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Walking tour: discover the secrets of Cambridge's spies



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Mention the Cambridge spies and immediately everyone thinks of KGB spooks Blunt, Burgess, Philby and Maclean.

But it turns out Cambridge has been an epicentre of spying and codebreaking for hundreds of years and a new walk devised by the Green Badge guides will reveal the murky depths of espionage across the ages in the city.

Spying seeps into every corner of Cambridge, especially the university, and the guides have an incredible amount of stories harking back hundreds of years, from the founding of ancient colleges up to modern times, taking in playwright Christopher Marlowe, sorcerer and ‘Chief Intelligencer’ Dr John Dee as well as code breakers Alan Turing and Dilly Knox – and even the background of the world’s most famous fictional spy, James Bond.

Blue badge Guides will reveal the haunts of Cambridge's most famous spies
Blue badge Guides will reveal the haunts of Cambridge's most famous spies

Sophie Smiley, an excellent name for an expert storyteller about spies, is one of the Green Badge Guides leading this tour.

She says: “Cambridge is the absolute world hotbed of spies. Everyone has heard of the great Blunt, Burgess and Maclean, but it goes back many hundreds of years right back to the beginnings of the university.

“It’s a much larger and darker history and it’s stories of spies, double agents, code breaking, encryption, ideology and greed.

“From the start of Pembroke College, founded 1347, there was a tradition of watching people.

“It was founded by a woman called Marie de Saint Pol and she stipulated in the statutes that students should only leave the college in groups of three or more.

“Her idea was they should then watch each other and report any misdemeanours, a bit like the Stasi. They could check whether these young men were seeing women or gambling or drinking and she embedded the idea of spying among the student population.”

Spy Walks in Cambridge with Sophie Smiley . Picture: Keith Heppell. (47140659)
Spy Walks in Cambridge with Sophie Smiley . Picture: Keith Heppell. (47140659)

Another early example of spying is the tiny peephole cut through from Corpus Christi College to St Benet’s Church.

Sophie says: “There is a hidden room where the master of the college could sit and there is a tiny rectangular window where he could be hidden and see that his students were attending church and not getting up to shenanigans.”

Cambridge appears to have been a nexus of spying through the ages because it attracted brilliant minds and, in more modern times, wealthy and influential students, says Sophie.

She explains: “In the past there was a lot of social mobility at Cambridge and many people arrived from all backgrounds but in the 20th century, the KGB recruits were all very much from the elite and they didn’t fall under suspicion because they were friends with people in high places and no one could believe ‘people like us’ would betray their country.

“But the earlier spies like Christopher Marlowe did not have that background. He was the son of a shoemaker and came to Cambridge on a scholarship.

“Marlowe worked with Shakespeare on some of his history plays and the word intelligence, meaning spying, is first used by Shakespeare on plays that they had perhaps collaborated on. Hamlet, of course, is all about spying. ”

Tudor times were particularly busy for spies at Cambridge because, says Sophie, “it was the beating heart of government”.

And Marlowe, who lived in Old Court in Corpus Christi College, appeared to be very busy indeed. In fact he was away from the university so frequently, believed to be on missions abroad, that he almost didn’t graduate.

Spy Walks in Cambridge with Sophie Smiley. Old Court Corpus Christi. Picture: Keith Heppell. (47140579)
Spy Walks in Cambridge with Sophie Smiley. Old Court Corpus Christi. Picture: Keith Heppell. (47140579)

Sophie says: “Where he lived in Old Court is virtually unchanged externally from the time he was there. He wasn’t a very good student in conventional terms because he kept being away from college. He was going off to France all the time and, when he came to graduate after his studies, the university said we are not going to give him a degree because he has not fulfilled the attendance requirements. A message came from Queen Elizabeth I saying ‘Give the boy a degree for services rendered – he has done good work’.”

There is some proof that Marlowe was earning extra money, as his bar bill records, which still exist, show he was paying out more than he could afford on his scholarship.

Sophie says: “We are inferring he was being paid. This is supposition but the Queen, with her spymaster Walsingham in Cambridge, were picking the brightest and sending them sometimes to France, which was a Catholic country, to go undercover and infiltrate just as you might embed someone with Isis today. One of the things they got people to do was train as priests in France when they were really working for the Queen and could then come back and root out any Catholic plots.”

Marlowe left Cambridge and wrote his plays, but he did come to what Sophie calls “a sticky end” at a pub in Deptford, which may not have been all it seemed.

“When he died in the pub there were other well-known spies there and it was said to be a fight. But all the accounts of his death are slightly divergent including an inquest. They don’t quite tally. There is a conspiracy theory that maybe he wasn’t murdered but it was a fake assassination and maybe he was smuggled out to Italy and continued his work and writing plays, which he sent back to a young playwright in England from Stratford-upon-Avon. I quite like that theory. I studied literature and you can run the plays through computers and the linguistic parallels between Marlowe and Shakespeare are very close.”

Spy Walks in Cambridge with Sophie Smiley . The gate of Pembroke College . Picture: Keith Heppell. (47140576)
Spy Walks in Cambridge with Sophie Smiley . The gate of Pembroke College . Picture: Keith Heppell. (47140576)

Sometimes, Sophie takes her walk down to the river where talks about the part it played as Cambridge’s information “superhighway”.

“Henry VIII put spies out to watch people coming to Cambridge by river because the river was the superhighway for ideas. Intellectual property was dangerous and he wanted the books and materials coming in, particularly from Germany, to be vetted so he put spies on at the port. But people got wise to it and they would drop seditious material off higher up the river in places like Waterbeach and bring the last bit into Cambridge on horseback, to get round this network of river checks.”

The paranoia around Tudor times concerned new religious ideas that might undermine Henry’s right to the throne.

His daughter, who became the aforementioned Queen Elizabeth I, employed a network of spies and the famous Rainbow Portrait of her at Hatfield House shows her wearing a dress decorated with eyes and ears which, Sophie says, was a message to say she had spies everywhere.

Meanwhile, Chris Weeds, a former education officer and guide at the Houses of Parliament, is another Green Badge guide who will be running the tour. She says there is so much to say about spying in Cambridge; her tour could easily run for “several hours”, although she sticks to 90 minutes.

She says: “We feel this year most of our visitors will not be the usual foreign tourists but staycationers. So it may well be people who have visited Cambridge before and have done the standard tour of King’s College or the walking tour and are looking for something different.

“It would also be nice to offer something to local residents in Cambridge.

“It is a tour we offer annually for the Open Cambridge programme and we always had to double the number of guides we put on because the tours were fully booked almost immediately and that was a local audience.”

Her walk covers the full breadth of spies and codebreakers who have links to the city.

Alan Turing, who broke the Enigma code.
Alan Turing, who broke the Enigma code.

“Most of the colleges in the centre have links with spies and there obviously is the Cavendish Laboratory, which has been very important. Pembroke, Trinity and King’s are all rich in spying history.

“The stories from Pembroke, King’s and St John’s are the older spies. I particularly find the Elizabethan period when Cecil was Lord Burleigh and chief minister for Elizabeth I. He was a St John’s man and he could really be seen as the Tudor head of MI5, had it existed in those days. He recruited Francis Walsingham, who set up a network of spies and is really the first spymaster. That is when people first realised the value of codes and code breaking.

“They used written codes with the replacement of letters. What’s changed over time is we have computers to break codes, but in Elizabethan times they had to sit with pen and paper to work it out.”

On the other hand, Trinity was the home of the 20th-century spies.

“It’s been said that all universities, because of the type of students there, will produce spies but Cambridge has been far more generous than others and it has produced spies for both sides,” says Chris.

“Our main 20th-century spies were Burgess, Blunt, Philby, Maclean and Cairncross. Four of the five were Trinity men and Maclean was just around the corner at Trinity Hall. It’s likely they were recruited into the communist party by Maurice Dobbs, who was at Pembroke.

“It wasn’t unusual in their time for students to be interested in communism because the First World War was meant to end all wars and soon afterwards it was clear that wasn’t going to be the case. So, you have these two ideologies, fascism and communism, and it wasn’t unusual for educated young men from top universities to dabble in one or the other. What is unusual was how deeply involved they became and how much damage they did.

“One thing we don’t have is any major spy trials. I often ask my groups why Philby etc escaped, and the answer is because a trial is embarrassing.

“It proves these people have been spying for so long and we don’t want our allies to know that we failed to catch these spies. So it has been said they weren’t exactly allowed to escape, but they were not taken into custody immediately and they did escape.”

Spy Walks in Cambridge with Sophie Smiley. The Crocodile image dedicated to Rutherford on the wall of the Mond Laboratory, University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell. (47140591)
Spy Walks in Cambridge with Sophie Smiley. The Crocodile image dedicated to Rutherford on the wall of the Mond Laboratory, University of Cambridge. Picture: Keith Heppell. (47140591)

This crocodile image on the wall of the Mond Laboratory at the University of Cambridge is dedicated to Ernest Rutherford, the father of nuclear physics.

He was given the nickname ‘the crocodile’ by one of his students, the Russian Pyotr Kapitza. When he returned to Cambridge in 1966, Kapitza said this was because in Russia the crocodile is a symbol of the father of the family. Perhaps it was also because Kapitza feared Rutherford might bite his head off, having told him that communist propaganda would not be tolerated. But Rutherford certainly valued the student – organising a petition to prevent him having to return to Soviet Union in 1934 when the rise of Nazism prompted the country to recall him and other scientists. Rutherford had the petition translated into French to obscure its Cambridge/British origins and asked a former pupil, Bohr, to circulate the petition among European academics.Ultimately, it never got sent.

But Rutherford also appealed directly to the Soviet government. It replied that it understood why England would like the return of Kapitza, just as it would rather like the services of Rutherford.

Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev wanted Kapitza to work on the country’s atomic bomb project. Kapitza refused and was accused of “premeditated sabotage of national defence.” He lost his house, his car and was not permitted to travel abroad until he was in his 70s

Codebreakers have also been an important part of work to support the secret services and Cambridge supplied many of its most brilliant minds to Bletchley Park, working to break codes during the Second World War.

“Alan Turing was from King’s and although he was a code breaker that is strongly linked with spying, because spies need an arsenal of weapons,” says Chris.

“Not only did Turing work on breaking the German Enigma code but he also made one of the first programmable computers and where would our spies be without access to that sort of intelligence?”

Sarah John, Chief Cashier at the Bank of England, holding the new £50 note featuring scientist Alan Turing which will be issued for the first time on 23 June 2021, which coincides with his birthday. PA. (47405120)
Sarah John, Chief Cashier at the Bank of England, holding the new £50 note featuring scientist Alan Turing which will be issued for the first time on 23 June 2021, which coincides with his birthday. PA. (47405120)

Of course the world’s most famous spy is James Bond and it turns out he studied at Cambridge.

Chris says: “He may be fictitious but there are so many links between him and Cambridge. James Bond is a Cambridge man, which we know from the film You Only Live Twice. He is about to be sent to Asia and Moneypenny asks if he needs a language guide and he replies that he has a double first from Cambridge in oriental languages. He neglects to tell us which college, but Terrence Young, who directed a number of the Bond films came from St Catz, so that’s a possible link.

“Also the previous master of Pembroke was Sir Richard Dearlove, from 2004 to 2015, and he was previously head of MI6, so he would have been Bond’s boss. It is said the KGB got their members to watch Bond films to help them identify English spies.

“That makes me wonder what they thought about Roger Moore rolling into bed with his latest conquest...”

Book at tour with the Green Badge guides at Cambridge-spies.uk/.



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