BBC History Magazine
ANN HUGHES recommends an intriguing insight into the work of female agents during Britain’s Civil Wars
In this pioneering book, Nadine Akkerman reveals the role of female spies in uncovering and transmitting secret intelligence in the Civil War period. This secret world of ‘she-intelligencers’ is one of codes and invisible ink; of letters opened, copied and resealed in the post, or hidden in women’s clothes or hair.
The main focus is on the role of women in royalist plotting and rivalries, from defeat in 1646 until Restoration in 1660. Akkerman’s initiative in going beyond the printed volumes of the state papers of John Thurloe (secretary of state and Cromwell’s ‘spy-master’) to the original manuscript letters and interrogations – some never printed and others wrongly transcribed – yields particularly striking results. She identifies Susan Hyde, sister of Edward, later Earl of Clarendon, as a crucial intermediary between exiled royalists and plotters at home. Following discovery, Susan died in prison, but she does not feature in her brother’s history of the civil wars. Similarly careful research allows Akkerman to examine the career of Diana Gennings, or Jennens, previously seen as simply spying for Thurloe. In this telling, her role is more mysterious: perhaps a victim of pressure from the Protectorate government, perhaps a double agent, or even an enterprising con-woman.
As well as revealing the hitherto unknown spies, Akkerman also reassesses the roles of better-known women such as the Countess of Carlisle and Aphra Behn. Behn, spying in Antwerp for the restored English monarchy, “may have fooled us all” by simply making up her intelligence.
The book’s title, stressing both agency and invisibility, is apt. Akkerman acknowledges women’s agency alongside the difficulties in establishing a securely true account of female spies. Women are often elusive in the historical record – a problem compounded by the necessary evasiveness of spies. The most successful agents, female and male, presumably remain unknown to history as they were undiscovered by their enemies.
This is a subtle book that makes more demands on readers than its glamorous subject matter might suggest. The broadly chronological case-study structure provides vivid narratives, but there is no systematic account of changing political alignments and power
This is a secret world of codes, invisible ink and hidden letters
structures, or of royalist divisions. Several examples would have benefitted from this context. I would have also welcomed a fuller discussion of the broader gendered context of female spying. While Akkerman argues that female spies were most valuable because women were seen as ‘above suspicion’, she also recognises the exceptions to this.
This remains a most valuable book, highlighting women’s contribution to the conspiratorial world of mid17th-century Britain, while also offering a thought-provoking exercise in gender and historical methods.