Perfidious Albion: An Introduction to the Secret History of the British Empire
May 18, 2011
By Dr. Richard B. Spence
Perfidious Albion – “Treacherous England,” “Faithless England,” or, if you prefer, “Dirty, Low-down, Sneaky England” – is commonly assumed to derive from the French La Perfide Albion. The epithet’s best known appearance is in the 1793 poem “L’ere de Francais” by the Marquis de Ximenez. The year is not without significance. In February 1793, the increasingly radical and beleaguered French Republic declared war on Britain, and Ximenez exhorted his revolutionary countrymen to carry the fight to the enemy’s shores. One wonders what he would have made of the theory, advance many years later, that the very Revolution he praised was the clandestine handiwork of Perfide Albion.
In any event, the good Marquis was hardly the first or the last to invoke the term. References to something of the kind date back to the late Middle Ages. In 1919, Canon Charles O’Neil enshrined it in the lyrics of “Foggy Dew,” which lauded Ireland’s Easter Rebellion. The Spanish, recalling the ill-fated Armada and the depredations of Sir Francis Drake, speak of Perfida Albion, the Italians of Perfida Albione, and the Germans of Perfides Albion. In any language, it boils down to the same thing: the English displayed a special knack for underhanded behaviour and more that they were damned good at it.
Is such sniping just the reflexive bitterness of losers, or was the rise and success of the British Empire really abetted by dirty tricks and not just hardy seamen, stiff upper lips and the will of the Almighty? If so, much of the dirty work falls into that category loosely termed espionage or “secret service.” But the English did not invent spying, which if not the world’s second oldest profession, must be the third. Nor can it be that Britain’s alleged sin was simply putting its interests above that of any other nation, be it friend or foe. What other country can really claim to have done otherwise, and why should anyone expect them to?
Of course, we are talking about more than mere intelligence gathering; suborning treason, inciting rebellion, even war, not to mention blackmail and assassination are neither the least nor the greatest crimes of which Perfidious Albion stands accused. Indeed, some might argue that the British Empire was born and maintained through a pact with the Devil himself. In any case, the likes of Stephen Dorril and Robin Ramsay argue that the long history of skulduggery manifests the hand of a British “Secret State” which continues to guide the policies and destiny of the United Kingdom.1
The notion than England possessed a special talent for deceit and underhandedness may be a myth, but it has proved an effective and enduring one. After all, though the Empire is gone, the most famous secret agent in the world, James Bond, remains a Briton. The long list of historical figures who stand accused of being Albion’s tools (whether they knew it or not) includes Christopher Marlowe, Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky and Adolf Hitler. Those who, to one degree or another, definitely were, include Aleister Crowley, Harry Houdini, Benito Mussolini and Noel Coward. What follows will take a necessarily very selective look at some of the persons and events involved in Britain’s clandestine affairs from the era of Elizabeth I to the Second World War. Some may be familiar, others definitely obscure, but each played a part in the Secret History of the British Empire.
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