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John Hardyng: the spy who had to wait to be paid

The name John Hardyng might perhaps be better known if one of his employers, King Henry V, had not died at the age of 35 and thus rendered much of Hardyng’s hard work useless.

John Hardyng was born in 1378 and educated in the Northumberland household of Sir Henry Percy, who was nicknamed “Hotspur”. This gave him plenty of experience of warfare, given the closeness of the Scottish border and the frequent raids that took place across it.

In 1399 the Percys supported the successful campaign of Henry Bolingbroke against the reigning King Richard II, and John Hardyng played a full part in the rebellion. However, relationships between the new king (Henry IV) and the Percys later broke down, leading to the Battle of Shrewsbury of 1403. Hotspur was killed but John Hardyng survived and was pardoned by King Henry.

Henry IV died in 1413 and was succeeded by his son, who reigned as King Henry V. John Hardyng served the new king faithfully in the latter’s campaign against France.

Henry planned to turn his attention to Scotland once he had finished with France, and in 1418 John Hardyng was given a special mission, namely to travel round Scotland and gather information that would be useful in a future invasion. He was also tasked with finding proof that Scotland’s claim to independence was without foundation.

Hardyng’s mission lasted for three and a half years. During that time he surveyed the routes into Scotland, the places on the coast that could be used by an invasion fleet, the strengths and weaknesses of various castles, and the agricultural resources that could be exploited by an invading army. He also acquired documents that supported England’s claims over Scotland.

In 1421 John Hardyng was forced to flee from Scotland, having made too many enemies, but the information he was able to present to King Henry would have been invaluable had an invasion ever taken place.

However, Henry’s early death put paid to any such ambition, and the new king, Henry VI, was never in any position to make use of John Hardyng’s work.

Hardyng was now in the unfortunate position of having done exactly what had been asked of him but without any reward for his efforts. He became a pensioner at an Augustinian Priory and continued to press King Henry VI to honour the promise made by his father. This eventually led, in 1440, to Hardyng being granted an annuity worth ten pounds a year.

Hardyng spent the next twenty years writing a history of Britain that made good use of his earlier career as a spy, as well as continuing to claim that England had every right to conquer Scotland.

He died in 1465 aged 87, which was a remarkably advanced age at that time. He would probably have made a much larger impact on British history had England actually subdued Scotland as a result of his work.

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