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Invisible but ever-present: female spies in the 17th century

For a long time it was thought that there were few or no female spies in history. However, nothing could be further from the truth. In her book Invisible Agents, Nadine Akkerman reconstructs the stories of the many British women spies in the 17th century.

It was pure chance how it all started, Nadine Akkerman explains. ‘I was working on an edition of the correspondence of Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia, who came to The Hague in 1621 where she lived in exile for more than forty years. In one of the letters I discovered that she used a female spy in Brussels to convey her mail to England so that the British Embassy would not intercept it.' The story of that woman in Brussels intrigued Akkerman. ‘I realised it was because I had never before heard anything about female spies in that period.'

At all levels of the population

Akkerman delved into the letters, looking for other female spies in the 17th century. She found that many women were involved in spying, far more than the one or two that we currently regard as exceptions. Some of them were members of the upper classes, but there were also some very ordinary women, like washerwomen, who were involved.' Akkerman focuses on Great Britain, a logical choice for a specialist in Early Modern English literature. 'It's also because England offers a broader European perspective, because the civil wars brought many women to Brussels, The Hague and Paris.' 

Unknown sister

One unusual story in Akkerman's book is that of Susan Hyde. She was the sister of Edward Hyde, an important minister in the 17th century and the first author on the history on the English Civil War. The strange thing is that nobody had ever reported that Hyde had a sister, let alone that anyone knew he used her as a spy,' Akkerman explains. 'And then there's the fact that she died under very mysterious circumstances in prison, at a time when women were hardly ever imprisoned.'  

The book Invisible Agents by Nadine Akkerman (ISBN 9780198823018) is available from 12 July.
The book Invisible Agents by Nadine Akkerman (ISBN 9780198823018) is available from 12 July.

Women were invisible

How is it possible that we know so little about women spies at that time, even those who, like Susan Hyde, moved in the highest political circles? 'In the 17th century - and even much later - women were simply not taken seriously. They were thought to be intellectually inferior to men,' Akkerman explains. 'These women used the fact that they were overlooked to their advantage: what more could a spy want than to be invisible?' The people around them at the time never dreamt that women could be spies, an image that continued to be held for a long time. ‘If you read published correspondence from the 19th century, for example, all the women's letters are treated as unimportant, and they don't even get published.' In later periods women still remained below the radar. 

Secret codes and eavesdropping

Akkerman learned a lot about the working methods of these women by looking at original correspondence in archives. 'With women spies the tendency is to think in terms of pillow talk and seductresses - a kind of 17th-century Mata Hari,’ Akkerman says. ‘But that really wasn't the case. They used just the same techniques as male spies at the time: eavesdropping, lies and deceit, sending letters in code or using invisible ink - these were all part of the repertoire of these women.'

Upper image: a still from a video showing techniques used by 17th century spies. This clip shows how a letter could be folded so as to keep the contents hidden. 

Text: Marieke Epping
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Invisible agents

The book Invisible Agents by Nadine Akkerman (ISBN 9780198823018) is published on 12 July by Oxford University Press. The first edition has already sold out, but a reprint will be published shortly. Nadine Akkerman talked to ScienceGuide about how women were so often overlooked and how the academic world should now address this issue.  Listen to the podcast.

In November 2017  Nadine Akkerman received Special Recognition Award from the World Cultural Council. This award is given to talented female academics who also distinguish themselves by their ability to make their research findings accessible to the general public. 

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