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Jacobite invasion plots were foiled by placing a spy in James II’s court-in-exile

Posted in Espionage, Historical articles, History, Religion, Royalty on Tuesday, 29 October 2013

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This edited article about espionage after the Glorious Revolution originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 443 published on 11 July 1970.

Jacobite invasion foiled, picture, image, illustration

James Stuart could only watch helplessly as the boats meant for the invasion of England burned by C L Doughty

The ship lay in Dover Harbour ready to sail. Two Jacobite agents, bound for France, stood on deck, deep in conversation. They did not notice the party of soldiers as they quietly came aboard. They were still talking intently as the soldiers surrounded them, and the officer in charge had to interrupt them politely in order to place them under arrest.

It was 1690. And one more attempt – the Scots Plot – to restore James II to the throne of England had been foiled. Since he had been driven out in the Bloodless Revolution of 1688, the hapless Stuart had striven desperately to unseat William III, the Dutchman, who had supplanted him. Now he would fall into yet another of his moods of black depression among his shabby court at St. Germain.

Meanwhile, in London, Lord Portland, to whom William had entrusted the security of the realm, was gleeful. He scanned the papers which had been taken from the two agents, and noted with approval that they incriminated a number of English and Scottish nobles. This confirmed information which had already been supplied to him by an agent in whom he was coming to place an increasing amount of trust.

The agent’s name was John Macky, and he was to repay Portland’s confidence amply in the next few years.

A period of quiet followed the Scots Plot, but nothing could be better calculated to arouse Portland’s suspicions. He sent Macky to Paris to find out what the Jacobites were up to. After a few weeks in which he insinuated himself into the Stuart court, Macky discovered the momentous truth that the French were preparing to assist the Jacobites in an invasion of England.

In the port of La Hogue, in Normandy, Macky saw for himself a fleet of warships and troop-transports and the French Army camped nearby. The enterprise, boasted the French, was infallible. And it was due to begin very soon.

Macky left with all speed for London. But to his annoyance he found that Lord Portland was not there. His master had left for France – possibly their ships had crossed.

Macky was sent instead to the office of Lord Sidney. That noble peer listened incredulously to his report. A small French force was to create a diversion in Scotland? Preposterous! Thirty-thousand men were ready to sail for England as soon as the English marched north? Impossible! The French could not mount an invasion on that scale at present. Mr. Macky must be mistaken. Macky received his Lordship’s permission to withdraw.

Fuming at the delay, he kicked his heels in London for a week. Then he was summoned again to Sidney’s office.

This time, the peer greeted him diffidently and pointed to the pile of despatches on the table nearby. They had just come from France, he said – from Lord Portland himself. And they confirmed in every detail the information that Mr. Macky had brought the week before. Would Mr. Macky accept his Lordship’s apologies for doubting him?

Soon afterwards, an English fleet under Admiral Russell sailed to La Hogue, thrashed the French fleet and burned the troop-transports, while James Stuart watched helplessly from the beach.

In the meantime, Macky was hard at work. Knowing that a party of Jacobites had planned to sail in advance of the invasion to prepare the English Jacobites, he kept a close watch along the coast. As a result of his foresight, three of James’s closest advisers accompanied by 40 hand-picked officers were captured, as they waded ashore from their ship under cover of darkness.

As a reward for his services Macky was made Inspector of the coast between Harwich and Dover. During the next three years he maintained ceaseless vigilance on the Channel ports and few Jacobites slipped past him.

On one occasion, for instance, acting on information from France, he ordered the arrest of a seemingly-harmless lady, Mrs. Aldridge. Her luggage was searched but nothing of importance was found. However, Macky noticed that one chest was hardly touched. When he asked why, his men said that it merely contained dirty linen. Suspecting an old but often-successful ruse, Macky measured the base carefully and examined the joints. Sure enough, it had a double bottom. Macky prised off the base and waved in triumph a bundle of 70 letters.

One look at Mrs. Aldridge’s face told him that it was a valuable discovery. When the letters had been deciphered, Macky found himself in possession of the entire plans for a second French invasion, to be mounted this time from Calais.

Macky was promoted again, The King made him Controller of the packet-boats from Dover to France and the Low Countries. In this post he continued to display his talent for spy-taking.

Sometimes, however, he was given special assignments. There was the time when an anonymous letter threw the Government into a panic. The writer claimed that the French planned to land 5,000 men from small boats in a creek near the River Medway. This task force was to burn the English fleet at Chatham nearby. Further information, continued the correspondent, might be made available if the sum of £150 was lodged immediately with a French friar in Calais.

Macky was shown the letter and told to trace its author and to find out the truth about the invasion.

The first task was simple. He recognised the handwriting at once. Your correspondent, he told the anxious-faced Secretaries of State, is a former spy who is at the moment lying in extreme discomfort in a Calais prison. He has a number of debts, amounting by a strange coincidence to £150. In other words the letter was probably an elaborate confidence trick. To be on the safe side, however, he agreed to go to Calais.

Colonel Conn, as the ex-spy was called, was indeed in jail. Unperturbed at his exposure he told Macky the truth. The “invasion” scheme had been devised by a Jacobite several years ago, but both James Stuart and the French Government had considered it impractical. When the details had fallen into Conn’s hands, however, he had seen in them the means to scare the English Government into paying off his debts and setting him free.

The episode had a salutary effect, nevertheless. So frightening had been the suggestion that the English fleet was in any way vulnerable at Chatham, that immediate action was taken to fortify the dockyard and to ensure that armed forces were readily available to protect it.

Service of this kind increased Macky’s reputation. He was even allowed to build up his own network of agents and to direct their work. They included two ladies who visited the Stuart Court at St. Germain regularly to sell gloves and trinkets. Keeping their ears open as they plied their trade, they were able to report every scrap of gossip to Macky, who passed it back to London. In this way Jacobite agents were identified long before they set foot in England, and could be rounded up or used by the government at will.

Like most agents, however, Macky eventually fell victim to his own cleverness. After the death of William III and Lord Portland, he fell from favour and was eventually accused – unfairly, as it turned out – of treachery. Nevertheless, at the height of his power he had helped to keep England secure in the last ten perilous years of the 17th century. When the Jacobites finally invaded the country, a principal obstacle to their success was the stability of government which that decade of security had made possible.

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