQ beyond appearances at the relevant headquarters than about years past. Yet, it is tantalizing to think and wonder how the royal family has adapted to the changes of the last 20 years, the struggle of Great Britain to find its place in the world, Brexit, and more. This is, perhaps, rich ground for another book in 20 years’ time.

“The Secret Royals” is a delightful book and is one of my favorites of 2021. It is an exceptionally well-written story about a fascinating subject that is vastly more thrilling and compelling than most spy novels—and what’s more, it’s all true.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

For Queen and Country

Photo by Neil Martin via Unsplash.

November 27, 2021

The Crown captures the imagination almost as much as British intelligence. Due in no small part to Ian Fleming and James Bond, but also the rich history of subversion, deception, and covert action, Britain’s spies are as much a feature of the cultural landscape as they are part of the “Great Game.”

I

t should be no surprise to regular readers of these reviews that I am a self-confessed anglophile. Having lived, studied, and worked in London, I came to adore my adopted home and all of its quirks. Living in the United Kingdom, one thing I never fully understood, but grew to appreciate was the Royal Family and its role in life and politics.

For an American, it is a decidedly curious institution. Sure, the pomp and circumstance are both delightful and impressive, but it is simply so far removed from an American understanding of politics and society that it is hard to fully appreciate—the unwritten constitution, the power of the monarchy, the feelings of pride, disinterest, or disdain the crown can inspire. There is no analogous institution in America, one that is both fundamentally a part of the political landscape, but inherently separate by tradition, design, and consequence. The office of the presidency today is no longer revered as having the impeachability of George Washington; and Congress, well, these days one would be forgiven for thinking there are undoubtedly kindergartens that are both better informed and better behaved.

"The Secret Royals: Spying and the Crown, from Victoria to Diana" | Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac | Atlantic Books | October 2021.

The Crown captures the imagination almost as much as British intelligence. Due in no small part to Ian Fleming and James Bond, but also the rich history of subversion, deception, and covert action, Britain’s spies are as much a feature of the cultural landscape as they are part of the “Great Game.” Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac bring both worlds together in their delightful new book, “The Secret Royals: Spying and the Crown, from Victoria to Diana”.

Despite the title, this is not about the Queen parachuting from helicopters, as a stand-in did with actor Daniel Craig at the opening of the 2012 Olympics (brilliantly choreographed by Danny Boyle). Rather, it is about the real intersection of proper intelligence and the royal family, a subject that is so fascinating and thrillingly told by the authors, that it doesn’t need to borrow any gadgets from Q or sophistication from 007.

Aldrich and Cormac have found a particular niche, one that ticks all of the proverbial interest boxes for me: intelligence and espionage? Check. Its intersection with British politics and history? Check. Great Britain’s history and role in the world? Check and check again. Individually, they are exceptional historians and writers—Aldrich’s “GCHQ” is a fascinating look at the signals intelligence organization and Cormac’s “Disrupt and Deny” is a deep exploration of the UK’s approach to covert action. Together, they are a literary force with which to be reckoned.

I was first introduced to this duo via their outstanding book “The Black Door” which explored the relationship between the UK’s intelligence establishment and the revolving door of prime ministers at 10 Downing Street. A massive tome of a book—I had to order the hardcover copy after receiving the paperback as a gift, out of fear I would crack the spine—it was a riveting and breezy read. When I found out there was a sequel of sorts in the works, I was eagerly clicking refresh on both Amazon UK and Waterstones waiting for the pre-order to open. After a lengthy trans-Atlantic journey, including a mysterious “shipper delay,” the book finally arrived and it was well worth the wait.

“The Secret Royals” is deeply researched (with over 40 pages of endnotes) and an incredibly rich book that is about more than just the intersection of the crown and the intelligence services. It is also a history of the establishment and professionalization of the intelligence services, the evolution of the constitutional monarchy, and a royal history of global politics. That Aldrich and Cormac manage to pull these threads together so successfully is a testament to their skill. There isn’t a page that doesn’t have some fascinating anecdote or piece of trivia. It is a compelling read and one that again belies its physical heft.

Given its breadth and depth, it’s hard to do this book proper justice in so short a review. From Elizabeth I’s competing sources and networks of intelligence to Victoria’s use of familial connections across the continent to obtain information—a network that far surpassed her own embryonic official channels and included her daughter Vicky, married to Germany’s Fredrick III—through to Queen Elizabeth II’s modern mastery of espionage both as a consumer of information and as an adjunct to SIS’ overseas efforts, Aldrich and Cormac leave few stones unturned.

“The Secret Royals” goes beyond the primary school history lessons and offers depth on some of the more interesting episodes in British history. The abdication of Edward VIII and his flirtation with fascism, for example, was far more complex than cursory histories present. It was fascinating to read just how fearful the Royal Family and 10 Downing Street were about his dalliances, and that of his wife, Wallis Simpson, with Nazi collaborators. Indeed, the Nazis hoped to use the one-time king as a potential counter to George VI. “The Secret Royals” presents a fuller picture of Edward VIII as far more vile, self-absorbed, and greedy than the history books otherwise offer, conduct which is mildly echoed by the recent behavior of some royals.  

On the other side of that relationship was the noble and consequential role that George VI himself played in supporting Operation Fortitude, the military deception campaign aimed at protecting the invasion of Normandy. Planners used the king’s movements as part of a screen to throw Nazi intelligence off as to where and when the invasion would happen, a role the king very much enjoyed. Indeed, he and many within the Royal Family were enamored with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the Political Warfare Executive (PWE).

It is also interesting to read how late the professionalization and modernization of Britain’s intelligence services was. Indeed, it wasn’t really until Edward VII that what we would consider to be formal arms of intelligence began to form, and even then, it was limited at best to officer-adventurers on the frontiers of empire and efforts to prevent the assassination of the monarch. This is ironic, given the great lengths that Elizabeth I went to ensure a consistent flow of information about what was going on in Europe, information that was largely provided by competing intelligence privateers on their own, at potentially ruinous or fatal expense.

Photo via Unsplash.

Monarchs found themselves facing similar dilemmas to today’s intelligence practitioners: whether to disclose obtained information for propaganda value, versus waiting and acting on it accordingly. Surprisingly, despite the demonstrable value of human intelligence, the early days of royal intelligence were more consistently focused on cryptography and code-breaking than anything else.

Perhaps equally as surprising is the reality that the concept of royal protection was very ad hoc and even after an attempted kidnapping of Princess Anne in 1974 by a mentally unstable man, and the IRA’s assassination of Lord Mountbatten in 1979, the hardening of security around the Royal Family was slow to develop.

“The Secret Royals” also reinforces the impressiveness of the reign of Elizabeth II—from her unexpected rise to heir to the throne after the abdication of Edward VIII and her father’s assumption of the throne to her coronation in 1953 to today. From the Suez Crisis in 1956 through to the last days of the Empire, and onto the 21st Century, she has been and remains a constant in Great Britain. In nearly every one of the events of the 20th Century the Queen played a key role, questioning, advising, and probing her government’s policies. In many cases, she was better informed than her ministers as to what the country was doing overseas. In one anecdote recounted by Aldrich and Cormac, she meets with the CIA’s Jack Devine, the Director of Operations at the time, asking “How are my boys treating you?”—clearly indicating she knew who he was and what his real position was. Indeed, here, she helped bring the intelligence services out of the shadows.

That the book closes largely surrounding Princess Diana, her death, and the allegation of conspiracy surrounding the events of Paris is unsurprising. One imagines that there is notably less in the public record about the royal family and its interactions with SIS, MI5, and GCHQ beyond appearances at the relevant headquarters than about years past. Yet, it is tantalizing to think and wonder how the royal family has adapted to the changes of the last 20 years, the struggle of Great Britain to find its place in the world, Brexit, and more. This is, perhaps, rich ground for another book in 20 years’ time.

“The Secret Royals” is a delightful book and is one of my favorites of 2021. It is an exceptionally well-written story about a fascinating subject that is vastly more thrilling and compelling than most spy novels—and what’s more, it’s all true.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.