I read the news today, hoo boy, Pt. II

The volume of English newspapers from the decade 1702-1712 is almost overwhelming: probably 20,000 or more data points, once you count up the individual news stories. Yet one of the more humbling realizations from my recent archival jaunt was how much more information was coming into these figures than I had appreciated, on top of the daily newspaper accounts. From previous forays into the Blenheim papers I had seen the vast amount of intelligence being sent to the Duke of Marlborough – a dozen volumes of newsletters, in addition to all of the incoming correspondence from identifiable individuals. The Duke was, after all, Captain-General of English forces (and of the joint Allied army under his command), as well as Master-General of the English artillery, as well as occasional coordinator of English diplomacy for the Netherlands and Germany.

As I prepared for my research trip, however, my investigations beyond the Duke uncovered a number of other archival lodes, many of which have been ignored by the Marlborough literature. (The key, I quickly learned, was to investigate the biographies of the other English politicians of the era. And it doesn’t hurt that most of the British Library’s catalogues are full-text searchable online.) John Churchill was the military center of England’s war effort, certainly, but he was not the only major English figure to profit from a network of agents. Theoretically, anyone of means had their own network based off of patronage, friendship and obligation. Most genteel folk back in England knew someone who was ‘over the hills and far away,’ and undoubtedly they received the occasional account of happenings over there. (The reports of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts are full of such letters.) More robust were the networks created by those at the center of political power. Politicians and ministers in the cabinet, particularly the Secretaries of State (and their under-secretaries), received incoming reports from a whole variety of diplomats and agents. It appears that these networks were somewhat fragile, however, at least the voluntary correspondence dependent on the patron’s position and its perks. One can even, on occasion, pick up the trail across patrons, witness the English agent in the Netherlands who first offered his services to the earl of Nottingham (Secretary of State for the southern department into 1703), and then when Nottingham was put out of office and lost his ability to distribute largesse to his clients, this agent offered his same services to a new Secretary of State, Robert Harley. His son needed a job after all.

Thus there was undoubtedly overlap in the information available to different members of the English policy-making body. Some news items would be passed along by hand or by word-of-mouth (for example between the members of the cabinet), and most anyone could read the papers. Certain correspondents (such as John Laws) would have the honor of having their accounts published in the English papers, even if their names weren’t attached to the byline. Other aspirants, hoping to further ingratiate themselves with their patron, might note that their enclosed account “might be worth putting in the Gazette.” Such a sender might further express his disappointment in a later letter when his translated account hadn’t yet been printed. But much intelligence was also specific to the position and the person: the Secretary of State for the south Nottingham was a natural center for naval news given his long support for an alternative to Flanders, as well as his position in charge of the Mediterranean region. Politics played a part as well, with Whig officers sharing information both political and military with each other, and their Tory opponents doing likewise. As we saw from our earlier English agent at The Hague, information might also come from civilian expatriates with knowledge of the region.

So who else provided this information, beyond friends and subordinates? Often times intelligence consisted of standard reports by responsible agents in the field: generals or diplomats assigned to the theater in question. Most frequently mentioned in the normal military correspondence, as well as the least trusted, were reports from enemy soldiers who had deserted. Other times anonymous camp bulletins were sent describing the latest army movements – examples are readily found in the footnotes of Murray’s Letters and Dispatches:

Bulletin from Marlborough’s army, Murray, ed., Letters and Dispatches

We should note that the above editor excised information from his published versions, as is obvious when you investigate the newsletters sent to the Secretary of State office. Here, for example, is a more detailed version of the above bulletin, with the deleted passages indicated in brackets []: “Our batteries began to play upon Stevenswaert on Saturday last, and continued firing without intermission till about ten last night, when, the besieged having abandoned the counterscarp, and our men being ready to mount the breach, they beat the chamade, and desired to capitulate [whereupon the Hostages being exchanged the articles were this day agreed upon. The Garrison consisting of about four hundred men being to be conducted to Namur.

We found in the town near three hundred barrels of powder, with all manner of stores in proportion, and great quantitys of provisions,We have not lost one officer and not above five or six privat men in the taking of the place, of ye Eneny We reckon fifty kill’d besides the wounded.

We expect every day to hear that the batteries are finished before Ruremonde, and do not question to be masters of the place in four or five days after they begin to fire.
Monr Dopff is gone to Landau to conferr with the King of the Romans and the Prince of Baden about the security of the Upper Rhine, and the measures to be taken to put a check to the further designs of the Elector of Bavaria.]”

More sexy are the spies and secret agents skulking around in holes and corners, ferreting out information. Sometimes a known author will include reports from one of their anonymous sources; rarely will they mention the exact provenance of their source beyond “my man inside the French camp says…,” although I have seen one author brag about how his spy dines with the enemy garrison’s officers. Most mysterious of all are the anonymous accounts, usually in French (already the universal language in western Europe c. 1700), and as likely to be filled with news from all different regions as limited to their particular location. You can learn a lot about the fragility of early modern information from the numerous reports of the latest and least tidbit of news, regardless of its hearsay source and age. Finally, information sometimes came from intercepted letters – archivists often kindly separate such collections into their own volumes for easy perusal. The Brussels postman Jaupain, for example, provided the Allies with numerous intercepts. Similarly, a pro-French Dutchman was captured with letters bound for London – a fruitless investigation was launched to discovered his co-conspirators, sleuthing which extended to a comparison of the handwriting of the seized documents with other intercepted correspondence.

As for what these sources divulged, this ranges from army movements, to reactions to recent events, to plans and projects. Those involved with naval affairs received reports of every vessel of war entering and leaving port, sometimes including the number of guns on-board and the intended destination. Lucien Bély’s work on Espions et ambassadeurs (1990) is the place to start if one wishes to understand how early modern espionage c. 1700 operated. John Rule’s review of Bély’s work (“Gathering Intelligence in the Age of Louis XIV,” International History Review from 1992) does a good job of summarizing the various types of intelligence available to early moderns. To quote his review: “The gatherers of intelligence may conveniently be divided into seven categories: those in the immediate war zone; agents secreted at or near strategic sites; spies on missions; gadflies, living at court or in major urban centres; deep-seated spies – in modern parlance, moles; diplomats recruited by a foreign power; and the spy-masters, who direct field operations.” We can learn as much about the collators and receivers of this information as we can about those being reported on.

To be continued…

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2 responses to “I read the news today, hoo boy, Pt. II”

  1. jostwald says :

    I should also note that there is another almost-verbatim copy of the long-form camp bulletin to be found in the letterbooks of Adam Cardonnel (secretary to Marlborough). A letterbook was a book into which a secretary would copy outgoing correspondence, so as to keep a record. Presumably, therefore, either Cardonnel or someone close to him wrote the original newsletter and sent it to the Secretary of State’s office. A photograph of the handwriting of this original newsletter might help identify the author, but that would require the British Library to allow photography in its reading room.

  2. jostwald says :

    Another letter of interest, illustrating the attention some contemporaries paid to news reliability, dated 10/21/1704 London (so presumably O.S.):
    “The letters from Paris of the 24th by the Holland mail – of Tuesday last which came yesterday – bring a confirmation of the retreat of the Portuguese from the river Agueda near Ciudad Rodrigo, which they were not able to pass by reason of the works made at the fordable places on the banks of that river by the Duke of Berwick, and the opposition he gave them; and the Paris Gazette says that their cavalry advanced into the plains on the other side of the river, but could not draw the enemy to a battle, and that one hundred of their horse rencountered five squardrons of English dragoons which covered the march of the Portuguese army, and made them retire with precipitation; but says that on the 8th the whole Portuguese army appeared again, but made no attempt. But this account being loose and romantic we may expect a different one by our next Lisbon mail.” From The Manuscripts of the Marquess of Portland, vol. 4, p. 141.

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