Have you ever wondered how espionage was carried out in the medieval period? The speed of information was really slow and took some time for it to travel from one place to another. If your enemy attacked you or planned to do so, you might want to know about it as soon as possible. You need to be warned of the attack before it is too late. In order for you to gather information faster, you would need your own secret agent.

How Did Espionage Started in the Medieval Period

After the collapse of the Roman Empire many new found kingdoms were established on the ruins of the western Empire. They were kingdoms with low administration systems that were nothing more than a tower of cards. There were many barbaric lords that were in constant conflict with each other, which meant that their battlefield could might as well be their house. They must be informed on the position and placement of their enemy so that they defend or attack efficiently. Even tough there aren’t many sources about espionage in this time period there is no doubt that spies were used, mostly by the Catholic Church and the Byzantine Empire.

As kingdoms developed so did their scouts, France and England in particular. Many people were employed as spies on both sides that had a job to gather information on the “competition”, this was done for political and personal gain. Everyone was employed, messengers that carried valuable information, translators and writers that were in the court, diplomats and even lords. Everyone was after personal gain and not a lot of people could be trusted. Everything was taken with caution and information was carefully delivered.

The System

As the espionage system developed it got more complex. Now people that were of low status or even invisible for the higher lords were spies. They could gain potential information while not being noticed. These people were from various rankings, from street orphans to merchants and all the way to military members.

With the big rise of the Catholic Church it’s dominance was expanding. The church could control everyone to a certain point and could cause some serious damage. But controlling everyone wasn’t easy. Fifty percent of the subjects didn’t want to be controlled by the church and they had to improvise. A complex system of espionage was used by the church that could bribe and blackmail everyone. The church gained massive power with their espionage system because they were everywhere. Everyone was loyal to god and this was his work. Later with the Crusades and the Inquisition the church gained more power, and used espionage to eliminate their enemies. When the church was separated it left a huge gap in between. The Catholic church had to gain it’s power and serious measurements were taken.


As merchant companies and individual families grew more in size, the need for espionage did the same thing. The sabotage of ships, and cargo caused heavy monetary damage.

Gossip was also used as a form of espionage because it could go either way. It could be used to spread or receive information, and thus cause confusion.

Not everyone was employed as a spy (in the true meaning of the word), sometimes people came with valuable information and sold it. They didn’t receive a constant payment for it, only once upfront for that information. There were professional spies employed by the kings that were spread everywhere. They didn’t have a 007 look to them but they still had a good set of skills.



“The Elizabethan Secret Service” by Alan Haynes (Pub. Sutton 1992)