Why the Queen kept quiet about Russian spy at the Palace: Anthony Blunt was the Windsors’ chief art curator for decades but he was also one of the ‘Cambridge Five’ spy ring. Now, a compelling new book reveals the secret hold he had over the royals
They are two of Britain’s most important institutions: secretive, heavily mythologised and often misunderstood. And, as our serialisation of a riveting new book reveals, the ties between the Royal Family and the intelligence services are surprisingly close. Our final extract examines how the Queen played a part in a cover-up involving someone who worked for her — and who was also spying for the Russians — art historian Anthony Blunt.
The Queen knew all about Soviet spy Anthony Blunt. He had been a close friend of her grandmother, Queen Mary, had worked illustriously for MI5 during the war and, when it ended in 1945, accepted the position of Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, effectively the royal art historian.
And all the while he was a spy and a talent spotter for Soviet intelligence. MI5 definitely knew Blunt was a KGB agent but what is now clear is that so did the Royal Family. As early as 1948, his treachery became the subject of common or garden tea-time gossip in the Palace but nothing was done about it. He kept his position.
One reason the royals turned a blind eye has to be that Blunt was party to certain secret things about them, having undertaken discreet business on their behalf.
One role was as a thief, presiding over the robberies of neutral diplomatic mail bags, including those of Turkey, Spain and France, something the British Government still does not wish to admit.
This involved outwitting security staff and forging seals on secret correspondence, combining artistry and criminality — all while working at lightning speed. He loved the sense of danger.
The Queen knew all about Soviet spy Anthony Blunt. He had been a close friend of her grandmother, Queen Mary, had worked illustriously for MI5 during the war and, when it ended in 1945, accepted the position of Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, effectively the royal art historian
This experience — as well as his closeness to the Royal Family — helps explain why at the end of the war he was sent by the King on secret missions to Germany to find art, jewels and rare coins which had once belonged to the Windsors but also sensitive documents that might put them in a bad light.
There is still a mystery about what precisely these were but one likelihood is the personal papers of Vicky, the eldest child of Queen Victoria, who married future German emperor, Frederick III, in 1858, thus becoming empress of Germany and queen of Prussia.
Her eldest child was Kaiser Wilhelm II. She had kept extensive diaries and written letters to her mother providing her with insider intelligence about what was going on in the German court, but also touching on affairs of the heart.
Blunt charmed one of Victoria’s German granddaughters into handing over the papers for safekeeping, including secret love letters the teenage Victoria had written to a dashing Scottish lord she had a crush on before marrying Prince Albert. George VI felt it was ‘essential these papers should not fall into the wrong hands’.
But what was even more important to the King was to get his hands on any correspondence indicating the Nazi sympathies of his abdicated brother, the Duke of Windsor, and the pro-German sentiments of other members of the British Royal Family.
Blunt made four visits to Europe between 1945 and 1947 for the royals. What did he find? Famously tight-lipped, all we know for sure is that in 1956 he was knighted for his services. Remarkably, when he received his knighthood, Buckingham Palace had known he was a Soviet agent for eight years.
MI5 definitely knew Blunt was a KGB agent but what is now clear is that so did the Royal Family. As early as 1948, his treachery became the subject of common or garden tea-time gossip in the Palace but nothing was done about it
In 1948, the King’s private secretary, Tommy Lascelles, was escorting a new equerry down the corridors of the Palace when they passed Blunt. A few moments later, Lascelles whispered: ‘That’s our Russian Spy.’
But another three years went by before those whispers were to be spoken out loud. By this time, he no longer had direct access to any classified material but he still kept in touch with Soviet intelligence while working at the Palace, passing on gossip or titbits.
He certainly had enough contact with royal life for the Palace to raise concerns about him in 1951, in the wake of the dramatic defection to the Soviet Union of British diplomats Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean.
Soon after the pair went missing, the King pressed Lascelles for details. But it was Blunt rather than Burgess and Maclean he was concerned about. Blunt and Burgess had shared a flat during the war; were known to be close.
Guy Liddell, Lascelles’s cousin and deputy director of MI5, reassured him that ‘no mention was made of Blunt and his association with Burgess, which had been referred to by at least one paper’. A month later, Lascelles was on the phone again. The King was still concerned about Blunt.
Liddell again reassured him that he was ‘convinced’ Blunt had ‘never been a Communist in the full political sense, even during his days at Cambridge’.
Liddell was wrong. Recruited by the Soviets as a ‘fellow traveller’ when he was an undergraduate, Blunt had passed countless secrets to Moscow.
Even when he left MI5 at the end of the war and no longer had access to top-secret material, he was still moving in well-informed royal circles, well placed to gather other sorts of exotic information. The KGB was delighted, hoping that his royal connections would give him access to the King — and the King’s secrets. Sadly for Moscow, this turned out not to be the case.
He had still been busy on the side, though, and had acted as a courier for Burgess between 1945 and 1947, carrying messages to and from his Soviet handlers. He later confessed that he had used his Russian contacts to facilitate Burgess and Maclean’s defection.
Yuri Modin, the key KGB handler for the Cambridge Five (as Kim Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and John Cairncross, another top civil servant-turned-traitor, were known), recalled just how important Blunt was at this time: ‘Blunt, in effect, served as Burgess’s permanent liaison with me. I would also seek him out whenever I needed information about MI5, where he still had plenty of friends.
‘Sometimes I even asked him to procure up-to-date data on individual agents in the British counter-espionage service. I was to continue seeing Blunt until 1951.’
But his secret life took its toll. Outwardly appearing the composed and elegant academic, he suffered from exhaustion and turned to drink in the 1950s.
One reason the royals turned a blind eye has to be that Blunt was party to certain secret things about them, having undertaken discreet business on their behalf
He gradually became more introverted, concentrating on his academic work. He avoided royal social events and, from the early 1950s, when the new Queen Elizabeth inherited him, he delegated much of this work to his deputy.
Nonetheless, he maintained his position in the royal household not only after the Burgess and Maclean scandal threw suspicion on him but even after the writer Goronwy Rees made allegations about him to MI5. This led to MI5 interviewing Blunt 11 times, but he remained composed and in control.
Then in 1964, armed with new intelligence, MI5 tried again, with the director general, Roger Hollis, informing the Home Office that this time they wanted to offer him immunity from prosecution in return for a confession.
The deal had clear implications for the Royal Family. Michael Adeane, the Queen’s private secretary, was told that provided Blunt confessed and cooperated in MI5’s inquiries, he would be granted immunity.
Adeane listened intently, before asking what action the Queen should take if Blunt did confess. None, Hollis responded, because any action, such as firing him, would alert Russian intelligence and any other potential moles under investigation.
Blunt duly confessed to having been a Soviet intelligence agent during the 1930s and then in 1951 being privy to the defection of Burgess and Maclean.
Even when he left MI5 at the end of the war and no longer had access to top-secret material, he was still moving in well-informed royal circles, well placed to gather other sorts of exotic information
Shortly afterwards, Adeane summoned Peter Wright, a senior MI5 officer investigating Soviet moles, to assure him ‘the Palace was willing to co-operate in any inquiries’. The Queen, Adeane continued, ‘has been fully informed about Sir Anthony, and is quite content for him to be dealt with in any way which gets at the truth’.
Adeane did insist on one stipulation, though: ‘You may find Blunt referring to an assignment he undertook on behalf of the Palace — a visit to Germany at the end of the war. Please do not pursue this matter. Strictly speaking, it is not relevant to considerations of national security.’
Wright — who later went on to defy his MI5 masters and publish his controversial, tell-all book Spycatcher — is not always the most reliable of witnesses, but other evidence corroborates that the Queen did know.
In the early 1970s, Prime Minister Edward Heath offered her a detailed report about Blunt’s spying for the first time. He was surprised to learn she had already been told a decade earlier.
This has constitutional implications. It meant the Queen knew far more about the Blunt case than the Prime Minister of the time, Alec Douglas-Home. Even Adeane knew more about it than the PM.
Day Margaret burned her mother’s papers
When Kenneth Rose, the doyen of royal biographers, lunched with Princess Margaret in 1984, she told him ‘how busy she has been for the past week destroying much of the Queen Mother’s correspondence and the battered attaché cases in which it has been kept’.
Rose was quite aghast at this ‘terrible news’, yet Margaret gushed on enthusiastically: ‘I have already filled two big sacks and the servants are so pleased at my cleaning up the mess.’
This was not a momentary whim, but an organised programme of destruction. Three years later, she was still at it.
David Griffin, her chauffeur, was her accomplice in this historical crime. Overseen by the Princess, who had pulled on an outsize pair of yellow rubber gloves, he set up a royal incinerator in a dustbin outside the garage at Kensington Palace. ‘The smoke was so thick it made her eyes water and she had to leave,’ he recalls.
They returned repeatedly to Clarence House afterwards to collect more letters and papers — and burned them all. He saw Diana’s name on a few, and even her crest and handwriting, and there were lots of others, from decades earlier, addressed to the King and Queen.
‘The Princess never said why she was doing it, but she was very determined that they should all be destroyed, thousands of them. I remember thinking we were putting a match to history.’
Pictured: The Queen Mother
Perhaps it was precisely because it affected the Queen that Douglas-Home was kept in the dark. Hollis apparently advised against briefing him. The aristocratic PM got on well with the Queen. When he visited Balmoral, he did so as a friend as much as the leader of her government.
Hollis feared Douglas-Home might refuse to compromise the Queen by allowing Blunt to stay at the Palace — which would have undermined Blunt’s cooperation.
The constitutional quandary is this. If the Queen did know and the Prime Minister did not, then it is striking that she did not raise the issue with him during their weekly audience. The unmasking of a Soviet spy was, after all, an extraordinary development.
Perhaps she was warned against it. The Queen would have been unable to conduct her constitutional duties of advising — this time for the unusual reason of knowing more secrets than a PM.
The immunity deal did not spell the end of Blunt’s association with intelligence.
From 1964, he provided MI5 with information about Russian intelligence activities and his association with Burgess, Maclean and Philby. More intriguingly, he ‘collaborated with the security service in counter-espionage operations, some of which are continuing’.
MI5 used Blunt’s information to establish a ‘research team’ to investigate the alleged ring of moles inside British intelligence.
At the same time, MI5 did not trust him. Intelligence officers assumed he was still holding information back: ‘He may still be protecting friends’.
MI5 put Blunt under surveillance. From 1964 onwards, every Home Secretary, signed ‘interception warrants’ on him. They clearly watched him — and listened to him — closely, wondering whether he was still double crossing them.
This raises the intriguing possibility that his communications with the royal household were tapped as part of the broader surveillance operation. All the while, the Queen continued to see her royal art historian at various official events. In general, though, he avoided her in daily court life.
He did, however, maintain a good relationship with the Queen Mother and the two very occasionally shared a box at the opera.
It is highly unlikely she knew about his treachery.
- Adapted from The Secret Royals: Spying And The Crown From Victoria To Diana by Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac, published by Atlantic on October 7 at £25. (c) Richard Aldrich and Rory Cormac 2021. To order a copy for £22.50 (offer valid to October 7; UK P&P free), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.