Secret Service Under Pitt



The letters of secret information in the well-known ‘Castlereagh Correspondence’ being mostly without date are inserted regardless of chronological sequence, and are often, from dearth of explanation, wholly unintelligible. One of these secret reports follows a letter of Portland’s[65]–to be found later on–regarding the intercepted memorial which Dr. McNevin had addressed to the French Government. The particular references to Lord Downshire, to Hamburg, to Fitzgerald, and to the North of Ireland, of which Turner was a native–not to speak of his ‘tone of injured innocence,’ ‘the dread of those from whom I come as to the ascendency of the Papists’–all point to him as the writer.

His tone as usual is hostile to Lewins, a Roman Catholic envoy of great honesty, whose reputation he is ever seeking to injure; and the intrigue, it may be added, very nearly succeeded in getting Lewins superseded. Mr. Froude, it will be remembered, when describing his unmasked informer writes:

Lady Edward Fitzgerald had sent him on to Paris with a letter to her brother-in-law, General Valence. By Valence he had been introduced to Hoche and De la Croix. He had seen Talleyrand and had talked at length with him on the condition of Ireland.

It was in February, 1798, that Mr. Froude’s spy reappeared in London.[66] He had interviews at the Home Office, where he received some instructions, which are not stated. Camden urged Portland to beg of him to give evidence publicly, and to offer reward to any amount. But all to no effect. At last it was decided, as the next best thing to do, ‘that he should open a correspondence with the principal conspirators, by which means you may be apprised of their intentions.’ This is exactly what he is now found doing. On April 17 he goes to Paris, no doubt sent by the Home Office, to ascertain what arrangement had been made by O’Coigly and O’Connor as regards the long-sought French expedition to Ireland.

De la Croix will be chiefly remembered as the Minister for Foreign Affairs with whom Tone had to do. But he had been personally offensive to Lord Malmesbury, the English Minister, and M. Talleyrand was appointed to succeed La Croix on July 15, 1797.[67]

The following letter is to be found in the ‘Castlereagh Papers’ (i. 231-6), and derives additional importance from its close connection with Talleyrand:–


April 17th [1798], arrived in Paris.

On the 19th waited on the Minister for Foreign Affairs; it being Décadi, he was gone to the country. Left my name, and called next day, at eleven; instantly admitted; talked over the purport of my visit, which I had brought in writing, as follows:–

‘Citizen Minister,–Since I had the honor of seeing you in September last, I understand attempts have been made to injure my character here by some persons equally despicable as malicious (I mean Lewines and his associates), from whom, though United Irishmen, I pride myself in differing, both in sentiment and conduct; nor should I condescend to answer their infamous charges.[68]

‘I, however, take great pleasure in acquainting you with what I have been about, viz., trying to bring over to the side of the United Irish what is called the Independent Interest, alias the Country Gentlemen, all of whom have commands either in the Yeomanry or Militia,[69] and to whom the safety of the interior will be entrusted, whilst the regular troops march against the enemy. These gentlemen have always been much against the Government, but feared, in a revolution, the loss of their property, especially such as held their estates by grants of Oliver Cromwell. For some time past a union has been formed among this body for the purpose of forcing England into whatever measures they choose as soon as an invasion takes place; all of my most particular friends are of this association, and they have infused into the minds of the rest the idea that English faith is not to be relied on. In consequence, they are all now completely up to the formation of a Republic and a separation from Britain, provided the French Directory will give, under their seal, the terms and conditions Ireland has a right to expect and demands. I took upon me to say France never meant to treat Ireland has a conquered country; that, certainly, they would expect a contribution towards defraying the great expense incurred in supporting the cause of liberty; but what the sum would be, I could not take upon me to mention. They insist upon having that specified, and any other conditions for this purpose.

‘Citizen Minister, I now apply to you; to none other have I hinted my business, and the most profound secrecy will be requisite in order to completely deceive the English Government. I shall mention to you the channel of correspondence, &c., with the ciphers I’ll make use of, if it is requisite to write, but which I sha’n’t do without your permission, and giving you the letter to enclose to Hamburg.[70]

‘I have the honour to remain,’ &c.

Thus far the letter of Turner to Talleyrand–for Turner it assuredly is. It does not follow that the Minister believed all he was told. The quondam Bishop of Autun could read a soul. He was a diplomat, however, and showed to his visitor that cautious courtesy which he had learned when a bishop. He who said that speech is given to conceal thoughts,[71] was not the man to be at once swayed by words. The despatch now before us had been addressed to the Home Office, and must be one of the papers Mr. Froude thought destroyed. The copy of his letter to Talleyrand having been submitted to Portland, the spy thus resumes:–

The Minister then said it was a matter extremely interesting, that other things were on the tapis at present, but desired I would call again on the second uneven day from that, and he’d[72] enter into particulars. I did so, and gave him the following letter. He said he had laid my first before the Directory; that their opinions coincided with his, but that they could not give anything under their hands or seal, nor he either; that I had perfectly expressed their intentions. I told him this was perfectly satisfactory to me, but I feared it would not be so to them. ‘Surely,’ says he, ‘they have a confidence in you, and you shall have it from the Directory, if you choose.’ I said I hoped that would be sufficiently satisfactory to my friends, and begged to know when I could see him again–the 1st of the next decade, as they were still very busy on other matters.

Copy of the Letter to Talleyrand.

‘Citizen Minister,–Wishing to give the Government every satisfaction on the point of my mission, I now have the honour of laying before you every particular. I am extremely glad to find it appears to you interesting, which induces me to hope as little delay will be given as possible. I think it incumbent on me to state to you that the spirit of the North is completely broken, and I fear shortly the rest of Ireland will be in the same predicament.[73] A vast number of the persons concerned in persecuting the United Irish are those from whom I come; for at present they dread, and with good reason, the ascendency of this body. As soon as you set these gentlemen’s minds at ease in regard to their property, the business of revolution will get leave to go on, and the British Government will find themselves clogged in their system of terror, without knowing why. The enclosed paper contains the mode in which I am to act, &c., &c. I have the honour, &c.’

Turner then adds:–[74]

Enclosure, containing the ciphers I sent to the Marquess of Downshire, and the following postscript:–

‘The intention of the ciphers was, if I thought it requisite to write from Paris, to say who I had had communication with and as a channel of conveying any intelligence you might allow me to send during my stay. The letter to be addressed to Charles Ranken,[75] Esq., at Mr. Elliot’s, Pimlico, London, to be put in the common post-office at Hamburg, and sealed with a particular seal I have for the purpose. As soon as I receive the proper paper or document, in order to save time, I am to get, if possible, into England; if that can’t be done with safety, I’m to go to either Bremen or Hamburg, write thence to Ranken, who comes over before him. I attest the business on oath, and he goes instantly for Ireland. Ranken,[76] having been a banker at Belfast, a man of good property, and looked on by Government as a friend, can pass and repass as if to settle accounts at Hamburg.

‘I beg leave once more to inform you that delay will be looked on, I fear, as non-compliance; and, if there’s any particular point on which you wish for accurate information, I think I can undertake to obtain it.’

The spy’s letter then proceeds:–

He (Talleyrand) seemed to disapprove of my venturing to Ireland or England; asked me if I knew anything of Fitzgerald.[77]

Waited on him the first of the following decade; he said nothing was resolved on. I asked if the Irish were to wait for their coming or not. He said by all means to wait, and not to risk or expose themselves. ‘May I assure them you’ll come in the course of three months?’ ‘No, we cannot fix a time; it may be more, or not so long. I shall depend on you to obtain for me as accurate a statement, with as much information as you can collect.’ I desired to know on what particular point, otherwise I should be at a loss; he said he could not mention any particular. I then promised as much as I could collect in general, with a particular and accurate one of Ireland. I then asked if I might venture to assert that the French Government would be content with being paid the expense of their former expedition, and of that which will be sent; that they will leave the Irish to choose a constitution for themselves as soon as English influence is destroyed; guaranteeing to every individual their property, without respect to old Catholic claims and to their political conduct prior to the time of actual invasion. ‘You may venture to assure them that the property of no individual will be seized upon, but the reverse. On the other points we cannot give an answer.’–‘When shall I see the Directory?’–‘On the ninth of this decade I shall speak to the President, and you may bring to me one of your acquaintance that is known to him, who will introduce you;’ or that I might go alone, as my name was sufficiently known to him. Between that and the 9th I spoke to Abbé Grégoire[78] to accompany me; but he declined it, as did Stone;[79] upon which I wrote, on the 8th, to the Minister, to say that these two had refused, and that they thought he himself ought to do it, or give me a note of introduction to the President; but that, if it was disagreeable, I would not press the matter further, as I looked on his word as that of the Directory, and that I would call next day at the Directory, when, if I could get an audience, so much the better; if not, I thought it imprudent to wait longer.

Next day I called at the Directory and sent in my name. I there met Duckett,[80] who told me it would be impossible to see any of them that day; for a letter, which he had just brought them, which came from Leonard Bourdon,[81] would give them, he believed, work enough, as he understood it contained some very interesting matter. I was to have seen some of them that day likewise; an answer came to us both that they were too much occupied. I then went to the Minister, and sent in my name, as did, at the same time, Colonel La Harpe and the Swiss Deputies. We were all sent off, as he was very busy. I left a note with his Secretary, saying I would set out next day, which I did, the 20 Floreal, alias Wednesday, the 9th May; arrived at Cuxhaven the Wednesday following; sailed the next day, landed at Lowestoff on Tuesday morning, got to town [London] that night, accompanied by one Jeffrey,[82] who passes himself off for a Scotchman, was coming to Yarmouth as an American, was in Paris last September, speaks French as a Frenchman, looks extremely like one, and lodges at the New Hummums, Covent Garden.

It is quite clear that the above letter was written by the same nameless spy who poses in Froude’s book as ‘Lord Downshire’s friend.’ ‘One of his letters, dated November 19, 1797, is preserved,’ writes Mr. Froude; but, no doubt, a few others are preserved too, and may be found in the correspondence of Lord Castlereagh. How they escaped destruction is a marvel. Wickham, on January 11, 1799, writes, regarding ‘United Irishmen’ at Hamburg: ‘The enclosed very curious papers the Duke of Portland desires may be laid before the Lord Lieutenant, and afterwards destroyed.’

So careful was the spy of his reputation that he vouchsafes not a signature. Internal evidence, however, shows that he was the man who made his disclosure to Downshire, and was by him put in correspondence with Portland.

From the letter just quoted it appears that, after his efforts to pick news from Talleyrand and fish in Irish channels at Paris, he returned, viâ Cuxhaven, to London, where he arrived on Tuesday night, May 15, 1798. This date is worthy of note. The spy feared to show himself in London and felt that his life was unsafe. What brings him back to London on May 15, 1798? His favourite post was Cuxhaven or Hamburg. O’Coigly, Binns, and Leary, though arrested in March en route to France, were not put on their trial until Monday, May 21, 1798. This case is reported at extraordinary length in Howell’s ‘State Trials’ and would fill a volume. Scott, afterwards Lord Eldon, prosecuted. The mass of secret information which the Crown contrived to acquire strikes very forcibly. Letters written in cipher by O’Coigly to Lord Edward Fitzgerald and others are translated and expounded by Scott. All the parties concerned in the conspiracy had false names. Mrs. Mathiessen[83] is called ‘Marks;’ ‘a man going to William’s,’ means ‘going to France,’ etc. It was largely on evidence of this sort that O’Coigly was convicted and hanged.[84]

The betrayer tells Talleyrand that ‘the spirit of the North was completely broken.’ In point of fact, however, it was in the North that the real martial spirit of the United Irishmen blazed, and there the best battles were afterwards fought under the leadership of Orr and Monroe. Turner was anxious to make the French turn their thoughts of invasion to other points on the Irish coast, and he so far succeeded that in August, 1798, Humbert’s expedition, embracing not 1,000 men, landed at Killala, among the starved and unarmed peasantry of Connaught. He calculated on meeting enthusiastic support; but, as Mr. Lecky says, it soon became apparent how fatally he had been deceived. After winning one battle, and losing another, Humbert surrendered to Cornwallis.

‘May I assure them that you’ll come in three months?’ Talleyrand is asked. The object of this and other questions, which, to a casual reader, seem hardly consistent with Turner’s treachery to his friends, is now pretty plain. Great doubt prevailed as to whether an invasion of Ireland was really to be attempted. The First Consul blew hot and cold upon it. If the spy, as an envoy of the United Irishmen, could only extort from Talleyrand an explicit reply in writing avowing the intention to invade, and telling the exact time on which the descent on Ireland was to be made, England would thus be well prepared, and her fleet able to destroy the French armament as she had already destroyed that of De Winter. Why Bonaparte, at first so anxious for invasion, should have changed his mind, is explained, in the recently published Memoirs of Gouverneur Morris, as due to the conflicting reports of Irish envoys. At St. Helena he told Las Cases that his mistake in ’98 was to have gone to Egypt and not to Ireland.[85]

Mr. Froude states that the betrayer had discovered one of the objects of the Papists to be the seizure of property, and had determined to separate himself from the conspiracy. Attention is requested to that part of the foregoing letter[86] where the writer refers to the Cromwellian holders of estates in Ireland, and asks that every individual be guaranteed his property without respect to old Catholic claims and to their political conduct prior to the time of actual invasion. Samuel Turner represented some of the Cromwellian Settlers, and ‘his most particular friends,’ as he calls them, were amongst those who held grants of land in succession to the old Papist proprietary. The descendants of these men viewed invasion with alarm, lest their lands should go, just as the property of the Papists had already gone.[87]

Talleyrand’s caution in talking with Turner contrasts with the freedom with which he opened his mind on the same subject to his confrères. A very important book was published in 1890 at Paris by M. Pallain, ‘Talleyrand sous le Directoire.’ It depicts his diplomatic life, and gives the pith of his despatches. From Turner and Duckett he probably derived some impressions regarding Great Britain and Ireland. He augurs well from the Irish rebellion, which has been ‘cemented,’ adds Talleyrand, ‘by the blood of celebrated victims.’ The first victim was the Rev. William Jackson, in 1794. Talleyrand urges the invasion of Ireland and the establishment of an Irish Republic ‘for the instruction or chastisement of England.’ ‘Nelson’s fleet,’ he says, ‘is manned almost exclusively by Irishmen,’ and that their patriotism ‘will teach them to see in the English their oppressors and enemies.’ Talleyrand’s sketch of ‘Irish Landed Proprietors’ is full and curious.

Another man who, besides Talleyrand and Grégoire, dealt cautiously with Turner was Stone, as Turner in his secret letter to the Home Office admits. Stone had been tried in England for high treason and sent into exile.[88] At Hamburg and at Paris he belonged to the set mentioned by Mr. Froude’s cloaked spy[89] as including Lady Edward Fitzgerald (Pamela), Lady Lucy Fitzgerald, Mrs. Matthiessen, and General Count Valence. Madame de Genlis in her ‘Memoirs’ mentions Stone conjointly with her daughter Madame de Valence and her ‘niece’ Pamela.[90]


[65] See Castlereagh Papers, i. 251. See also chapter vii. of the present volume.

[66] Froude, iii. 301.

[67] See M. de Talleyrand, par M. de Villemarest, ch. viii.; Hist. du Directoire, par M. de Barante, liv. iv.

[68] Of infidelity to the rebel cause.

[69] Mr. Froude, speaking of ‘the second arrest of two of the leading committees of Belfast,’ says (iii. 237) that ‘Lake seized papers which revealed the correspondence with France, the extent of the revolutionary armament, and the measures taken for the seduction of the army and militia. The papers were sent to Dublin and were laid before a secret committee.’ See also correspondence in re McNevin’s Memorial, ch. vii. infra.

[70] The spy sought to deceive the French Government in this report. The Cromwellian Settlers never thought of joining the United Irishmen. One of Turner’s objects seems to have been to get a written undertaking from Talleyrand that the estates of these Settlers should be left intact, and money sent to promote an alleged treasonable conspiracy of Cromwellian Settlers against England, but which, in point of fact, did not exist. The Ulster Presbyterians were, no doubt, rebels; but these men were the descendants, not of the Cromwellian adventurers, but of King James’s Planters.

[71] This phrase is assigned to Talleyrand by Harel in the Nain Jaune; but the thought had been previously expressed by another bishop, i.e. Jeremy Taylor.

[72] The contractions ‘he’d’ and ‘sha’n’t’ are entirely consistent with Turner’s ‘you’ll’ in the letter to Downshire, transcribed by me from the Pelham MSS. See p. 50, infra; also Turner’s acknowledged letter to Cooke, p. 97.

[73] This alternate blowing of hot and cold worked its end. A long letter from the Home Office furnishing secret items to Dublin Castle goes on to say (Castlereagh, ii. 361): ‘Lewins had often complained that the conduct of the French Government had been hitherto so indecisive with respect to Ireland that all their projects had naturally failed.’ However, it was admitted by Talleyrand that ‘Ireland was the only vulnerable part of the British Empire.’

[74] The Cabinet, Mr. Froude says, was kept in utter ignorance of his name, and in the most secret despatches of the Home Office he is known only as ‘Lord Downshire’s friend.’ These precautions will remind us of the cipher of the Louvais despatches, which has hitherto baffled all efforts to identify the Man in the Iron Mask.

[75] The narrative of Edward J. Newell–the spy who turned against his employers–states (London, 1798, p. 59) that he was asked to give information ‘against Charles Rankin and others for high treason.’

[76] Our spy often refers to Rankin and others of Belfast: ‘He [the betrayer] had fled with others from Belfast at the general dispersion of the leaders,’ writes Mr. Froude, iii. 280.

[77] Whatever he knew of Lord Edward Fitzgerald is told in the first letter. See pp. 5, 6, ante.

[78] This was Henri Grégoire, the celebrated Bishop of Blois–a most influential member of the National Convention, and afterwards of the Council of Five Hundred. The aplomb of our spy in hailing such men as friends will be appreciated. Grégoire was a cautious man, who voted against the divorce of Napoleon and Joséphine, and opposed the Emperor’s marriage with Marie-Thérèse. During the ‘Reign of Terror,’ when urged to follow the Archbishop of Paris and abjure his priestly duties, he refused. B. 1750, d. 1831.

[79] Stone, see p. 33 infra.

[80] Duckett, an Irish rebel agent, falsely suspected by Tone of being a spy, will figure in chapter x.

[81] See p. 110 infra.

[82] Possibly John Jeffrey, brother of Francis. He was a Scotchman, and usually resided in America (Life of Jeffrey, by Lord Cockburn, i. 50). How completely a Republican spirit possessed him is shown by his brother’s letters to him in 1797, beginning ‘My dear Citizen’ (ii. 30 et seq.). The subsequent Lord Jeffrey was also a democrat, and his movements may have been shadowed, as those of Coleridge notoriously were.

[83] See Froude, iii. 283, or ante.

[84] Compare letter from ‘Castlereagh to Wickham,’ p. 44 ante.

[85] Mémoires de Sainte-Hélène.

[86] The precise and careful wording is that of a lawyer, which Turner was.

[87] Mr. J. P. Prendergast, in his Cromwellian Settlement of Ireland, prints, from original MSS., a ‘list of adventurers for land in Ireland’ (p. 417). Among them we find: ‘Samuel Turner of London, merchant taylor, £200.’ ‘Richard Turner, senior and junior, taylors, £200.’ These persons are also found subscribing the same sum, he adds, as ‘adventurers, for the sea-service’ (p. 417). The hereditary feelings and predilections of a Cromwellian Settler can be traced in the letter to Talleyrand.

[88] I find in the contents of the long-sealed chest at Dublin Castle, ‘The Examination of Samuel Rogers, of Cornhill, Banker,’ regarding his relations with Stone, dated May 10, 1794. With it is preserved an autograph statement by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, technically called his examination, embracing ten folios, dated May 9, 1794, and explaining his intercourse with Stone.

[89] Vide p. 5, ante.

[90] Memoirs of Madame de Genlis, iv. 130-36.

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