The Secret Royals by Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac review – spying and the crown

On a March evening in 1974, having shot and wounded Princess Anne’s protection officer and driver, Ian Ball began remonstrating with her to get into his white Ford Escort. “I want £2m," Lui ha spiegato, “will you get out of the car?” “Not bloody likely, and I haven’t got £2m,” she replied. A prolonged argument ensued, with Ball occasionally shooting at curious individuals who had wandered over to see what the fuss was about. After some minutes, and having been punched in the back of the head by a passing heavyweight boxer, Ball fled into St James’s Park, where he was eventually rugby-tackled by the police, who had belatedly turned up. Afterwards Anne said she had “lost my rag” with Ball only after he accidentally ripped her dress. “A very good story,” prime minister Harold Wilson observed in the margins of his report on the affair. “Pity the palace can’t let it come out.”

This single episode, according to the book, encapsulates the disturbed chancers, hapless security professionals, stone-cold sang-froid, and brainless secrecy by senior officials that characterise the royal family’s relationship with the world of espionage through the ages. Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac’s fascinating history argues that modern intelligence evolved out of efforts to prevent Queen Victoria being assassinated, though their account begins earlier with snapshots from a golden age of British espionage under Elizabeth I. This period bears all the hallmarks of the spy thriller: rival intelligence houses feuding for the monarch’s favour, handlers running networks of European assets, and serial bunglers frantically reinventing themselves as double or triple agents to stave off trouble.

Dopo, Victoria forges her own intelligence network by exploiting Europe’s byzantine web of royal marriages. One of her best sources was her daughter Vicky, Oms, in marrying the future German emperor Frederick III, not only notches up a win for the dynasty but proceeds to regularly dispatch vast quantities of incendiary gossip in letters to her mother, some of which she even enciphers, which Victoria duly passes on to her government. By the end of the 19th century a full-on Smiley-v-Karla war of the spymasters is playing out between Victoria and Germany’s Chancellor Bismarck, each attempting to manipulate European royalty for the benefit of their respective nations.

In contrast, nobody emerges from the book in a more unflattering light than Edward VIII. He is grasping, lazy, greedy, dishonest, unreliable, antisemitic, unbelievably self-pitying, treasonous and so untrustworthy that at one point his own father has him placed under surveillance. The recently abdicated king and his dreadful wife, Wallis Simpson, cause trouble for Britain with such determination that they occupy almost the entirety of the book’s account of the second world war.

Simpson declares that France fell to the Nazis because it is “internally diseased”. The German ambassador relays Edward’s encouragement of the blitz, describing his “certainty that continued heavy bombing will make England ready for peace”. As war spreads across Europe the couple hedge their bets in dogged pursuit of whatever might best suit their own fortunes: socialising seemingly exclusively with Nazi sympathisers, issuing naked endorsements of American neutrality, and even setting themselves up as replacement monarchs in the event of a successful German invasion of England. Those who know the Windsors only as the high-society fops of The Crown will get a thorough insight into what a determinedly nasty pair the two of them were.

After the war, Codename 2519 – better known as better known as Elizabeth II – ascends to the throne. With the British empire in decline, and royal influence over intelligence policy heading in the same direction, the family reinvent themselves as crack diplomatic assets to be deployed on government missions. One measure of how successful this was is that the shah of Iran was very nearly persuaded to resist efforts to overthrow him in 1953 after receiving an urgent message “from Queen Elizabeth” imploring him to fight; it subsequently emerges that the message is actually from Anthony Eden, on board the ship “the Queen Elizabeth”.

The book’s most enraging passages are those documenting the Windsor family’s appalling attempts to iron the creases out of history by intercepting or incinerating important documents. Nel 1946 the royal historian Anthony Blunt (later exposed as a Soviet agent) and librarian Owen Morshead are dispatched to hoover up documentation across postwar Europe, including further letters from Vicky. Four decades later Princess Margaret describes – to a biographer, of all people – burning so much of the Queen Mother’s correspondence that “it made her eyes water”.

The authors remark that “writing about spies is challenging; writing about royals is more difficult; and writing about spies and royals has sometimes seemed impossible.” Much of that difficulty has been by design, and in their closing notes the authors even describe the Windsors as “enemies of history” for their efforts to prune branches of Britain’s national story that they consider personally unflattering. But Aldrich and Cormac are not so easily dissuaded, and through unbelievably thorough research – all of it fully referenced for grateful future scholars – they have compiled something comprehensive and compelling.

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