Thursday 11 October 2018

Espionage in Early History by Kieran Higgins #History #Spies @kieran__higgins

Espionage in Early History
 By Kieran Higgins

Like a lot of Arthurian books that make an attempt at realism (as much as one can with the story of King Arthur), my first book The Forgotten Sister looks at what it really meant to have power in a historical setting. Simply being born to it or having a magic sword is not enough. For the kings, queens and knights of my Britain, gold, fighting men and natural resources are what will get you into power and keep you there.

The Forbidden Sister, the companion novel to The Forgotten Sister, tells the story of Morgause, Arthur’s half-sister who is fated to bear the child Mordred with him, the boy who will eventually bring down Camelot.

When she is married off to King Lot, he introduces her to two different types of power. One is foreign trading. According to archaeological evidence, sub-Roman Britain traded with countries as distant as Turkey, enjoying rich furnishings and a varied diet as a result.  

But any king with a boat can be a successful trader, funding expeditions and charging taxes on any goods that pass through their lands. Lot’s real power lies in information. As he himself says, it is all about “obtaining it, disseminating it, or choosing not to.” Despite his tiny, distant, kingdom, he rises to become one of the most powerful men in Britain through espionage.

Many people think of spying as relatively modern invention, something that came about with the Second World War and grew into the intrigues of agencies like the CIA, the KGB and MI6. Yet it is as old as the concept of lying and telling tales.

Sun Tzu’s Art of War (written between 771 and 476 BC) has a whole chapter devoted to this topic, in which he states “what enables the wise sovereign and the good general to strike and conquer, and achieve things beyond the reach of ordinary men, is foreknowledge” and that this is only obtained from men. He even classifies spies into different categories, including local people who will report on activities in their area, spies of the enemy who can be turned to your side and spies who can be convinced to give false reports to draw out the enemy. The modern agent would now refer to these as informants, double agents, and dangles respectively.

Ancient Egyptians dealt extensively in secret communiqués, and were some of the first creators of invisible inks and secret compartments in which to conceal their messages. They were well versed in the use of poisons made from herbs and snake venoms, using them to assassinate their enemies by sending them fatal gifts.

There no historical evidence to suggest a British network like Lot operates in The Forbidden Sister, but if the rulers learnt anything from their Roman overlords, it would make sense. The Romans had a highly developed network that spanned the length of the Empire, concealed within the official position known as Frumentarii.

To most people, the Frumentarii were wheat-collectors, gathering and transporting the wheat that the Empire’s citizens paid in tribute to Rome. The Emperor Hadrian transformed them into an organisation to rival the reach of any modern spy agency. As they travelled between far-flung outposts, they made contact with other officials, Roman citizens and disgruntled natives. They returned to the Emperor with knowledge of local geography, defences, troop sizes and siege resources. Hadrian spied on friends as well as enemies, preventing them from conspiring against him - one of the first examples of counter-intelligence.

Emperor Hadrian.

Sir Francis Walsingham brought spying into the modern age. Serving as the Principal Secretary to Elizabeth I, he also oversaw the spider’s web of “Watchers”. His most remarkable action as spymaster was to expose the Babington Plot to assassinate Elizabeth and place her cousin Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. While the displaced Scottish queen was under house arrest, he began a thorough effort to open all her correspondence, leading her to believe that none of it was safe. 

Sir Francis Walsingham 

He then arranged for a double agent, posing as a member of the would-be rebellion, to introduce a method of communication to Mary, where she coded her letters and placed them inside the watertight stopper of a beer barrel. Mary thought her letters were secure, but Walsingham was really intercepting and decoding them before letting them return to the plotters, their plans foiled before they started. It was through this method that she endorsed the plot against her cousin and this led to the letter that would eventually incriminate her to the point of execution. 

Spies would go on to play huge roles in almost all of the battles and conflicts that shaped global politics from then on – the American Revolution, the Napoleonic War, the First World War, right through to ongoing modern conflicts. Think about how often we listen in on conversations, or are tempted to! Spying is very important, and not as new as you might think. In fact, it seems to be one of the oldest professions out there.

The Forbidden Sister

Married off to the island kingdom of Orkney, the Princess Morgause thinks her new kingdom, and new husband, are deathly boring. However, she soon discovers that King Lot trades in more than eastern spices. But as the politics of Britain draw her home to Camelot, Morgause is quickly lured into the intrigues of her sister, the vengeful sorceress Morgan Le Fay. The result is a forbidden love that will change the face of Britain forever, and may spell doom for those she holds dear.

A companion novel to The Forgotten Sister, this book is a must for readers wanting more Tales of Camelot from the pen of Kieran Higgins. Though this can be read as a standalone, it is best enjoyed alongside or after The Forgotten Sister.

Kieran Higgins

Kieran is a Belfast-born author. He wrote his first novel at age 5 - he also received his first rejection letter at this age. He has been writing ever since and has produced his debut novel The Forgotten Sister, an Arthurian retelling, in 2016. This was quickly followed by Mists Over Newbroke, a chilling gothic horror novella.

Inspired by JK Rowling, Garth Nix and Mary Stewart, Kieran writes the type of stories he wants to read - exciting tales full of compelling characters with believable motivations, captivating locations, strong females and, most importantly, magic.

A devoted book lover, Kieran can also be found on Instagram and YouTube, talking about the stories you need to read.


  1. Not a job for the faint-hearted. The rewards must have been huge to take so many risks.

  2. I know Jackie! Especially without any international law to protect your human rights!

  3. I always wondered if Mary actually wrote those letters in the first place. It would have been very easy to frame her, and it was not like they had not done things like that before!

    1. That’s a good point! Elizabeth’s courtiers did want rid of her...


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