The Second-Oldest Profession

King Alfred

King Alfred disguised as a harpist in the camp of the Danish leader Guthrum, an illustration of a Victorian retelling of the tale for children. Waddleton.b.9.927

Espionage occurs when a population seeks to defend its own interests, or infringe the interests of a rival group. The stories of Israelite spies in the Old Testament are the earliest to have entered the Western tradition, and have been augmented by the narratives of classical literature and the legends of medieval Europe. The ambivalent moral position of the spy and the role’s inescapable element of subterfuge have not invariably been seen as dishonourable, as hagiographical accounts of King Alfred reconnoitring the Danish camp in disguise demonstrate.

In times of war or during periods of international or dynastic tension, fear of conspiracy has led to counter-intelligence measures. As the apparatus of government has grown more complex and regulated, so the formal status of those given responsibility for security and intelligence-gathering has gradually developed, but well into the nineteenth century agents might be recruited on an essentially ad hoc and unestablished basis.

The spy Florence Hensey

The spy Florence Hensey, from James Caulfield's Portraits, Memoirs, and Characters, of Remarkable Persons (1820). Eb.15.21.

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