Sir Anthony Blunt was a spy in the Queen’s household, and, yes, the story is true.
The Crown Season 3 starts with Queen Elizabeth II’s suspicions that Russian spies have infiltrated the highest reaches of British government (Warning: There will be spoilers for The Crown, Season 3, episode 1 in this article.)
In the first episode of the new season, which streamed on Netflix on November 17, 2019, Queen Elizabeth II (played now by Olivia Colman) grows suspicious that Prime Minister Harold Wilson is a mole. It’s the 1960s now, and Communist paranoia was at its height. Prince Philip (Tobias Menzies) tells the Queen about conspiracy theories he heard at a luncheon.
By the end of the episode, MI5’s director douses the Queen’s suspicions about Wilson, saying that, although there were clearly attempts by the KGB to recruit Wilson while he was on trade missions to that country, the evidence was weak that they succeeded. However, it then turns out that there’s a different mole, this one in Buckingham Palace no less. He’s Sir Anthony Blunt, the Queen’s surveyor of pictures.
The Netflix show shows the Queen and Prince Philip tolerating Blunt after the British intelligence services decide it’s best not to out them. They don’t want the embarrassment or worsening relationships with the Americans, so the Queen agrees to play along. Philip confronts Blunt only to be met with blackmail over the Profumo affair, the Russian spy sex scandal that had toppled a conservative prime minister.
However, was the Blunt story true? Was he really a Soviet spy, and was he real? The answers are yes.
Here’s what you need to know:
Blunt, a Cousin to the Queen, Did Admit He Was a Russian Spy
It’s a true story. Blunt, also a distant cousin of the Queen’s, was recruited, according to Radio Times, to be a Russian spy while studying at Cambridge and passed information to Russian handlers. He was part of a spy ring known as the Cambridge Five. The Queen did learn about his spying in the 1960s, and she did keep it quiet (above is a real picture of the Queen in that era.)
The Guardian discusses a book about Blunt by Miranda Carter. It describes Blunt’s background. He was “the son of the chaplain to the British Embassy in Paris, he had had an exemplary school career, winning a scholarship in mathematics to Trinity College, Cambridge, before going on to become director of the Courtauld Institute, surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, a knight of the realm, and a great expert on French art of the seventeenth century, particularly Poussin.”
He was an author and intellectual, writing a book called Artistic Theory in Italy, 1450-1600, but some considered him a “prig,” The Guardian reported. He wasn’t publicly revealed as a spy until 1979 when Margaret Thatcher revealed he had been such.
Daily Mail labeled Blunt “a crashing snob” who was the “Fourth Man” in the Cambridge Spy Ring that included Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean and Kim Philby (there was later a fifth member). Daily Mail reports that Blunt died four years after being exposed.
Blunt wrote in his memoirs that he was influenced by Burgess, according to The Independent, which quoted him as writing, “I was thus faced with the most important decision of my life. I might have joined the Communist Party, but Guy, who was an extraordinarily persuasive person, convinced me that I could do more good by joining him in his work. What I did not realise at the time is that I was so naïve politically that I was not justified in committing myself to any political action of this kind.”
According to Daily Mail, Blunt’s familial ties to the Royal Family came through his mother, Hilda, who was a second cousin of the Queen Mother’s father, the Earl of Strathmore.
It’s true, Daily Mail reports, that MI5 confronted Blunt in 1964 and he confessed to being a KGB spy. However, the publication reports that few were allowed in on the secret outside of Queen Elizabeth II. Even her mother was kept in the dark. Instead, he was granted immunity from prosecution and was supposed to tell MI5 everything he knew about the Soviets’ operations in exchange. The understanding that he wouldn’t be publicly revealed lasted for 15 years.
In 2009, Blunt’s memoirs were published. According to The New York Times, he described how he started spying for the Soviets in the 1930s and called it “the biggest mistake of my life.” He was actively involved in spycraft, even giving the Russians the names of people working secretly for Great Britain.
Blunt said in his memoirs that he was a tutor at Trinity College when he was recruited by the NKVD, which later became the KGB. He explained that Cambridge was “rife with Marxist sympathizers” fueled by the ascendance of Adolf Hitler and the Spanish Civil War.
In the memoir, he described how “the atmosphere at Cambridge was so intense, the enthusiasm for any anti-fascist activity was so great.”
When Thatcher revealed he was a spy, he was finally let go as the Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures, which the Times describes as a position curating the Royal Family’s art collection. He was also removed of his knighthood. The Times reports that Blunt was primarily known as a Nicolas Poussin expert.
After World War II, he wrote that his beliefs changed. But he didn’t want to come forward on his own because he was loyal to other British spies for Russia. Three of the other members of the Cambridge ring defected to Russia, according to The Times.
According to BBC, when he was caught, Blunt wrote in his memoir that he gave MI5 “all the information that I had about the Russian activities.”
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