You would think that the last place to look for a Soviet spy would be Buckingham Palace.
But that’s exactly where he was.
He had been there since 1945, appointed by Queen Elizabeth’s father, George VI, who was unaware of his double life. The truth was finally revealed to the Queen in 1964: That Sir Anthony Blunt, custodian of the royal family’s vast art collection, had been working as an active Soviet agent since the beginning of World War II.
And absolutely nothing changed. The public was not told. Blunt continued in his job.
This extraordinary affair is one of the murkier tales to follow in the new season of The Crown on Netflix.
Even today a lot remains unexplained about why, after he was unmasked as a traitor, Blunt was treated with astonishing leniency.
Blunt was the long-sought Fourth Man in the ring of five spies recruited at Cambridge University by the Russians in the 1930s—all of them ended up as moles deep inside British intelligence throughout World War II and during the most dangerous years of the Cold War.
The existence of the ring was first revealed after two of its members, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, fled to Russia in 1951 after believing that their cover had been broken. The third—and, in terms of the carnage he caused, by far the most lethal—was Kim Philby, who defected to Russia in 1963.
This penetration of British intelligence appalled their CIA partners and it was in America that the final track leading to Blunt as the Fourth Man was discovered.
It began with Michael Straight, a former speechwriter for President Roosevelt and later publisher of The New Republic, which was owned by his wealthy family. In 1963 Straight was being vetted by the Kennedy administration for the job of chairman of the Advisory Council on the Arts.
Straight had been at Cambridge in the 1930s and fallen deeply under the influence of Blunt—close enough to know that Blunt and Burgess were active agents and that Blunt was also a recruiter for the Soviets.
Straight was never himself recruited but he understood the one thing that the British counter-intelligence services never grasped: that a number of young upper-class English intellectuals, disillusioned with the capitalist ruling class, had become low-hanging fruit for Soviet propaganda and the KGB.
For years Straight had been wrestling with an inner urge to tell what he knew about the Cambridge moles. Between 1949 and 1951 he had set out for the British embassy in Washington three times intending to talk, and each time had turned away at the last minute.
Finally, in 1963, after 50 hours of FBI interrogation, Straight broke and named Blunt, as well as the fifth spy, John Cairncross.
The FBI passed on the names to Britain’s spycatchers at MI5 and they sent their top interrogator, Arthur Martin, to the U.S. to interview Cairncross, who was teaching at the University of Ohio. Cairncross confessed and confirmed Straight’s account that Blunt was the Fourth Man.
So it was that in the spring of 1964 Martin rang the door bell at the penthouse apartment atop the Courtauld Institute in Portman Square in London where Blunt lived—he served the Courtauld as an art expert and historian.
Over the years Blunt had been interviewed 11 times by MI5 on suspicion of being a mole but had never broken. (Similarly, Philby, a master dissembler, had survived unscathed through several interrogations before he took off for Moscow.)
This time, though, Blunt realized the game was up.
He poured himself a glass of gin and then, like a man suddenly shedding a burden, confessed and started to talk. Martin had eased the way by assuring Blunt that if he fully cooperated with MI5 in their debriefings he would not be prosecuted—and, in fact, neither he nor Cairncross ever faced trial.
But from that point the story moves from one kind of secret life to another, from secrets betrayed to the Russians to secrets held close by the royal family and never betrayed.
In the previous series of The Crown we saw the Queen looking shocked—absolutely shocked!—when she was told that her uncle, the former Edward VIII and subsequent Duke of Windsor, had drifted willingly near to the edge of treason, or perhaps beyond it, by responding positively to suggestions from Hitler that if Britain capitulated to the Nazis instead of going to war he, the duke, could return to the throne as Hitler’s puppet.
This was dramatized in The Crown in a flashback to 1945 and the discovery of what were known as the notorious Marburg Files—documents in the German Foreign Office archives that contained damning proof of the duke’s complicity.
The true extent of what was in those files has never been disclosed. The likelihood is that they revealed a far longer and more incriminating series of contacts between Edward and the Germans dating from before he actually became king.
And the reason that we don’t know for sure how far his treachery extended is that it was Anthony Blunt who was in charge of the operation to locate and retrieve the German files.
As Allied forces were rolling up the last German resistance before reaching Berlin, Blunt, serving as an officer in MI5, was sent to Germany, along with Sir Owen Morshead, the keeper of the royal archives at Windsor Castle.
Their destination was a brooding 19th century edifice, the Friedrichshof, one of a number of castles near Frankfurt owned by the Hesse branch of the royal family who were distant cousins of George VI. They carried a letter from the King underlining that the mission was on his behalf.
Their cover story was that they wanted to retrieve correspondence between Queen Victoria and her Hesse relatives. This was patently false: The idea that in the middle of a still-active battlefield it was vital to recover a 19th century archive was risible.
As we have already seen in The Crown, the real objective, all of the communications between the Duke of Windsor and the Nazis, had been transferred to microfilm and were, literally, unearthed: they were found buried in a culvert.
When Blunt returned to London with this cache he was almost immediately given the job of Surveyor of the King’s Pictures, an appointment good for life that also established his authority as an art expert. Whatever it was that Blunt and Morshead found in Germany never saw the light of day.
Blunt was not exactly an outsider. He was a third cousin of George VI’s Queen Elizabeth, subsequently the Queen Mother to Elizabeth II, and over the years became a family favorite. Among this family with little interest or knowledge of art, he was more valued by them as a witty raconteur on contemporary events. Presumably his messages to Moscow were more penetrating.
At Cambridge Blunt had been among a group of openly gay aesthetes who, because of their social status, were relatively immune from any risk of prosecution for what was then a criminal activity. He remained in this charmed circle while betraying his country in the war—and now, even after being discovered as the Fourth Man, his immunity remained secure.
This was in stark contrast to the fate of a man who was as single-handedly responsible for winning the war as anyone: Alan Turing, the computer pioneer who cracked the German Enigma codes.
In 1952 Turing confessed to police that he was having an affair with a much younger man and was charged under the draconian terms of “Gross indecency contrary to Section 11 of the Criminal Law Act of 1885.”
Between 1931 and 1951 there was a five-fold increase in these prosecutions. After barbarous treatment that included being injected with male hormones Turing committed suicide in 1954 by eating a cyanide-laced apple.
The treatment of Blunt, on the other hand, reflected an outrageous double standard that protected the privileged classes. The Queen’s private secretary, Sir Michael Adeane, told Blunt’s interrogators that the Queen “has been fully informed about Sir Anthony, and is quite content for him to be dealt with in any way that gets at the truth.”
That was carefully disingenuous. What category of truth was involved? It seems obvious that there was a clear quid pro quo: Blunt would stay silent on the German files in return for being left in place.
Indeed, his MI5 interrogators were specifically warned off from probing Blunt’s mission to Germany. And the small group that now had knowledge of Blunt’s treachery did not, incredibly, include the prime minister at the time, Sir Alec Douglas Home.
It was not until 15 years later, when another prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, learned of the secret pact that left Blunt at the palace that he was finally outed—by Thatcher herself in a statement to parliament in which she described him as “repugnant and contemptible.”
Responding to the public outcry the Queen finally removed Blunt from his post and stripped him of his knighthood. There was a cascade of abuse from the newspapers including an outbreak of rabid homophobia. The editor of the Sunday Express called him “a treacherous communist poof.”
For the last years of his life Blunt became a virtual recluse. He died in 1983 at the age of 75.
In The Crown—if they complete the story—that lies still far ahead, in the fourth series.