Ciphers and codes in the letters of female spies

Dr Nadine Akkerman discovered that the letters written by Queen Elizabeth Stuart of Bohemia during her exile in The Hague were full of ciphers, codes and riddles. This was Akkerman’s introduction to the 17th century phenomenon of the female spy. She has been awarded a VENI subsidy by NWO (Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research) to carry out further research.

Dr Nadine Akkerman, researcher at the Faculty of Humanities, Leiden University.

Dr Nadine Akkerman, researcher at the Faculty of Humanities, Leiden University.

Spying was traditionally regarded as a male-dominated world, but Akkerman research will cast serious doubt on this assumption. In her research Female Spies or She-Intelligencers: Towards a Gendered History of Seventeenth-Century Espionage, Akkerman intends to show that there were many females actively engaged in espionage in the 17th century.

Elizabeth Queen of Bohemia

‘As editor for Oxford University Press of the correspondence of Elizabeth Queen of Bohemia, I discovered that her letters were saturated with cryptography: ciphers, codes, riddles and invisible ink. This naturally made me curious about why she would have resorted to such subterfuge.’ When the Queen of Bohemia was living in exile in The Hague, she wrote two kinds of letters: those containing false or purely superficial information that she entrusted to the official postal channels monitored by the Stuart Crown, and her more important letters – the ones containing the encrypted messages – that she directed via Brussels and Antwerp. This led to Akkerman’s first encounter with a seventeenth-century female spy, to whom the Queen of Bohemia resorted, a postmistress in Brussels.

Black Chamber

The postmistress at the centre of the postal network in Brussels was Alexandrine, Countess of Thurn and Taxis. Males so dominate the history of diplomacy and espionage that very little has been written about this postmistress. However, Akkerman discovered this lady was heading a spy network called the Chamber of the Thurn and Taxis post office, probably the first Black Chamber in Europe. A Black Chamber was an elite group of specialists with such skills as cryptanalysis, translation, forging of seals, etc., who would meet in secret, opening the mail of foreign diplomats. They would transcribe or decipher the contents and reseal the letters with counterfeit seals, returning them to the postal system within a couple of hours. These Chambers were not necessarily religiously or politically motivated, but would sell the information to the highest bidder.


How does she know which women she should investigate? ‘After a while,’ says Akkerman, ‘you learn to recognise certain triggers. If I come across a woman in a database such as the ODNB (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography), who is referred to as a "Royalist heroine" or an "adventuress", it immediately arouses my interest. These terms are in many instances euphemisms for spies.’

Burn this letter after reading!

And where do you find the letters with evidence of spying activities? ‘In State papers you can find letters that were intercepted by Parliament and so didn’t reach their destination, and in private archives you are more likely to find of those that reached their intended recipient. The letters themselves might be written in various types of code, the language of spies, or even in invisible ink. Sometimes there were obvious clues that the letter might contain important information, such as when they bore the warning: Please burn this letter!’

Nuns as spies

What kind of women were these spies? Akkerman: ‘They could come from all kinds of backgrounds. Although women didn’t hold diplomatic or other official positions in early modern Europe, they did occupy posts where they would have access to important information. They might be nurses, shopkeepers, ladies-in-waiting or in many instances noblewomen.’ In general, anybody who had traveled widely, particularly within Europe, had the opportunity to play a part in a spy network. Historical research carried out on convents in early modern Europe shows that even nuns were involved in politics and espionage.

Aphra Behn - Agent 160

One of the females known to have engaged in spying in the seventeenth century was playwright Aphra Behn (1640 – 1689), who was recruited by Charles II as a political spy in Antwerp during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Behn, using the code names "Astrea" or "Agent 160", was sent to Antwerp instructed to recruit an old acquaintance of hers, dissident William Scot, as double agent. From this spy working for the Dutch, she tried to obtain political secrets that she passed on to the English. However, her career turned out to be far from lucrative as Charles paid either extremely slowly or not all. Behn consequently ended up in debtor’s prison.

Extract from a letter by Aphra Behn: Aphra Behn’s cipher: SP29/169 f.47

Extract from a letter by Aphra Behn: Aphra Behn’s cipher: SP29/169 f.47

Privacy and state surveillance

And what is the relevance of this research to the present day? Akkerman mentions the current debates on such matters as privacy and state surveillance, issues that were as relevant in early modern England as they are in the present day. It will make a major contribution to the history of espionage, both in Britain and on the Continent, and will demonstrate that females played a significant role in the allegedly male-dominated world of the spy. In many instances, the very fact that women were thought to be incapable of such schemes provided the cover needed for them to be successful.


(20 September 2010/Marilyn Hedges)

Last Modified: 23-09-2010