Secrets and scandal: 5 super spies of the Georgian era

Masked Ball, Louis XV court

The long 18th century was a time of revolution, intrigue and court gossip, with espionage quite the done thing no matter where you were in the world. From dashing adventurers to men who might be women, dutiful wives, court beauties and famous last words, join me for a countdown of Five Georgian Super Spies.

Friedrich von der Trenck (1726-1794)

Soldier, seducer and spy, Baron Friedrich von der Trenck lived the charmed life of an adventurer. When word spread that the Prussian Trenck was a spy for the Austrians, Frederick the Great had him imprisoned for life in the fortress at Glatz, at which point things take an A-Team turn. Not a man to accept his fate lying down, Trenck promptly escaped the supposedly inescapable prison and, after a stopover in Russia where he charmed the Tsarina, was recaptured and incarcerated once more following an ambush at the funeral of his own mother. Always one for the ladies, Empress Marie Theresa had Trenck released and in and around making a fortune, writing his memoirs and being a general gadabout, 68 year old Trenck went to France to report back on revolutionary activities. Here his luck ran out and he was guillotined just two days before Robespierre fell, ending the Reign of Terror.

von der Trenck

Chevalier d’Eon (1728 – 1810)

Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont was one of the spies who made up Louis XV’s Secret du Roi, an espionage network established by the king without the knowledge of his government. Sometimes working against political policy, the network spanned Europe and their influence touched most of the major royal houses of the Georgian era. What made Chevalier d’Éon particularly unusual was that he was believed by many to be a woman. So sure were the British that the mysterious figure was really female that bets were taken in London as to the true gender of the spy and he encouraged speculation, whilst refusing to submit to an examination. After the Revolution, d’Éon made his money by competing in fencing tournaments and even attempted to establish a female army, but his final years were miserable and by the time he died in poverty, his once glittering lifestyle was but a distant memory.

Chevalier d'Eon

 

Margaret Kemble Gage (1734-1824)

One of my personal favourites, Margaret Kemble Gage was married to General Thomas Gage, a British military leader during the American Revolutionary War. An American by birth, gossip at the time accused Kemble Gage of being conflicted by her loyalties to her husband and her country and that gossip gathered speed as the stakes rose higher. When someone gave Joseph Warren the lowdown on British raids, all eyes fell on Mrs Kemble Gage. Although her husband couldn’t bring himself to believe that the woman he loved was the guilty party, he still gave her temporary marching orders and Margaret was dispatched to England where she was safely out of harm’s way.

Margaret Kemble Gage

 

Eva Helena Löwen (1743–1813)

Society beauty, fashion icon and adored platonic muse to Crown Prince Gustav of Sweden, Eva Helena Löwen was quite the lady about the Swedish court. She received a very generous allowance from the French in return for promoting their interests with Gustav and though her name was linked to all sorts of empire building activities, Löwen never faced any consequences as a result. She remained a powerful figure at court for years and in 1792, her own son was one of the men who conspired to murder Gustav, by then the king of Sweden and not a popular man!

Eva Helena Löwen

 

Nathan Hale (1755 – 1776)

Best remembered for his possibly misquoted final words, the 22 year old Hale was a soldier during the American Revolutionary War who was captured whilst on an intelligence gathering mission behind British lines. Hale was arrested as he assembled information on troop movements and imprisoned in the headquarters of General William Howe. A cursory search of the Captain revealed sketches of fortifications, notes and other intelligence information and Hale confessed to his mission, knowing that the jig was up. The only punishment for the crime he had committed was death and the following morning, he went to face his fate. Standing before the noose at the Park of Artillery, Hale’s last words were supposedly the suitably stoic and heroic, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country”. Whether he said it or not is debatable but one thing is certain, those last words certainly contributed to his unshakeable place in American history.

Nathan Hale

Catherine CurzonGlorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering abode. In addition to her blog at www.madamegilflurt.com, Madame G can also be spotted on TwitterFacebook and Google+. Her first book, Life in the Georgian Court, will be published by Pen and Sword Books.

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13 replies
  1. EliotW
    EliotW says:

    von der Trenck really does sound like a Georgian Bond…except 007 would never have got guillotined.

    Reply
  2. ererve
    ererve says:

    What a fascinating bunch, but I suppose you have to be to get into that game. Where did you find them?

    Reply
  3. Wordsworth
    Wordsworth says:

    What a great read! Familiar with Nathan Hale and his heroic quote, but not heard of the others. I must say looking at Chevalier d’Eon it’s hard to believe anybody thought he was a lady.

    Reply
    • Jo Beverley
      Jo Beverley says:

      He was prettier when young. Aren’t we all! He/she passed himself off as a lady in waiting for Catherine of Russia as a French spy, but also was a war hero. In a convoluted agreement between the French and British governments, d’Eon spent his later years in Britain in female dress. Even in skirts he/she was an unbeatable sword… person(?)

      There’s speculation d’Eon was a true hermaphrodite.

      Reply
  4. Chrisfecto
    Chrisfecto says:

    I grew up in a town Nathan Hale taught in. The red, one room school house still stands to this day.

    Everything in the town is named after him, from the schools to the pharmacy. The story goes he was painting the arrangement or ships in NY. He stuck the paintings in his boot and walked out. When he was stopped, questioned and searched they were found. Why he didn’t just tuck them under his arm and say he was an artist is beyond me.

    The quote as I was growing up was “My only regret is that I have but one life to GIVE to my country” no LOSE. Huge difference in my eyes, but who knows if he said it anyways. Important to note he was apparently buried somewhere in Manhattan- maybe even in pieces and to this day no one knows where.

    Reply
    • Catherine Curzon
      Catherine Curzon says:

      My research turned up both quotes fairly equally and I chose the “lose” quote because it was attributed to an eyewitness. Of course, it *was* a third party reporting, so he might well have made a few tactical edits. You’re right that the difference is important, of course; thank you for your comment!

      Reply

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