The price of a slice of the truth

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.

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MI5 caught Neville Chamberlain in secret deals with Hitler's PR man

MI5 caught Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain trying to do secret deals with Hitler, government documents withheld for more than 70 years reveal.
The security service had a highly placed mole inside the German embassy in London who gave them a copy of the proposals sent to the Nazi leader.
A thin file at the National Archives shows that the head of the Foreign Office, Sir Alec Cadogan, was terrified of telling his boss, Lord Halifax, in case the revelation brought down the government.
He feared Chamberlain might seize personal control of the intelligence services so that he could manipulate what they said about Hitler to fit his policy of appeasement.
MI5 told Cadogan that a surveillance team had seen the German embassy press officer Fritz Hesse hold a clandestine meeting with George Steward, the Prime Minister’s press secretary, on Wednesday November 23, 1938.
The embassy mole had smuggled out a copy of Hesse’s report of the meeting, sent to the German Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop.
It showed that Steward had proposed an agreement to limit the horrors of war, including a ban on poison gas and limitations on bombing civilians.
Steward said it would paint Hitler in a more sympathetic light with the British public. Hesse reported: ‘This surprising suggestion is another sign of how great the wish for an understanding with us is here in England and is also evidence for the point of view that Great Britain is ready, during the next year, to accept practically everything from us and to fulfil our every wish.’
Chamberlain had recently returned from meeting Hitler in Munich, waving aloft a peace of paper which he said meant ‘peace for our time.’
But the deal, which followed Hitler’s occupation of part of Czechoslovakia, was already falling apart.

Cadogan faced an agonising dilemma – MI5 had effectively been spying on their own prime minister. And Chamberlain was going behind the backs of the Cabinet in pursuit of appeasement. If Cadogan revealed this to Lord Halifax the Foreign Secretary might resign, causing a political crisis.
If Halifax confronted Chamberlain, the PM ‘would probably think his policy of appeasement had been torpedoed by the wicked anti-German Foreign Office … he would probably take steps to clip the wings of the FO as much as possible and at the same time carry on with his clandestine negotiations.
‘He would either have to have a General Election or carry on with some dummy in the FO. He might well take over the entire Secret Intelligence Service and put it under his personal control.’
Britain would look weak and divided. Hitler might be tempted to stage a military showdown before Britain had a chance to re-arm and prepare to fight.
On the other hand, Cadogan did not want to be accused later of suppressing vital intelligence. He described the appeasement faction as ‘Tiger-riders’ who were playing an ‘appallingly dangerous’ game.
‘Even if the secret negotiations are successful they can only result in discomfiting the moderates in Germany, in confirming the extremists in power, and in some bogus “settlement” which will be the beginning of the end of the British Empire, chloroformed, as it will be, by a totally false impression of security,’ he wrote.
Cadogan opted to tell Halifax who in turn confronted Chamberlain on November 29. The Prime Minister professed himself ‘aghast’ at the revelation and promised to put a stop to it. In reality, all that happened was that Steward was warned about ‘indiscreet talk.’
But the intelligence services maintained their independence. Three weeks later, as Chamberlain pursued his appeasement policy, Sir Hugh Sinclair, director of MI6, told him that Hitler was bent on world domination and that: ‘Among his characteristics are fanaticism, mysticism, ruthlessness, cunning, vanity, moods of exaltation and depression, fits of bitter and self-righteous resentment; and what can only be termed a streak of madness.’



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