The cloak-and-dagger world of James Bond (inspired by the “ungentlemanly warfare” practiced by author Ian Fleming during World War II) is full of car chases, gun battles, and doomsday plots. In the real world of intelligence gathering, spies can often do more damage with a portable hard drive than a pistol, and the photocopier is mightier than the sword. Here we examine some of history’s most notable spies.
This list was adapted from a post that originally appeared on the Britannica Blog.
The Virgin Queen’s Spymaster
Facing threats from within and without, Queen Elizabeth I turned to Francis Walsingham to conduct her foreign policy. While he proved himself a skilled statesman, it was his ability to detect and foil conspiracies against Elizabeth’s life that earns him a place on this list. His vigilance uncovered Francis Throckmorton’s plot—involving France and Spain—to free Elizabeth’s prisoner, the Catholic Mary Stuart (Mary, Queen of Scots). In exposing the Babington plot three years later, he found a letter from Mary to Anthony Babington giving full support to a plan for the murder of Elizabeth. As a result, Mary was executed in February 1587, a course of action that Walsingham had advocated.
The Gentleman Spy
Giovanni Giacomo Casanova relied on his now legendary charisma to establish himself as the prince of Italian adventurers, and his romantic exploits made the name Casanova synonymous with “libertine.” His autobiography, which perhaps exaggerates some of his escapades, is a splendid description of 18th-century society in the capitals of Europe.
Famous Last Words
American army officer Nathan Hale had a relatively short career as a spy during the American Revolution, but he is best known for his conduct at the time of his execution. Captured while behind British lines and sentenced to hang, Hale is supposed to have said before his death, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” a remark similar to one in Joseph Addison’s play Cato. In the diary entry of one of the British officers made on the day of Hale’s execution, it was said: “He behaved with great composure and resolution, saying he thought it the duty of every good Officer, to obey any orders given him by his Commander-in-Chief; and desired the Spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it might appear.”
A Revolutionary Traitor
British army major John André served as chief intelligence officer for British commander in chief General Sir Henry Clinton during the American Revolution. André’s most noteworthy success was securing the allegiance of American turncoat Benedict Arnold who, having become disillusioned with the American cause, agreed to surrender West Point to the British for ￡20,000. After André’s capture by American militiamen, Arnold fled, leaving André to be hanged as a spy. The sacrifice of André made Arnold odious to his would-be allies among the loyalists.
A Southern Belle
In the grand scheme, Confederate spy Belle Boyd contributed little to the Southern war effort during the American Civil War. Having overheard Union officers discussing their plans for retreat, she made her way through both armies’ picket lines to relay those plans to Confederate General Stonewall Jackson. Her later exploits were less dramatic than that, but the image of a teenage girl, a refined member of the Southern gentry, acting as a spy proved to be captivating to the American public. She went on to a moderately successful career as an actress and lecturer.
Femme Fatale or Unjustly Accused?
The name Mata Hari is virtually shorthand for a sultry seductress who uses beauty and feminine wiles to obtain information. But what was the real Mata Hari’s crime? During World War I, she was certainly a sensation, both for her sensuality and her succession of lovers, but the facts regarding her espionage activities remain obscure. According to one account, in the spring of 1916, while she was living in The Hague, a German consul is said to have offered to pay her for whatever information she could obtain on her next trip to France. After her arrest by the French, she acknowledged only that she had given some outdated information to a German intelligence officer. The German government publicly exculpated her in 1930, and the French dossier documenting her activities reportedly indicated her innocence.
Casualties of the Cold War
After the spying activities of Klaus Fuchs were uncovered in Britain in 1950, attention turned to his confederates. The trail eventually led to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, Americans who had provided the Soviet Union with detailed data about the construction of an atomic bomb. Ethel’s brother, who was a machinist at the Manhattan Project, provided the Rosenbergs with the information, but he later cooperated with the government and served as the primary prosecution witness at their espionage trial. After the death sentence was passed, there was a widespread outcry for clemency, and for decades after the executions, there was significant debate about their guilt. This controversy was largely resolved in the early 1990s after the fall of communism in the Soviet Union and the release of Soviet intelligence information that confirmed the Rosenbergs’ involvement in espionage.
The Cambridge Spy Ring
One of the most damaging (or effective, depending on one’s national allegiance) spy networks of the Cold War era had its beginnings in the 1930s at the University of Cambridge, where a group of disaffected upper class young men were recruited to become Soviet agents. The four men, Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, Donald Maclean, and Anthony Blunt, spent decades in various positions of power, working for MI5 and MI6, as well as ambassadorial posts, and each used his position to forward sensitive information to the Soviets. By the time the ring was unraveled in the 1950s, countless state secrets had been spilled.
One of the most unusual cases in espionage history involved Chinese opera singer Shi Pei Pu. Shi met French embassy clerk Bernard Boursicot in Beijing in 1964, while teaching Chinese to diplomats’ families. Shi convinced Boursicot that he was actually a woman disguised as a man, and the two began a love affair that continued for 20 years, during which time Shi also told Boursicot that he had become pregnant and had a son. Boursicot turned over as many as 150 French embassy documents through Shi to the Chinese secret service before returning to France in the early 1980s. Shi and his “son,” whom he had purchased from a doctor in China, joined Boursicot in Paris, where Shi won acceptance in the French community with his cultural performances, even appearing on television. The two were arrested in 1983 and charged with espionage. They were each sentenced to six years in prison, but since the documents passed were of minimal political significance, after 11 months both were pardoned and released. Shi’s story inspired the Tony Award-winning Broadway play M. Butterfly (1988; film adaptation 1993) by Chinese-American David Henry Hwang.
American CIA analyst Aldrich Ames was possibly the most successful Soviet double agent of the Cold War. Charged with counterintelligence operations—chiefly, the uncovering of Soviet spies and the recruitment of potential CIA assets—Ames used his knowledge to cripple CIA operations in the Soviet Union. At least 10 CIA agents within the Soviet Union were executed as a result of Ames’s spying; ultimately, he revealed the name of every U.S. agent operating in the Soviet Union (after 1991, Russia). Before Ames and and his wife were arrested in 1994, they had received more than $2.7 million, the most money paid by the Soviet Union or Russia to any American for spying.