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.
If the television chat show had been invented in the 1930s Klop Ustinov would have been the master of it. He was a brilliant raconteur and mimic, full of tall stories and preposterous tales, all of which his audience wanted to believe.
Exactly the talents that made his famous actor-director son Peter such a hit on the Parkinson show 40 years later.
Klop found a different outlet for his bewitching repartee. He was Britain’s most ingenious secret agent, an accolade bestowed on him by his boss Sir Dick White, the only man to be head of both MI5 and MI6.
Even his name was worth an anecdote. It was Russian for bedbug, coined by his future wife Nadia on account of his appearance: a small green-eyed creature with an oversized head.
As she quickly discovered, he shared the little parasite’s habit of hopping from bed to bed and was quite unrepentant – regaling her with tales of his many girlfriends.
When they met, in Petrograd in 1920, he was spying for Germany. He was a much decorated hero of their army and air force in the First World War, yet he had not a drop of German blood. His father had been a Russian aristocrat who married an Ethiopian princess and raised their family in Palestine.
In the course of a turbulent life he acquired German nationality, which Klop had inherited and proudly maintained until Hitler came to power. His racial background hardly suited him to Nazi ideology.
So he switched sides and was instrumental in bringing victory to the Allies. Using his many German contacts in high places he successfully penetrated the inner sanctum of Hitler’s intelligence and security service, the Sicherheitsdienst.
His skilful interrogation of captured spies and army
Klop posing as an Englishman: sketched in 1922 by his Russian wife Nadia Benois
officers laid bare the enemy’s campaign plans and his wily manipulation of double agents in Lisbon contributed to the great deception which left the German generals floundering on D-Day.
Then he turned his attention to the KGB and its forerunners. His painstaking examination of their most successful wartime network - the Rote Drei in Switzerland - revealed the blueprint for their future Cold War operations and helped to counteract the treachery of his one-time boss Kim Philby.
To order your copy of Klop: Britain’s Most Ingenious Spy click on the link in the right hand column.