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 came to the Royal Family's rescue over Duke of Windsor files

The Royal Family turned to MI5 for help when documents revealing the Duke of Windsor’s contacts with Hitler’s Germany were discovered at the end of the Second World War.
Guy Liddell, head of counter-espionage, met King George VI’s private secretary Tommy Lascelles over dinner at his club and returned to Buckingham Palace to examine the evidence.
His diaries, released at the National Archives, suggest that contact between the Duke and Duchess and Hitler’s agents continued after the Duke had taken up his appointment as Governor of the Bahamas in August 1940.
The Duke had abdicated in 1936 in order to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.
Microfilm copies of German Foreign Ministry records were found buried near Marburg in the German state of Hesse. The American Supreme Allied Commander, General Eisenhower, had realised their significance and had them removed from the archives.
The diaries do not explain how copies found their way to King George VI but a reference to a secret mission by Anthony Blunt to Germany in mid-August 1945 has been heavily censored. Officially he went to retrieve letters written by Queen Victoria to a German relative. Liddell’s meeting with Lascelles took place on August 23.
In the summer of 1940 German agents tried to persuade the Duke to come over to their side. He had been serving with the British military mission in Paris, and retreated, first to Madrid and then to Lisbon, when France was overrun.
The German ambassadors in Spain and Portugal attempted to woo and cajole the Duke and Duchess into staying in Spain under German protection and a senior SS officer, Walter Schellenberg, sent the Duchess a bouquet containing a message warning her that the British planned to assassinate them. He had orders to kidnap the Duke and Duchess if they would not come voluntarily.
Winston Churchill offered the Duke the Governorship and impressed upon him that it was his patriotic duty to accept it.
The Duke’s lawyer, Sir Walter Monkton, was despatched to the villa where the Duke and Duchess. Their host in Portugal, the banker Ricardo Espirito Santo Silva was known to be a Nazi sympathiser.
Liddell noted in his diary that the Germans had made ‘a very determined effort’ to lure the Duke back to Spain and prevent him taking up his post in the Bahamas.

He added: ‘Various statements are attributed to the Duke by these agents which are not of a very savoury kind. Although it seems doubtful whether the Duke was scheming for his own restoration, it is fairly clear that he expresses the view … that the whole war was a mistake and that if he had been King it never would have happened.
‘He clearly rather felt himself in the role of mediator, if his country had finally collapsed, but he did not think the moment was opportune for any sort of intervention. He seemed to believe that he understood the German people far better than anyone else.’
But the most damning document was a claim that before he left for the Bahamas the Duke had agreed a code with Espirito Santo Silva to use if he changed his mind. The German ambassador in Lisbon claimed that a month after reaching the Bahamas, the Duke had sent just such a message, asking whether the time was right for action.
Liddell advised Lascelles to make checks that the documents were genuine, pointing out that agents had a habit of reporting what their masters wanted to hear. He also arranged for Schellenberg to be questioned.
But he noted in his diary: ‘I gather that Censorship obtained during the early days of the war a telegram to the Duchess in the Bahamas which seemed to be of a singularly compromising nature. There were a lot of blanks in this telegram but the sense of it seemed to be that the question either of the Duke’s mediation or of his restoration was discussed at some previous date.’
Lascelles later officially approached the Foreign Office permanent under-secretary Sir Alec Cadogan about the documents and they remained secret until 1947 when “the bulk of them” were shown to the official historian editing the archives, Sir John Wheeler-Bennett.
It has since emerged that the Foreign Office destroyed their copy of some of the documents and persuaded the Americans to do the same to avoid the possibility of a leak ‘to the great embarrassment’ of King George VI.





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