John Thurloe, 1616-68

Lawyer who became secretary to the Council of State and took over as director of the Commonwealth and Protectorate spying and intelligence networks.

Portrait of John ThurloeJohn Thurloe was the only son of Thomas Thurloe (d.1633), rector of Abbess Roding in Essex, and his wife, Sarah (d. 1637), widow of a Mr Ewer, with whom she had three sons, including the regicide Isaac Ewer. After the death of his father in 1633, Thurloe secured the administration of the family estate for his mother.

Thurloe studied law under the patronage of Oliver St John through whose influence he was employed as a secretary to the Parliamentary commissioners at the Uxbridge Treaty negotiations in January 1645. He was admitted to Lincoln's Inn in 1646. Under St John's patronage, Thurloe's legal and administrative career steadily developed. Like his patron, Thurloe avoided involvement in the events surrounding the King's trial and execution in 1649.

In March 1651, Thurloe went as secretary to St John and Sir Walter Strickland on their diplomatic mission to the United Provinces of the Netherlands. Although the mission was unsuccessful, Thurloe's competence made a good impression. He was appointed secretary to the Council of State in March 1652, then clerk to the Committee for Foreign Affairs in December.

Cromwell's Spymaster

In July 1653, Thurloe took over from Thomas Scot as director of the Commonwealth's spying and intelligence network. When Oliver Cromwell was elevated to the office of Lord Protector in December 1653, Thurloe was involved in perfecting the final version of the Instrument of Government and was co-opted as a member of the Council of State.

Thurloe was efficient and thorough in carrying out his duties. He was able to keep Cromwell fully informed of the plans of foreign governments through his system of "intelligencers" and agents, and through detailed correspondence with ambassadors abroad. Thurloe's agents infiltrated Charles II's court-in-exile and he employed the mathematician and cryptographer John Wallis to break Royalist ciphers. Always apparently one step ahead of his enemies, Thurloe established a formidable reputation as a spymaster, particularly after he secured the services of the Royalist Sir Richard Willys as an informant.

In May 1655, Thurloe was appointed Postmaster-General, with authority to intercept the correspondence of suspected conspirators against the Protectorate. The following October, the government ordered the suppression of all newsbooks except the government-controlled Mercurius Politicus and The Public Intelligencer, giving Thurloe control over the dissemination of news.

Thurloe sat as MP for Ely in the Second Protectorate Parliament and was called upon to act as a government spokesman on various issues, though he was not an effective parliamentarian. He was among those who urged Cromwell to accept the Crown in 1657. Thurloe admired Cromwell as a ruler and was a personal friend, but he had no direct influence over the Protector's policies.

Fall of the Protectorate

After Oliver's death in 1659, Thurloe supported Richard Cromwell as his successor. Royalists were convinced that Thurloe was the true power behind the Protectorate, and army officers were jealous of his influence over Richard. During the Third Protectorate Parliament, Thurloe was the government's recognised spokesman and the leader of the Cromwellian "court" party against the republicans and army leaders. He successfully repudiated personal attacks accusing him of abuses of power but he was unable to dissuade Richard from dissolving Parliament in April 1659 under pressure from army officers. The Rump Parliament was recalled in May and Richard was forced to resign, bringing the Cromwellian Protectorate to an end. With the return of the Commonwealth, Thurloe was dismissed by the new Council of State. He refused to divulge his codes and ciphers when Thomas Scot resumed direction of the intelligence service.

Thurloe was restored to his offices by General Monck in February 1660. He tried to persuade Monck to reinstate the Protectorate and resisted the Restoration for as long as he could. Despite Monck's recommendation, he was not elected to the Convention Parliament in April 1660. After the King's return, Thurloe was accused of treason and arrested in May 1660. He was released in June on condition that his knowledge be made available to the new government when required. He subsequently wrote several memoranda on state and foreign affairs for the information of Sir Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon. Thereafter, Thurloe lived quietly, dividing his time between Great Milton in Oxfordshire and his legal chambers at Lincoln's Inn, where he died in February 1668.

Thurloe was twice married: first, to a lady of the Peyton family, with whom he had two sons who died in infancy; secondly, to Anne Lytcott of East Moulsey in Surrey, with whom he had four sons and two daughters.

Thurloe's papers are of major importance to historians of the Protectorate. They were found hidden behind a false ceiling in his former chambers at Lincoln's Inn during the reign of William III and were eventually presented to the Bodleian Library at Oxford.


C.H. Firth, John Thurloe, DNB 1898

Timothy Venning, John Thurloe, Oxford DNB, 2007


Thurloe State Papers British History Online

Codes and Cyphers of Thurloe's Agents analysis by S.Tomokiyo