Tag Archive | intelligence

Because you never know who’s reading your mail

Apropos past posts on intelligence, I just came across a Japanese website that has an English page on the codes and ciphers used by the English during the Spanish Succession.


Presumably the webmaster has an interest in historical cryptography (why not? why not indeed). With the exception of a few dozen pages on various early modern ciphers and codes (including American Revolutionary), the rest of the site seems to be in Japanese. Apparently ciphers are a subject best discussed in English.

For the hell of it, I include my own small contribution:

English cipher cheat sheet

I read the news today, uff da, Pt. IV

Just finished the first week of classes, and it looks like I’ll shoot for one post per week as a reasonable pace. I’ll try to schedule it for every Monday, to get in a rhythm. Comments always welcome.

Concluding our discussion of early modern intelligence.

So, what to do with all this intelligence left behind by our early moderns? Most obviously, we can mine such intelligence reports for the details relating to any specific event: the siege of Stevensweert, the battle of Ramillies, or what have you. But we can also generalize a bit. To wit: Read More…

I read the news today, oy vay, Pt. III

The connection between print and manuscript. One intriguing question is the extent of overlap between these (often anonymous) newsletters being sent from foreign locales and what ends up getting published in the English newspapers. Before the last decade, this question was of minimal importance since few people had access to the large number of newspapers published in the early 18C. But newspaper databases have now made the question more relevant to scholars. The degree of correspondence between print and manuscript is particularly important since we often assume that archival sources are more ‘reliable’ than contemporary published news accounts. But is it always better to find the archival version? Are newspaper accounts as good as the archival versions, if only because they are more easily accessible, and because they were read by a much broader public than most archival documents? Perhaps newspaper accounts might even have information unavailable in the archives? Inquiring minds want to know.

Stevensweert (Schenk)

To expand our vision a little further in this regard, we can return to our example of the English report of the capitulation of Stevensweert. Here are a few of the printed accounts of the conclusion of the siege, just to give an idea of the amount of detail available to the English public at the time.

First, from the London Gazette of Sept. 24-28, 1702:

London Gazette on Stevensweert surrender

This account is almost exactly the same as the newsletter sitting in the archives, which we quoted in the previous post, and far more detailed than the excerpt included in Marlborough’s Letters and Dispatches. The verbatim quotation is only natural: the original newsletter was sent to the Secretary of State, in whose office the Gazette was produced.

A similar account was published in the Daily Courant on the same day (September 28):

Daily Courant on Stevensweert

The London byline, the fact that the account was published in the Daily Courant on the same day as it appeared in the London Gazette, as well as the fact that almost all of the details are exactly the same in both (including the number of men and barrels of powder) all suggest that the original newsletter’s content was shared by the Secretary of State’s office with the publisher of the Courant. A more detailed investigation of the publishers/editors of the paper might elucidate the connections further. A more sustained analysis would be useful in identifying the amount of overlap between the various papers.

An account from the Post Man of Sept. 26-29, 1702, published a day later, likely came from a slightly different account. The byline is different, the town is referred to as “St Stevenswaert,” and the account leaves out a few details present in the other version, but also includes the terms of the surrender:

Post Man on Stevensweert

Note as well that the London Gazette and the Post Man illustrate the mixed terminology used: the Allied camp vs. the Confederate camp. My sense is that the term ‘confederate’ was much more common in the 9YW and ‘Allied’ in the WSS, but I haven’t explored the matter in great detail. In the secondary literature historians almost always use “Allied,” possibly because “Confederate” is so closely linked to the American Civil War?

Several other papers (the Flying Post, the English Post) failed to mention the surrender at all, at least that I could find in my quick search, while the Post Boy has only a passing reference in an unrelated news item. But the lack of coverage shouldn’t be too surprising. Stevensweert was a relatively minor siege, as is suggested by the frequency with which reporting on the siege was combined with news of the near-contemporary siege of Roermond (Ruremond).

The above reports also offer slightly different perspectives: letters from the army camp (themselves reporting news received from the siege camp before the town), and a letter written in London summarizing several accounts from the army camp. There were four English regiments serving at the siege, but apparently none of them wrote accounts back home, or at least not to people who could quickly put them in the papers.

For comparison, we can see how this minor siege was treated in other accounts published soon after. First, a campaign journal from 1704 (A Short but Impartial Account of the most Remarkable Occurrences and Transactions of the two last Campaigns in the Netherlands) provides the most detailed treatment:

“…. The 16th, Lieutenant General Count Noyell, the Right Honourable Earl of Orkenay, Major General; Brigadier Withers, with the Honourable Lieutenant General Stewart’s Regiment, and Collonel Howe’s, were detached to the Siege of Stevenswaert, a small Town, but naturally strong, being surrounded with the River Maese, here very rapid, besides all that, such Scituation might make requisite, Art fully supply’d.

The 18th our Batteries Play’d, and on the 20th it Surrender’d. The Garrison consisting of two Batallions.
This Siege was carry’d on by Barron Troigny Ingeneer. The loss we sustain’d at both Towns was inconsiderable.”
This journal was intended as a self-standing campaign narrative, thus spent more time setting up the relative strength of the town while truncating the details of the siege itself. As is often the case, this English account only bothered to mention the English-pay regiments participating in the siege. Its identification of the engineer Trognée by name is relatively rare among English accounts. Another journal, An Exact Journal of the Actions of the Allies this Campaign in Flanders (published 1703) disposed of Stevensweert by merely mentioning that it withstood twelve days of siege.

Other published summaries of the 1702 campaign spanned hundreds of pages, yet spent even less time on Stevensweert. Abel Boyer’s History of the Reign of Queen Anne for 1702 (published 1703) included only the briefest summary of the siege: “… Stevenswaert, a fortified Place, seated on the Maese, about 5 miles from Ruremond, to the South, was taken also by Capitulation…” David Jones’ A Compleat history of Europe for 1702 was equally dismissive of the event: “During the Siege of Ruremond, Stevenswaert, a Town strongly fortified, and standing upon the Maes, about Five Miles from Ruremond to the South, was also taken by Capitulation upon honourable Conditions much to the same effect with those that are usually given in the like Cases, and so we need not repeat them in this Place.” [The Present State of Europe paper, essentially an English version of the semi-official Dutch Europische Mercurius monthly, used Jones’ wording almost exactly, indicating another connection between that newspaper and later accounts. Whether this borrowing was approved or not, plagiarism was rife in the period: Boyer’s History of the Reign of Queen Anne (published 1715) justified his compilation with the complaint that others had “made free with about two thirds of my History of King William, without either a compliment to me, or the least Alteration, to palliate the Plagiarism.”]

For contrast, our personal correspondence provides more insight into the opinions of our subjects than what is available in most official news accounts. Adam Cardonnel’s note to the under-secretary of state dated 2 October is one example, possibly even the cover letter under which our original newsletter was sent: “I am very glad to send you now the good news of the taking of Stevensweert which might have held out for a great deale longer if they had had a competent garrison.” Here we seem to have an interesting little tidbit about Cardonnel’s view of the competency of the garrison’s defense. But not so fast. In a separate letter to Blathwayt (Secretary at War) on the same day Cardonnel clarifies what he likely meant by “competent garrison,” i.e. a “sufficient” one (an earlier letter also noted the small size of the garrison). Not quite an example of an early modern archaism, but another reminder nonetheless to look at several versions before reading too much into the specific language used in one account. Sometimes the letters sent out to different recipients on the same day are the same, but sometimes they have minor differences that might be of significance.

We could continue on, doing what historians do: track down other accounts of the siege in the various archives, not only English but Dutch, French and Spanish. We would need to do so if we hoped to answer the broad questions that started this post. But what we can conclude from this random example is that the relationship between archival and contemporary published accounts is not as clear cut as one might expect at first glance. Archival documents, if sent to the right person, could be quickly published in order to quench the English public’s thirst for news, perhaps they were even drafted for a broad public audience. And their content might be further modified in the printing process. Broadening our scope, it appears that Englishmen and women who read widely encountered competing and overlapping views of the same event. Quite different sources would be needed to gauge the impact of these convergences and contradictions.

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. Read More…

I read the news today, oh boy, Pt. I

My recent explorations of England’s military experience in the War of the Spanish Succession have been eye-opening. First, my initial training in Louisquatorzian France poorly prepared me for the plethora of documents created by late Stuart England’s vigorous public sphere. Early bibliographical works (William Morgan’s A Bibliography of British History (1700-1715) with Special Reference to the Reign of Queen Anne and Robert D. Horn’s Marlborough: A Survey. Panegyrics, Satires and Biographical Writings: 1688-1788) gave us a glimpse of such riches, but only a few scholars had the time and resources to attempt more than a sampling. The explosion of digital sources (both printed and manuscript) has finally allowed historians today to actually catch up to these early bibliographical catalogs. Given enough time, we can read more published material on the time period than almost all of those alive at the time were able to do. We not only have access to a wide range of archives from many perspectives, but also comprehensive collections of publications saved in disparate libraries around the world. This isn’t the same as truly understanding how contemporaries thought about every issue (and leaves us particularly uncertain about the divergence between print and oral culture), but it does allow us to reconstruct their worldview much more accurately and comprehensively than ever before.

But it also drowns us in information – early modernists can now begin to appreciate what modern historians have always had to deal with. The digital corpus I’ve managed to accumulate over the past decade allows a quick quantification of the English materials (dated between 1701-1712): Read More…