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.
During a long career in politics and espionage Otto John managed to defect three times. It remains unclear to this day whose side he was really on.
Documents released to me under the Freedom of Information Act reveal that Britain was pulling his strings behind the scenes while he was head of the West German equivalent of MI5.
When the Nazi regime came to power in 1933 he was a lawyer for Lufthansa while his brother Hans, also a lawyer, was employed by the German Air Ministry.
Both were identified with the underground resistance to Hitler, before and during the Second World War, and had links to the Abwehr - military intelligence.
Otto John’s job enabled him to travel often to neutral capitals, Madrid and Lisbon, where he passed on peace initiatives, leaked military secrets like the development of V1 and V2 rockets, and provided details of German plots to assassinate Hitler.
He appealed unavailingly for British and American support and it has long been suspected that the double agent Kim Philby, head of MI6’s Iberia section, did his best to frustrate these plots because Stalin feared the Western Allies would make a separate peace. Philby sent the MI6 agent Klop Ustinov to be his eyes and ears in Lisbon.
When Claus von Stauffenberg’s attempt to blow up Hitler in his Eastern Front HQ failed, Otto John fled to Lisbon and was smuggled back to Britain. His brother Hans was among the many executed for suspected involvement in the plot.
Towards the end of the war Otto John took part in British propaganda broadcasts to Germany, and later assisted at the Nuremberg War Crimes trials.
In 1950 he was appointed president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, responsible for internal security - the West German equivalent of MI5.
Triple defector Otto John
It was widely assumed, by Allies and the Communist bloc alike, that he was a British place man, answering to two masters. That has always been denied by the British government but the newly released Foreign Office documents make clear that he was telling his British handlers more than he told his own government and that they, at least, were forewarned of the extraordinary developments that were to follow.
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