Archiving spies in the Early Modern Spanish empire

Cover exhibition catalogue "Espias"While musing about a possible subject for a new post I luckily remembered an announcement about a vital element within the Early Modern Spanish empire. Not only official ambassadors and delegates played an important role in informing governments, spies played an important role to. From July 2018 to July 2019 the Archivo General de Simancas presents the exhibition Espias. Servicios secretos y escritura cifrada en la Monarquiaa Hispánica [Spies. Secret services and enciphered writing in the Spanish monarchy]. The Spanish Empire formed with the Habsburg Empire a European superpower which needed crucial information from other countries, but also wanted to hide their own secrets from others. In this post I will looked at the very substantial downloadable catalogue of this exhibition (54 MB, PDF). In particular the use of encrypted writing made me curious to find out about this exhibition with three main themes: the organization of intelligence services, the spies and encrypted writing.

Archiving at Simancas

A few lines about the Archivo General de Simancas (AGS), ten kilometers from Valladolid, seem in place here. in 1540 emperor Charles V decided to create a new governmental archive, and quickly Simancas was chosen as its location. King Philip II of Spain issued in 1588 a further instruction for the running of this new archive, in fact one of the first Early Modern archival ordinances. Ten years earlier, in 1578, a new building was built for this purpose, yet another pioneering project of this period. The collections can be divided in two major blocks, the collections stemming from the Habsburgian period and those from the period under the rule of the Bourbon dynasty. The collections of the various consejos (councils) for the regions of the Spanish empire are characteristic for the AGS. For the Bourbon period five major series for the secretaries and again five series for other organisms of the state are the key elements. Outside these series you can find the Patronato Real y Mapas, Planos y Dibujos, with maps, drawings and much more.

Cover of the "Guia del investgador" for the AGS

By all means the AGS can look literally as a formidable fortress! Guides such as the Guía del investigador by Angel de la Plaza Bores (4th ed., 1992; online, 5 MB, PDF) help much to overcome your awe. In her article ‘Fuentes para la historia colonial de Brasil en los archivos españoles’ , published in 2009 in the series Guide du chercheur americaniste of the online journal Nuevo Mundo/ Mundos NuevosMaría Belén García López devoted a section to the use of archival record series at the AGS for researching the history of relations between Spain and Portugal with regard to Brazilian history. In English you might want to look at a 2014 contribution about Simancas by Claire Gilbert at Hazine. In 2016 Adolfo Polo y La Borda looked very brief at Simancas and other major Spanish archives in his post ‘Rethinking the Spanish Imperial Archives’ for the series Fresh from the archives of Dissertation Reviews. The Portal de Archivos Españoles (PARES) offers a kind of tree structure which you can navigate to find not only online finding aids but also digitized archival records. At first this might look difficult, but the online guide Taming PARES by Scott Cave and Ashleigh Dean is a must-read to gain access to all riches of PARES. There is a separate website for the digital collection with 7,000 digitized items from the Mapas, Planos y Dibujos of the AGS. A much older guide by William R. Shepard, Guide to the materials for the history of the United States in Spanish archives. (Simancas, the Archivo histórico nacional, and Seville) (Washington, D.C., 1907) can be viewed online in the Hathi Trust Digital Library. German readers might want to look at Marc André Grebe, Akten, Archive, Absolutismus? Das Kronarchiv von Simancas im Herrschaftsgefüge der spanischen Habsburger (1540-1598) (Madrid 2014).

Early Modern spies

Spy report 1572 - AGS

Detail of a deciphered spy report on fortifications in Piedmont, 1572 – AGS, EST LEG 1234-48

In the preface of the exhibition catalogue Julia Rodriguez de Diego explains how the study of the history of spies, their networks and tools is important for at least three main terrains, viz. the growth of absolute monarchies, the history of Early Modern diplomacy and the field of political theories, even its very heart, the building of states and concepts of states and Staatsräson. The first part of the catalogue deals with the organization of espionage at several levels with the Spanish state. In 1497 the pope authorized the Reyes Católicos to send spies into Africa. It seems the Spanish government scarcely needed this spur, but it proved to be a welcome confirmation. In the catalogue you will find discussions of several documents, for example instructions to virreyes (the viceroys of Navarra, Naples and Sicily) and gobernadores (the governors of Milan and Flandes, meaning the Low Countries). The chart with several layers of the Spanish state is very helpful to perceive the impact and role of intelligence services within and for Spain. Juan Velasquez de Velasco, head of the royal intelligence service at the end of the sixteenth century, wrote to the king about the urgent need for coordination of all efforts. As an example of actual reconnaissance by spies you can look at a 1572 report on French fortifications in the Piedmont region with explanations about a map showing details of these fortresses. A number of documents about payments to spies closes the first section of the catalogue. Here and elsewhere you will find images of documents and substantial transcribed parts in the commentaries.

Encrypted message, ca. 1588-1621 - AGS

An encrypted message written on linen, ca. 1588-1621 – AGS, MPD 44-48

The second and largest part of the catalogue deals with actual spies. Spies might be the word we want to use, but agents is a better term. The Spanish agents delivered reports in encrypted script, here an example written on linen using an unknown cipher code. A late sixteenth-century treatise on counter espionage (AGS, EST LEG 601-183) shows insights in the way enemy spies were hindered in achieving foreign objectives. Spies travelled over all Europe. Venice was considered the very spy capital of Europe. Some documents in this exhibition tell us about spies going to the Ottoman empire. The Spanish spies reported also on the roles and fate of spies from other countries. Corsairs were another matter of concern, as in a 1535 report about preparations for an attack at Oran. Rather grim is the story from 1536-1537 in Naples of the interrogation of a person suspected to be a judeoconverso, a converted Jew, and of being a spy for the Ottomans. Some time later he was found drowned in a river. The story of a spy working in Ireland to get information about British industry and inventions is another interesting subject. The contemporary picture of a spy heading this chapter is a nice vignette of the perceived qualities of a spy, working day and night, always watching out as if he had eyes all over his clothes. A paragraph on famous spies is a logical ending for this section of the catalogue.

The uses of encryption

Encrypted negotation report - AGS

An encrypted negotiation report by ambassador Rodriguez Gonzalez de la Puebla, 1498 – AGS, PTR LEG 52-144, fol. 2r

The third part of the catalogue deals with encryption and its uses. The traditional main ways of encryption were substitution or transposition of letters and hiding written messages. For a late fifteenth-century example of a simple cipher code with 2,400 expressions the use of Roman numbers is shown for the names of particular authorities. The code was used by the Spanish ambassador in England who negotiated for the marriage of Catherine of Aragon with Arthur Tudor, the king’s brother. It is good to see the catalogue uses here an article by María del Carmen Sevilla González, ‘Las nupcias de Catalina de Aragón: aspectos jurídicos, políticos y diplomáticos’, Anuario de Historia del Derecho Español 86 (2016) 657-726. Several documents help to give you an idea of what happened behind the screens before king Henry VII agreed in 1504 with the marriage conditions of Catherine’s second marriage in 1503 with the future Henry VIII in a beautiful illuminated document [AGS, PTR LEG 53-1].

In a final paragraph the catalogue shows examples of both general and particular cipher codes. Much of the information given here comes from a recent study by Javier Marcos Rivas, Los dueños del secreto. Espías y espionaje de la Monarquía de los Austrias en el Archivo de Simancas (Madrid 2015). A document from 1564 shows not only a text but also two bars of music [AGS, Estado, leg. 1.1.1.204]. The AGS has in its holdings a manuscript of an unpublished study by Claudio Pérez Gredilla, written in 1899 and 1900 about 200 different cipher codes found in the holdings of this archive [AGS, D/203]. The very last item is really a surprise, a 1936 German Enigma code machine from the holdings of the Museo Histórico Militar de Burgos. This object is really from another age of cryptography. It highlights the fact this catalogue focuses on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

With some regret I have skipped a number of items in this exhibition catalogue, just as i have condensed four centuries of archiving at Simancas. To give just one example, a document with microscopic script from 1586 is presented separately online. You will agree with me the exhibition builds to a climax with the marriages of Catherine of Aragon and the presence of an original Enigma code machine. A particular strength of the catalogue is the ample use of images from archival records combined with partial transcriptions and extensive commentaries. To some extent you can use this catalogue also as an introduction to Spanish palaeography in the Early Modern period. This exhibition fits neatly in the tradition of the AGS for organizing interesting exhibitions, sometimes followed by a virtual exhibit, and publishing accompanying publications. It should invite you to combine your strengths in the Spanish language and the skills of the auxiliary historical sciences such as palaeography to benefit from the wealth of archival records kept at Simancas and in other Spanish archives.

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