Magazine article The Spectator

That Damned Elusive Pimpernel

Magazine article The Spectator

That Damned Elusive Pimpernel

Article excerpt

SECRET SERVICE

by Elizabeth Sparrow

Boydell, L25, pp. 459

For years, the Public Record Office used to say - it would be interesting to know whether tongue-in-cheek or out of ignorance - that no papers had survived from the Alien Office, the 18th-century government department of which the cover was that it handled would-be immigrants. Its more important work was to direct espionage in Europe.

In 1990, an article in the Historical Journal by Elizabeth Sparrow revealed that she had, after all, discovered the Alien Office papers; her book is the result of ten years' beavering among them. The whole history of the world war against revolutionary and Napoleonic France now has to be rewritten.

It turns out that William Windham of Felbrigg, near Cromer, who has left the impression of having been a minor minister, something of a dilettante (what admirable cover, again), had in fact been in charge of the office, and did most of his work through an emissary who dodged to and fro between Switzerland and Neuchatel (then part of Prussia; it did not join the Helvetic Republic for half a century yet), until French conquests forced him to skip ever deeper into German lands, seeking a neutral spot from which he could correspond with his agents farther forward. His name was William Wickham. (Wykehamists are bound to wonder whether he was Founder's Kin.)

His agents were various; some of them mere men of straw, swiftly caught up in French police nets and polished off by Dr Guillotin's new device for executing prisoners; some of them, such as General Pichegru, the conqueror of Holland, in high positions and entertaining the full confidence of the Committee of Public Safety (so far as that body trusted anybody at all), well before Pichegru let his monarchist views go public.

Some of them got entangled in Cadoudal's plot to assassinate the First Consul, young General Buonaparte. Word of this got as high as King George III himself, who belonged to the tiny inner circle that was kept fully informed; he put out a formidable directive that this was not the way heads of state were to treat each other - though this does not seem to have kept some of his ministers from having a distant hand in the assassination of Tsar Paul I of all the Russias. …

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