HE was art curator to the Queen and her dad before her – but one of Britain’s most prolific spies, leaking some 2,000 secrets to Soviet intelligence at the height of the Cold War.
KGB agent Sir Anthony Blunt operated from the heart of the establishment and, when his crimes were finally exposed to the world, it also emerged the trusted aristocrat was a third cousin of the Queen Mum.
Tomorrow’s opening episode of the third series of Netflix royal drama The Crown revisits the scandal and features a stunned Monarch, played by Olivia Colman, 45, complicit in covering it up.
After Blunt was found out in 1963, not only did Her Majesty keep his deception quiet, she had to watch him continue in his job until his retirement nine years later, aged 64. The espionage story was only broken to the world in 1979, by the late Margaret Thatcher.
The cover-up seems incredible and is still shrouded in mystery but it is believed the secret services felt it was better to keep Blunt where they could see him. They also feared the humiliation of admitting they had let a spy operate from inside the walls of Buckingham Palace.
Robert Lacey, one of the historians advising the Netflix show, believes the Queen only protected the traitor under extreme pressure. He adds: “I also think there was a hope on the part of the intelligence services that they could get something extra out of Blunt or get something back from the Russians somehow.”
KGB agent Sir Anthony Blunt operated from the heart of the establishment and, when his crimes were finally exposed to the world, it emerged he was third cousin of the Queen Mother[/caption]
But Robert says: “The Queen has a strong sense of patriotism and would have felt deeply betrayed and terribly hurt by Blunt. She would have been horrified but also bewildered how somebody could do this.
“Blunt, like the other British men in the spy ring he was a part of, had everything on a plate. They were public school and Oxbridge-educated, yet betrayed it all. ”
Blunt, played in The Crown by Sam West, 53, was a member of the infamous Cambridge Five — a spy ring of left-wingers at the university who were recruited as agents for the Soviet Union in the 1930s.
The Kremlin knew their education, and the British class system, would ensure they got jobs at the top of society. That meant access to the greatest secrets, with least suspicion.
Blunt, played in The Crown by Sam West, 53, above, was a member of the infamous Cambridge Five[/caption]
The other spies were Donald Maclean and Kim Philby, who both went into diplomacy, Guy Burgess, who joined the Foreign Office, and John Cairncross, who worked for British secret services.
Robert explains: “They would have said: ‘We’re traitors to our class but not ashamed because we’re tribunes of the people and doing this for the good of society and a more equal, socialistic society’. They considered they were acting on principle.”
Blunt’s life as a royal art historian was not an obvious way to access sensitive information. But heads of state and top politicians including prime ministers visited or telephoned the palace daily to discuss confidential matters — much of it overheard by staff.
Robert also points out that the Queen had red boxes crammed with confidential government documents delivered to her.
The Queen at the Cortauld Institute of Art with secret agent Anthony Blunt[/caption]
Robert says: “All secrets pass across the Queen’s desk and go through her private office. Being in the palace means you have the best connections.
“But it wasn’t Buckingham Palace which was culpable here, it was the intelligence services because they failed to detect Blunt.”
Some within the secret services had always suspected Blunt as a Communist traitor. He was interviewed by spooks 11 times but only in 1963 did they get definitive proof, from US spy Michael Straight. A year later, aged 57, Blunt confessed and it is believed the Queen was informed. In return for his confession, he was granted immunity from prosecution and stayed in his job until his retirement in 1972.
But in November 1979, the then newly elected Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher blew his story wide open in the House of Commons.
Blunt with the Queen’s sister, Princess Margaret[/caption]
As someone outside the establishment, she was furious at the apparent conspiracy to protect a traitor because he was one of them.
Her press secretary, Bernard Ingham, recalls: “She didn’t see why the system should cover things up. This was early in her prime ministership and she wanted to tell the civil service to know who was boss.”
Blunt was stripped of his knighthood and became a social pariah, breaking down in tears in a TV confession at the age of 72. He died of a heart attack in 1983, aged 75, his reputation destroyed.
It was an undignified end for a man who had shown so much promise. Born in Bournemouth, Blunt was the son of a vicar and third cousin of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who would eventually become the wife of King George VI — and then the Queen Mum.
As a boy he visited his aristocratic relative’s home in London’s Mayfair, birthplace of the Queen in 1926, and they later became close friends through their love of paintings.
Blunt went to top public school Marlborough College, Wilts, where the Duchess of Cambridge would later become a pupil, before going to Cambridge University, where he met the left-wing academics who would convert him to their cause. Like fellow spy Burgess, Blunt was already leading a double life because of his homosexuality, which at the time was illegal in Britain.
He maintained his love of Communism came from his hatred of the rise of the far Right across Europe in the Thirties, and claimed he later saw the error of his ways.
In his memoirs he would write: “The atmosphere in Cambridge was so intense, the enthusiasm for any anti-fascist activity so great, that I made the biggest mistake of my life.”
He joined the British Army when World War Two broke out in 1939, serving with the intelligence services in France before being evacuated at Dunkirk in 1940.
In November 1979, the then newly elected Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, blew Blunt’s story wide open in the House of Commons[/caption]
He was then recruited by MI5 and one of his missions saw him travel to Germany at the end of the war in 1945 to retrieve sensitive letters between the Duke of Windsor and Adolf Hitler and other leading Nazis.
The fact he had spared the Windsors’ humiliation endeared him to the royal household and in 1945 he was given the respected title of Surveyor of the King’s Pictures.
When the Queen’s dad died in 1952, he became Surveyor of the Queen’s Pictures and was knighted by Her Majesty four years later.
That made his betrayal all the worse. In The Crown, we see the Duke of Edinburgh, played by Tobias Menzies, square up to Blunt after his spying is revealed to the Queen.
Like fellow spy Guy Burgess, pictured, Blunt was already leading a double life because of his homosexuality which at the time was illegal in Britain[/caption]
But Blunt effectively blackmails Prince Philip using the Profumo scandal, and the drama seems to imply this might have contributed to Blunt keeping his liberty and his job. Blunt claimed he had sketches of the duke made by Stephen Ward, the osteopath the royal had visited for a neck problem.
Ward was also the “high-class pimp” who, in 1963, introduced call girl Christine Keeler to War Minister John Profumo. The revelation of her sex with him helped bring down the Tory Government a year later. Any link to Stephen would have been disastrous for Philip.
But although Blunt is believed to have owned some of the sketches, The Crown writer Peter Morgan admits the “blackmailing stand-off” probably never happened.
He says: “There are no sources where I know that happened, but I think we would have a pretty good idea as to what Philip’s attitude to someone like Blunt would have been. I have a pretty good feeling Philip would have wanted to ‘take him outside’ and it’s not conjecture about him buying up some of the portraits done by Stephen Ward during the Profumo scandal. So Blunt had one on him, and he had one on Blunt.”
Fellow spy Kim Philby[/caption]
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Given its nature, there is lingering secrecy around the Blunt affair, but Robert hopes retelling the story in The Crown might reignite interest and finally reveal the truth.
He says: “The Crown reminds people of the important realities of our history, not just in the Palace but in the Government, and other important issues.
“Hopefully that could lead to answers as to exactly who knew what, when they knew it and why a KGB agent was allowed to operate, then remain, in Buckingham Palace.”
- The Crown is on Netflix tomorrow
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