I was looking for interesting books on French Revolution, when I stumbled across this history of British espionage in the late 1700s. The book is several hundred dollars, so I won't be able to procure it unless I take the trouble to hike out to a university library. What caught my eye is that the top review claims that the book shows that Robespierre was in the pay of the British government, who wanted to encourage the Terror in hopes that it would collapse the revolutionary government.

Both claims smell strongly like conspiracy theories. However, at least according to this obituary of the author (I could find little else on her), she was a self-trained but respected historian who based the book on extensive archival research. She had academic publications, and her work was generally well received. Her book is even cited in "Choosing Terror", a very mainstream history.

Of course none of this means she can't be completely wrong, or even a conspiracy theorist. The review might also not be representing her book accurately. All this is why I'd hoped to ask about the claim here.

Is there really any credible evidence that the "sea-green incorruptible" Robespirre was in the pay of the British? Or that the British government wanted to encourage the Terror? If these turn out to be serious claims, how do they fit into the most current historiography of the Revolution?

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    I'd like to suggest that downvoters would do better to explain their complaint, the question is about a questionable bit of history but clearly not endorsing it. :P
    – Random
    Apr 23, 2018 at 23:42
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    I wasn't aware of that book until now. I must look it out next time I'm in a large library. It'll be interesting to see her sources, and whether the review is an accurate reflection of her research. Apr 24, 2018 at 1:07
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    If Robespierre was indeed taking money from the British, we might ask whether they were actually getting value for their money - that is, Robespierre was following their instructions - or whether he just took the money and did whatever he chose?
    – jamesqf
    Apr 24, 2018 at 3:51
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    Some time ago, I saw a reference to Robespierre unknowingly having dealings with someone who was a British spy. Maybe the reviewer didn't read the book carefully enough... Apr 24, 2018 at 5:48
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    The edition of Sparrow's book that I have makes no mention of Robespierre at all.
    – Steve Bird
    Apr 26, 2018 at 21:42

2 Answers 2


If we're going purely on the evidence presented in Elizabeth Sparrow's "Secret Service" then I'd say that Robespierre wasn't "acting as directed by a British paymaster". Sparrow seems to have researched her subject thoroughly, using not only British and French public and private archives but also others in Switzerland, Germany and Sweden.

The book essentially starts in 1792 with British efforts to manage their own house. The revolution in France had resulted in many French men and women travelling to Britain. Some were Royalist refugees and some were revolutionary agents (both spying on their British & French enemies and stirring up revolutionary feelings in the British lower classes). As a consequence, the British authorities had to put into place laws and establish their own 'police' to keep track of friend and foe, and work out which was which.

By the time that the British were sufficiently organised (in late 1794) to start to form networks of their own spies in Europe and in France itself, the Terror had run its course and Robespierre was dead. There's no mention of him being approached by the British, let alone taking money, or anything else, from them. In fact, he doesn't even merit an entry in the book's index.

Source: Secret Service, British Agents in France 1792-1815, E.Sparrow (Boydell Press, 1999)


No, it is impossible out of pure logic.

While Robespierre was not yet the leader of the Committee of National Convention, he was not a terrorist. After he became one, together with Saint-Just he became practically a half-dictator of France and absolute rulers, sorry, cannot be bought by money. It would be too expensive.

He could be proposed safety, asylum, but even if he was a paid agent before he got to power, he would never remain one once he had got to it. How could he use these money? French money? Any number could be printed for the sake of revolution if he needed it. British pounds? Having them meant you are a traitor.

Even blackmailing wouldn't work - he could declare it a propaganda, and simply kill the possible witnesses in France. And witnesses outside were all absolutely irrelevant because of the isolation. Was Stalin afraid of any foreign accusations? No! - and USSR was much less isolated than revolutionary France.

As for evidences - His descendants surely could create heaps of them afterwards. And now we can't check them save by logic. Let us use it!

Beria in USSR was also declared as an English agent. I think, no there is not an intelligent being that believe in that. And be sure, there were evidences!

  • It's hard to believe the British would be pulling strings while Robespierre held power, but rather easier to believe that they managed to influence him beforehand. Cue the comparisons to alleged Russian collusion in the 2016 US presidential election. Apr 27, 2018 at 16:24
  • @AaronBrick 1. I agree with your conclusion, as you have noticed in my answer surely. (not with the argument, but that does not matter). 2. The thought of the question is that British caused more terror by influence through R. But according to our point, they did cause NO terror this way. When R wasn't yet in power, he a) was not a terrorist, and b) couldn't cause terror even if he wanted to. When R was in power, they lost their influence on him. It is very simple, I think.
    – Gangnus
    Apr 28, 2018 at 10:30
  • @AaronBrick As for Putin-Trump influence, it is very different: I don't think Trump could be bought (he is rich enough for that), rather blackmailed. Trump is not a dictator, he can't control media and he can be blackmailed easily. That way - to find a soft point in a politician's reputation and to blackmail him/her later is an easy way for special services of any country. Only Russian ones look so awkward in this case, that I could believe in other one or two layers or reality under that one... But of course, the stupidity is infinite and eternal and can overcome everything.
    – Gangnus
    Apr 28, 2018 at 10:37
  • @AaronBrick Schroeder - this one was bought by Putin, quite openly. Czech presidents after Havel - both behave themselves as KGB officers. Here was a great mass buying of the whole Czech top in the operation about the Russian debt, and blackmailing later, apparently. If we'll compare behaviour of these politicians and Trump, there is a great difference. I couldn't say that the Trump works for Putin. Don't forget, that current Russia has no interests, only separate politicians in it have. So, if you want to prove that influence, show how Trump serves Putin PERSONALLY. Can you?
    – Gangnus
    Apr 28, 2018 at 10:45

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