BBC History Magazine

Above sus­pi­cion

ANN HUGHES rec­om­mends an in­trigu­ing in­sight into the work of fe­male agents dur­ing Bri­tain’s Civil Wars

- Ann Hughes is pro­fes­sor of early mod­ern his­tory at Keele Univer­sity

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.

 ??  ?? Lucy Hay, Count­ess of Carlisle, painted in c1635. She spied for both the roy­al­ists and the par­lia­men­tar­i­ans, and was in­car­cer­ated in the Tower of Lon­don in 1649
Lucy Hay, Count­ess of Carlisle, painted in c1635. She spied for both the roy­al­ists and the par­lia­men­tar­i­ans, and was in­car­cer­ated in the Tower of Lon­don in 1649
 ??  ?? In­vis­i­ble Agents by Na­dine Akker­man OUP, 288 pages, £20
In­vis­i­ble Agents by Na­dine Akker­man OUP, 288 pages, £20
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