When I set about to write an actual spy story set in Napoleonic France (which became The Unforgettable Mr. Darcy) I decided to do some research on real espionage of the era. British and French spies pop up all over Regency romances, and I was curious how accurate these depictions were. To my surprise, I discovered that there’s a shocking dearth of research on the topic (at least in English). You can find out anything you want to know about the various battles of the Napoleonic wars and what the soldiers wore or shot, but information about actual espionage activities is hard to find—in part because governments don’t tend to keep accurate records of secretive activities.
I did discover one researcher who had written extensively about British espionage, and her research surprised me; the history of British espionage was quite different than I had assumed. There was a lot less cloak and dagger and a lot more suborning of people in authority. Much of what she had learned was by “following the money” and learning who was paid for which activities.
British espionage activities (the secret service) were run through the Alien office (part of the Home Office) which was operated by a magistrate named (ironically enough) William Wickham. Wickham’s focus was on finding support—particularly within France—for the restoration of the French monarchy, although they were hampered by internal strife within the monarchist movement (the king insisted on an absolute monarchy while Britain and other countries thought a constitutional monarchy was a better idea). The agency tried to disrupt France internally by infiltrating its civil and military governments with royalist supporters, securing the loyalty of a number of French generals who committed their troops to the royalist cause.
The British government paid for these secret armies by funneling money through banks in Paris and Hamburg. Money was also sent to French rebel movements in the Vendee, Normandy, and Brittany. By 1800, the secret government account for the Alien Office had spent 3.8 million pounds; it’s hard to imagine how much that would be in today’s terms.
The secret service created a network of spies within the Parisian gendarmerie and the elite haute police force. There is some evidence that Joseph Fouche (pictured), Paris’s well-known minister of police, was aware of some of the espionage activities and allowed them to continue—even if he was not an official double agent. For example, he promoted Antoine Talon to the haute police despite suspicions of his loyalty; the British agent practically ran the agency for three years until his arrest in 1803. British agents also had such complete access to official government channels that they kept on hand blank passports with signatures from multiple high French officials, so their agents could travel freely through France.
The secret service also helped one faction of the French royalists form the “English Committee” in Paris. The Committee was responsible for several assassination attempts on Napoleon’s life—the most famous of which was the Rue Nicaise bombing on Christmas Eve 1800. By 1803 the Committee had detailed plans in place for Napoleon’s kidnapping or assassination. These plans almost certainly could not have remained in place without Fouche’s tacit complicity.
The service’s biggest success was thwarting a domestic insurrection: an incipient Irish rebellion led by agents supported by the French government. The English placed agents in Ireland to infiltrate the organization. This enabled them to arrest the rebellion’s leaders in 1798 before the actual rebellion took place.
Napoleon had planted agents of his own. One double agent arrived in England with his own false plans for overthrowing the French government. Aware of the ruse, the British government created an elaborate counter plan that was designed to fool the French authorities into believing the British had fallen for their trick. For months they created correspondence and moved agents around Europe with the purpose of deceiving Napoleon’s agent.
It is difficult to say to what extent the secret service’s efforts helped to bring about Napoleon’s eventual demise since it is the nature of espionage to have unseen effects. Most likely the agency’s efforts helped to sow the seeds that eventually led to many French citizens to switch to the royalist cause, but at the time eventual success was attributed to diplomacy and conventional warfare. Eventually the office was disbanded because it had spent too much money, but it is considered one of the forerunners to today’s modern espionage agencies.