One of the pleasures of writing fiction is that sometimes real life can be stranger than fiction and in the course of my research into the English Civil War period I have come across many interesting people whose lives read like fiction novels.
However, only one real life character appears in both of my books (The King’s Man and By the Sword)- Cromwell’s Secretary of State, John Thurloe. Thurloe came from a fine tradition of spy masters to the English Court, such as Sir Francis Walsingham and Robert Cecil who dominated Elizabeth’s reign and saved his Queen from assassination on many occasions and as part of his duties as confidante to Oliver Cromwell, Thurloe ran a ruthlessly efficient spy ring.
He began his career as a lawyer and by 1652 had been appointed to the position of Secretary of State. The Commonwealth regime under Cromwell was poised in a precarious position with threats to its stability over continuing dissensions in religion matters and with the underground activities of the royalists both at home and in exile abroad. Over the following years he added the portfolios of “Clerk to the Committee for Foreign Affairs” and control of the post office, enabling easy interception of the mail to boost his intelligence gathering.
Thurloe had no difficulty building his intricate network of agents. They were not hard to find. There were plenty of disenchanted and penniless royalists happy to exchange their former loyalties for regular pay. Names like Joseph Bampfield, Richard Willys, Henshaw and Wildman are all characters who cross my fictional agent, Kit Lovell, in THE KING’S MAN. Richard Cromwell once famously remarked “Thurloe has the ability to find the key to unlock wicked mens’ hearts”.
Colonel Joseph Bampfield in particular epitomises the sort of man recruited by Thurloe. He began as a royalist and is most famous for his daring rescue of the young Prince James from imprisonment by parliament (for more about Bampfield and his lover, Ann Halkett see my blog "For the Love of a Spy” at Hoydens and Firebrands) . He fled to the continent and by the early 1650s was working as a double agent for Thurloe who describes him in his State papers as employed in many ‘weighty affairs’.
Through this web of deceit, Thurloe managed to foil the Ship Inn plot (or Gerard’s plot) which is at the heart of The King’s Man and to infiltrate the famous SEALED KNOT , a secret royalist association whose plot to restore Charles II to the throne was foiled by Thurloe in 1655.
Following the Restoration, inevitably, Thurloe was arrested for High Treason but he was never tried. His extensive knowledge of foreign affairs made him too valuable to the new regime and he was released on the promise that he could be called upon to assist England in its troubles with foreign powers but he was plagued by ill health and died in February 1668 in his chambers at Lincoln’s Inn.
During the reign of William III, workmen discovered the entire collection of Thurloe’s State Papers in a false ceiling during renovations to his former home. These are now readily available online.Like his predecessors, Thurloe’s strength lay in his ability to work behind the scenes and he had the absolute trust and confidence of the Lord Protectors to whom he remained completely loyal, even advocating that Cromwell accept the crown. Above all the temptations of high office, he seems to have remained absolutely honest and true to himself. Even one of his political opponents writing in 1659 said:
“...(Secretary Thurloe)...having taken no man’s money, invaded no man’s privilege, nor abused his own authority, which is and merits to be great, the weight of all foreign and almost all domestic affairs lying on him...And though intelligences have been infinitely chargeable, yet without it, into whose hands had this nation fallen?...”
John Thurloe - the consummate civil servant!
PS My third book, GATHER THE BONES, will be published by Lyrical Press later this year. It is my first venture away from my beloved English Civil War into the shadow of another war...the Great War: Ghosts, mystery and romance set against a backdrop of the English upper class in 1923. If you are enjoying Downton Abbey and would like to read more books set in that period then watch out for GATHER THE BONES!