Nearly 350 years ago William Prynne, a lawyer from Lincoln’s Inn, found himself in a dank and dirty corner of the Tower of London.
It was a place where soldiers and civil servants refused to work ‘for fear of fouling their fingers, spoyling their cloathes, endangering their eyesight and healths by the cankerous dust and evil scent.’
Prynne was King Charles II’s new keeper of the National Archives.
And he was no stranger to the Tower. He had been jailed for life, had his cheeks branded with the letters SL – for seditious libel – and his ears chopped off, for a pamphlet attacking actresses and, by implication, Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I.
A report of the trial of William Prynne Esq, in the Star Chamber, for writing and publishing 'A Scourge for Stage-Players,' can be found in the Archives. Subsequent keepers have been less harshly treated.
Prynne wrote: ‘In raking up this dung heap I found many rare antient precious pearls and golden records &c.’
It is a sentiment echoed every day in the modern National Archives building at Kew, where researchers request 600,000 document files a year and millions of documents are viewed online.
These are just some of the gems from my researches, many of them published for the first time, but none of them worth losing an ear for.
© These pages and their content are copyright of Peter Day 2014.
MI6 may have had a mole at the heart of the German Secret Service throughout the Second World War.
New research suggests that Klop Ustinov, father of the actor Peter Ustinov, met the veteran German agent Kurt Jahnke in London in 1938 and kept open a channel of communication.
Jahnke had a hand in pre-war secret diplomacy at the highest level; he probably instigated the flight to Britain of Rudolf Hess, Hitler’s deputy, in 1941; he made peace overtures in 1944; and his personal assistant was briefly a British place-man in the rebuilding of post-war Germany.
Wealthy, charming and cultured, Jahnke cut an impressive figure - broad shouldered, six feet one tall, with light brown hair, long crooked nose, and gold-filled front teeth. In the First World War he ran a sabotage unit in the United States and was reputed to have been behind the enormous explosion at an ammunition store on Black Tom Island, New York that smashed windows in Brooklyn and Manhattan and burst 100 bolts on the Statue of Liberty.
He ran spy rings in Mexico and China, then formed the Jahnke Büro, a private intelligence service for Rudolf Hess. During the 1930s he had agents in London, many of them Klop’s fellow journalists.
As relations between Britain and Germany soured in 1937 he tried to broker a power-sharing deal that would give the two Europen countries control over China’s military development, but his plans fell foul of Hitler’s foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop.
Jahnke visited London in 1938 to meet a representative of Sir Robert Vansittart, permanent under secretary at the Foreign Office and chief opponent of appeasement. They used the codename Johnson, which Klop had adopted to disguise his Russian and German ancestry.
Jahnke was at the heart of attempts to avert war and had a face-to-face meeting with an MI6 agent only days before Hitler invaded Poland. He remained Rudolf Hess’s intelligence adviser up to the moment in 1941 when Hess flew to Scotland believing he could broker a peace deal.
Klop Ustinov (left) and Kurt Jahnke
When Jahnke’s subordinate, Carl Marcus, fled to Britain in 1944, attempting to negotiate a German surrender, he asked to speak to Mr Johnson.
His role was confirmed after the war by Walther Schellenberg, head of the German foreign intelligence service. He included Jahnke in his team despite his probable role in Hess’s flight and constant suspicion that he was working under cover for Britain.
Schellenberg’s interrogation was carried out by Klop, on the grounds that he already knew more about him than any other MI6 officer, thanks to his mole inside Schellenberg’s office.
Read the full story in The Bedbug by Peter Day, out now in paperback from Biteback Publishing.