Espionage, or the act of intelligence gathering, is as old as civilisation itself.
In Ancient Rome, plain-clothes military scouts known as ‘speculatores’ infiltrated enemy territories to gather information. And in Tudor England, elite ‘spymasters’ used networks of informers to defend the interests of the crown.
Espionage took on a new urgency in the 20th century, as emergent technologies and global conflicts led to the advent of complex, globally influential new spy networks. Intelligence organisations, throughout World War One, World War Two and the Cold War, deployed elite secret agents to gather intel and ultimately gain the upper hand.
Here are 8 of the most notorious spies in history, from Queen Elizabeth I’s 16th-century spymaster to the Serbian-born agent who may have inspired the character of James Bond.
1. Sir Francis Walsingham (1532-1590)
Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster between 1573 and 1590, Sir Francis Walsingham played a pivotal role in Tudor intelligence gathering.
Acting under the authority of his Queen, who was fearful of a Catholic uprising, Walsingham recruited informers, cryptographers, and seal-breakers to protect the interests of the crown.
His efforts resulted in, amongst other things, a strategic advantage when the Spanish Armada attacked England in 1588 and the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1587.
Walsingham is often cited as being an early antecedent to MI5, the British government’s domestic counter-intelligence agency. The rose that Walsingham pressed into his wax seals is referenced on MI5’s coat of arms.
2. Belle Boyd (1844-1900)
Maria Isabella Boyd, known to most as ‘Belle’, was a notorious Confederate spy during the American Civil War.
She was recruited as a Confederate asset after a violent altercation with a Union soldier. The man, apparently intoxicated, offended both Boyd and her mother. In response, Boyd shot him dead.
Boyd was spared arrest for the offence and went on to a fruitful career in espionage. Throughout the war, she charmed Union-affiliated soldiers and officials, luring them into open conversations where they unwittingly spilled strategic information.
When she was later imprisoned, Belle even extracted intelligence from the Union guard supervising her cell. She wrote, “to him, I am indebted for some very remarkable effusions, some withered flowers, and a great deal of important information.”
3. Mata Hari (1876-1917)
Born Margaretha Geertruida Zelle in Holland, Mata Hari later styled herself as an exotic dancer of royal Indonesian heritage. She became an on-stage sensation during World War One, renowned for her racy live performances.
But Hari’s fabricated upbringing wasn’t the only mysterious aspect of her character. She was also a spy.
While acting as an elite courtesan, taking highly influential lovers from around the globe, Hari extracted and sold information to the Germans during World War One.
Hari’s influence and proficiency as a spy remain contentious, though. Some argue that her methods were largely ineffective. Others, on the other hand, contend that Hari’s efforts may have led to as many as 50,000 deaths, due to military advantages gained by her intelligence.
Either way, the name Mata Hari is now synonymous with the act of seducing information out of subjects.
4. Fritz Joubert Duquesne (1877-1956)
Born and raised in South Africa, Fritz Joubert Duquesne witnessed atrocities at the hands of the British Army during the Boer War, including the detaining of his mother and sister in a concentration camp.
Vehemently anti-British, Duquesne was later recruited as a German spy during World War One. He masqueraded as a scientist, gaining access to British vessels and extracting valuable information.
Duquesne is thought to have detonated bombs on several British ships during his time as a spy, and may have even been responsible for the sinking of the HMS Hampshire in 1916, during which Britain’s Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, was killed.
5. Lise de Baissac (1905-2004)
Mauritian-born, British-affiliated spy Lise de Baissac operated prolifically during World War Two, as part of Britain’s highly secretive Special Operations Executive (SOE) unit.
Baissac was recruited to the SOE in 1942. She then embarked upon a solo spying mission through German-occupied France, living in the Gestapo headquarters in Poitiers for some 11 months.
Adopting the role of an amateur archaeologist, Baissac then cycled around France collecting information and weapons and rallying a resistance network for the Allies. She also arranged the clandestine departure of agents and resistance leaders back to England.
In essence, she and her fellow couriers of the SOE were the key figures on the ground in France before the Normandy Landings, carrying messages, receiving supplies and aiding with local resistance movements.
6. Dušan Popov (1912-1981)
Born in Serbia, but with allegiances to Britain, Dušan ‘Duško’ Popov served as a secret agent for MI6 during World War Two.
One of the most notorious moments in Popov’s espionage career came in 1941. Popov’s efforts led him to believe that the Japanese were planning an assault on Pearl Harbor. He relayed the information to the FBI in August 1941, some 4 months before the attack ultimately took place.
It’s said that the American authorities didn’t act on this warning because the FBI’s director at the time, Edgar Hoover, didn’t trust Popov.
But Popov’s espionage career was nonetheless influential. While working in intelligence, Popov operated alongside author Ian Fleming, who was then serving as a Naval Intelligence Officer. Many believe that Popov was the inspiration for Fleming’s famed fictional spy, James Bond.
7. Anthony Blunt (1907-1983)
In 1979, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher revealed that a Soviet spy had been working from the heart of the British Establishment, managing the Queen’s paintings.
The agent in question, Anthony Blunt, was a Cambridge-educated scholar with Marxist allegiances who had started working at Windsor Castle during World War Two.
According to Michelle Carter, who wrote a biography named Anthony Blunt: His Lives, Blunt provided Soviet intelligence officers with 1,771 documents between 1941 and 1945. The sheer amount of material passed over by Blunt made the Russians suspicious he was acting as a triple agent.
Blunt’s actions were initially kept under wraps, so as not to reveal that a Soviet spy had been allowed into the heart of the British establishment. But the truth was eventually revealed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in a 1979 speech to the House of Commons.
8. Aldrich Ames (1941-present)
Aldrich Ames was a double agent for the Soviet Union, who used his position in the CIA to leak confidential information from the US during the Cold War.
Ames’ position in the CIA was as an analyst, and he used that role to cripple American investigations into the USSR.
Ultimately, Ames revealed the names of every American agent on the ground in the Soviet Union. His actions led to the executions of 10 CIA officials. And it’s thought that Ames and his wife were paid at least $2.7 million by the Soviet Union for their information – more than was paid to any other asset.
Arrested in 1994, Ames was ultimately charged with espionage and sentenced to life in prison.