Weird History

The Real Story Behind The KGB Spy Who Infiltrated Buckingham Palace As An Art Historian  

Melissa Sartore
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Identified as a member of the so-called Cambridge Four in Season 3 of The Crown, Anthony Blunt was actually one of several Cambridge-educated intellectuals who fed information to the KGB during the mid-20th century. Blunt holds distinction, however, for serving in Buckingham Palace as Queen Elizabeth's art surveyor.

Blunt had access to the monarch, her inner circle, her home - all while pretending to be a loyal royal servant. Details about Blunt's recruitment by the KGB, much less his motivations or the actions of his fellow spies, are glossed over by The Crown. Similarly, the extent of the damage he may have caused doesn't receive full attention. The real story of Anthony Blunt, the Cambridge spies, and the struggle to keep British secrets out of the hands of Russian operatives spans decades and, ultimately, has a surprising outcome.

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Anthony Blunt Was Recruited Into The KGB During The 1930s

Born in 1907 in Bournemouth, Hampshire, Anthony Frederick Blunt spent part of his childhood in France, where his father, Arthur, worked as chaplain at the British Embassy. While in France, Blunt took an interest in art that would guide his career.

While at Trinity College at the University of Cambridge, Blunt found that "the school was hit by Marxism," an ideology he soon adopted. The exact details of his recruitment remain murky. It's possible he was enlisted into service after he visited the Soviet Union in 1933, but, in his autobiography, Blunt asserted, "Largely owing to the influence of Guy Burgess... I realised that one could no longer stand aside."

Burgess, another undergraduate, was a dedicated Marxist and, according to Blunt, "an extraordinarily persuasive person... [who] convinced me that I could do more good by joining him in his work."

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Photo: William Winfield/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain
Blunt Was A Member Of The Cambridge Apostles Alongside Fellow Spy Burgess

It was Blunt's friendship with Burgess that brought him into close contact with a larger intellectual movement taking place at Cambridge. A group called the Cambridge Apostles, a secret society dating to 1820, participated in weekly discussions and debates and, during the 1930s, became increasingly radicalized.

Communist sympathizers like Blunt, Burgess, and Donald Maclean - all members of the Cambridge Apostles - provided a pool of approachable and willing participants in espionage on behalf of the Soviet government.

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Other Members Of The Cambridge Spy Network Included Kim Philby, Maclean, And John Cairncross

The ins and outs of who recruited whom isn't clear but, as students at Cambridge University during the 1930s, Harold Adrian Russell "Kim" Philby, Maclean, Blunt, and Burgess all became spies for the KGB. Always on the lookout for more recruits, they brought John Cairncross into the fold a bit later, who became the last of the "Cambridge Five."

Philby would go on to be one of the most prolific Russian spies, working as a journalist until he joined MI6 - the British foreign intelligence agency - in 1940. Maclean graduated from Cambridge in 1934 and took a position with the Foreign Office, while Burgess gave information to the Soviets while working for the BBC, MI6, and the British Foreign Office during the 1930s and 1940s. Cairncross, for his part, began as a foreign translator during the early 1940s and transferred to MI6, where he worked with Philby.

Blunt Joined The British Military In 1939 And Worked For MI5 By 1940

Unlike his fellow spies, Blunt stuck to domestic affairs, serving in the Intelligence Corps of the British Army in 1939. He joined MI5 - the British counterintelligence and security agency tasked with internal matters - in 1940 and worked for them throughout World War II. Archival records indicate Blunt passed more than 1,770 documents to the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1945, including "deciphered diplomatic telegrams, the diplomatic telephone conversations, and the product of various agents in the embassies."

For a time, Blunt lived with Burgess and, while both men were homosexual, there's no indication they had a relationship. Later efforts to besmirch both men led to rumors that they spent their time together alternating between sex parties and "conspiratorial conversations designed to hinder the war effort."

Blunt also served as a go-between, liaising with numerous government departments while simultaneously publishing within the academic community. After WWII, Blunt accepted a position as the surveyor of the King's Pictures, an appointment that placed the care and maintenance of paintings owned by the sovereign of England in his hands. Blunt oversaw the Royal Collection until 1972.