During the first half of the eighteenth century, the threat posed to Hanoverian Britain by the exiled James Stuart and his followers was considered existential. One consequence was a drive to expand Britain’s diplomatic efforts and intelligence capabilities. Secret service funds were deployed to enhance existing resources, not least an expansion of mail intercepts and decoding capabilities, and extend the networks of formal and informal agents at home and overseas. The material sourced through these channels was passed to an inner circle within Whitehall via a handful of senior under-secretaries among whom the principal figure was Charles Delafaye (1677-1762).
Unarguably one of the government’s most trusted officials, Delafaye served as one of the most senior under-secretaries of state, Secretary to the Lords Justices from 1717 to 1734, and a ‘go to’ magistrate on the Middlesex and Westminster benches. He was also a Huguenot, one of tens of thousands of French Protestant refugees who had found sanctuary in England, and a leading freemason, a member of the Horn Tavern Lodge and a colleague of the Duke of Richmond, George Payne, James Anderson, and Desaguliers.
As the government’s leading spymaster, privy to its secrets and at the centre of a locus of anti-Jacobite spy activity, Delafaye deployed elements of freemasonry for diplomatic and espionage purposes. Delafaye’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is brief and although his seniority and efficiency is noted, the fidelity and discretion that kept him at the heart of policy-making and at the core of the intelligence network for more than two decades is absent. His power as a political gate-keeper, especially to the Duke of Newcastle, Walpole’s close colleague and Secretary of State, is similarly understated notwithstanding that his influence was known to his contemporaries. But perhaps the most telling omission is that Delafaye was not simply a neutral official. By 1717 he had become an integral part of the policy-making matrix with a web of alliances in Whitehall and overseas. His associates included Martin Bladen at the Board of Trade and Plantations, another freemason, with whom he had built a strong relationship while in Ireland, and officials across Europe, America, and the Caribbean. Delafaye’s correspondence reveals a man whose influence was pervasive and who was viewed correctly as astute and loyal.
Born in France, Delafaye’s primary education is undocumented but he matriculated at All Souls, Oxford, in 1692 aged 14. His admission was a function of his father’s Whitehall connections. All Souls has never admitted undergraduates and Delafaye was one of a small number of members (not Fellows) who were bible clerks, in essence servitor scholars. He graduated in 1696 and obtained a position as private secretary to Sir Joseph Williamson, England’s ambassador to the United Provinces. Williamson retired in 1699 and Delafaye returned to London to take up a position in Whitehall. He was promoted steadily and became Chief Clerk at the Northern Department. In 1713, the Duke of Shrewsbury, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, asked Delafaye to Dublin to serve as his co-chief of staff. Delafaye’s ability recommended him to Shrewsbury’s successors and Delafaye remained at Dublin Castle until 1717, when Lord Sunderland, for whom Delafaye had previously worked, asked Delafaye to return to London as his under-secretary of state.
Delafaye served Sunderland and his two successors at the Northern Department, coping with the South Sea Bubble crisis, a financial crash and political scandal; and in April 1724, Robert Walpole, de facto prime minister, transferred Delafaye to the Southern Department to support the Duke of Newcastle. The move placed Delafaye at the administration’s heart as one of the most highly trusted crown servants, especially in matters involving the Jacobites and national security.
Delafaye’s remit extended from the strategic – responding to the threat of a Spanish-backed Jacobite invasion and ongoing espionage, to the apparently mundane – the direction and force of the wind at Falmouth. In fact, the wind was a key factor in calculating the time that would be available for suspect mail to be opened and copied on the Falmouth packet boats. Delafaye’s value was appreciated and he was granted numerous sinecures. But perhaps the most poignant example of the regard in which he was held was the award of a doctorate from the University of Cambridge. The degree was conferred by George II personally and Delafaye was invested alongside peers and politicians, including five dukes. It was a telling confirmation of his utility.