Sunday, 9 September 2018

Review: Invisible Agents: Women and Espionage in Seventeenth-Century Britain by Dr Nadine Akkerman-Oxford University Press-2018

– ‘Have we not an equal interest with the men of this nation in those liberties and securities contained in the Petition of Right?’ ‘if this principle were true that all subjection and obedience to persons and their laws stood by electing them, then…all women at once were exempt from being under government’.

Nadine Akkerman’s new book is a superb introduction to the little-known world of female spies during the later stages of the English Revolution. In this book, she manages to combine academic rigour with the art of a novelist. Given the lack of material on female spies Akkerman’s abilities to deep mine, the archives are impressive.

According to the blurb on the jacket of the book, she has previously written extensively on Women’s history and curated several exhibitions. In the years 2015/2016, she was a fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in Humanities and Social Sciences. Akkerman is the world authority on Charles II ’s aunt Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia. She is very much a hands-on historian complimenting her research on spies by producing Youtube videos about invisible inks.

The book is packed with original research. Akkerman’s use of primary sources acquaints the reader with long-forgotten texts, and as one writer puts it  “ with a fresh eye, she corrects the mistakes of past cataloguers and transcribers who left out essential sentences. Akkerman has immersed herself in archives, libraries, and private collections, transcribing hundreds of letters, breaking cypher codes and their keys, studying invisible inks, and interpreting riddles”.

Akkerman’s book is an attempt to rescue these invisible agents from the condescension of history. She is careful not to ‘regurgitate myths’, and challenges previous historical conceptions. Her defence of Elizabeth Murray, accused as a double agent Royalist and Oliver Cromwell’s mistress, is an example of her wearing history on her sleeve.

Akkerman correctly lauds these female spies who often worked on their own with little or no support. She demonstrates the diverse backgrounds of Royalist and Parliamentary agents.

In many ways this a groundbreaking work. Akkerman introduces us to women that have been long forgotten by historians or in some cases never been researched. It is clear that in writing this book, Akkerman faced enormous problems. Her subjects were criminally underresearched and given the nature of their occupation hard to track down. She contends that there were more than just the handful of seventeenth-century female spies such as Aphra Behn and Elizabeth Murray. The others just haven’t been discovered.

One that was not given extensive treatment by Akkerman is the formidable Elizabeth Alkin. Like many in Akkerman’s book far too little is known of her life, even her birth date is a guess (c. 1600 – c. 1655).

She wore many hats including publisher, nurse and spy for the Parliamentarian armies during the English Civil War. She was famous enough to have been given her derogatory name by the Royalists as “Parliament Joan”.

Spying seemed to run in her family she was the wife of Francis Alkin, a spy for the Parliamentarians who was according to Wikipedia hanged early in the English Civil War by royalist forces for his activities. The loss of her husband meant not only did she keep spying, a dangerous occupation in itself she managed to look after three children.

Her involvement in publishing needs further research. According to her Wikipedia page “In the seventeenth century, daily news was published in newsbooks which tended to be small eight-page publications, the forerunners of newspapers. They were usually sold on the street by what the historian Bob Clarke describes as "semi-destitute female hawkers, known as Mercury Women". Those publications supporting the royalist cause were closed down and the publishers prosecuted, and Alkin became involved in uncovering those behind the publication. In 1648 the royalist newsbooks the Mercurius Melancholicus and the Parliament Kite both referred to her attempts to uncover them, and the following year the Mercurius Pragmaticus called her an "old Bitch" who could "smell out a Loyall-hearted man as soon as the best Blood-hound in the Army".
Her role as a double agent was to get information on the Royalist newsbooks. To do this she acted as a Royalist newsbook seller between 1650 and 1651, According to historian Bob Clarke, Alkin used royalist titles, to gain the confidence of royalist sympathisers. Wikipedia cites the historian Marcus Nevitt who disagrees, and believes that Alkin was "reappropriating Royalist titles for Parliamentarian consumption".

Nadine Akkerman
Akkerman believes the war gave women opportunities that they would have never had in peacetime. Many women were actively involved in defending their property. Many disguised themselves as men so they could fight. Some ran family businesses when their husbands were killed in the war.

Most importantly they got involved in politics. Finding the figures for female participation is difficult. But it is undeniable that large numbers on both sides of the barricades took part. It is a shame that this is not addressed to an any great extent in the book. An evident radicalisation of women took place during the English Revolution. This radicalisation was not met with open arms.

According to Heather Delonnette, “All this political activity was not received with complete acceptance. The term ‘fishwife’ became used as a disparaging term for the women who involved themselves in these protests. This type of behaviour was considered abnormal for women at the time despite their increased activity in other spheres, as we have seen. Women’s involvement in politics was the source a series of jokes claiming that there would soon be a ‘Parliament of Women’ where women would have superiority over their husbands and fathers, a world truly ‘turned upside down’”.

Women Levellers mounted large-scale demonstrations and organised petitions in favour of social equality. They were met with differing levels of brutality depending on which class they belonged to. On the whole middle-class women were treated with disdain, but mostly no violence was committed against them. This is not the case with the poorer sections of the women’s movement who were often treated severely by MP’s and soldiers alike.” Many were thrown into prison, mental institutions or workhouses. Middle-class women were simply escorted away by soldiers and told to 'go back to women's work”.

Ann Hughes correctly states that “Women’s political activism did not begin in the twentieth century. Women from all social ranks have been involved in popular protests, religious conflicts and aristocratic conspiracies from the earliest times. In the English civil war, women acted as spies and couriers; they defended their homes from soldiers and worked hard to protect their families from the ravages of political division and war; they played a prominent part in the novel religious freedoms of the period, founding new congregations and insisting that men had no authority over their consciences or their souls. But they did not claim the vote or other formal political rights for women, despite their ‘equal interest’ in the freedoms of the commonwealth. The prevailing notion was that institutional political power was confined to men of some property, heads of households, whose wives, children, and servants, as their dependents, could not be political actors”.[1]


A further small weakness of the book is that Akkerman does not expand on her choice of the ”War of Three Kingdoms” to explain the nature of the English civil war. The book is also part of a growing market of “royalist studies” and Gender studies. This would tend to situate her book within the two significant historiographical themes; Royalist conspiracy and Gender Studies.
Akkerman’s book is part of a growing trend of Royalist studies over the last five years. In fact, you cannot enter a bookshop history section without tripping over them.


In some respects, the book is painful reading. It shows that the treatment of women during the seventeenth century is still shockingly close to their treatment in the twenty-first century. As Akkerman points out that male chauvinism was one of the reasons why so many female Royalist spies were either not caught or treated with leniency, although not all were spared. The book is well written and is never dry. The book moves at a pace but does contain needless phrases such as ‘mud sticks’ and ‘sniff out information’. The reference to Madonna seems out of place with the overall academic presentation. Let us hope that Akkerman continues with this line of enquiry and sheds more light on a forgotten army of women still left in the archives.

Notes and references

Royalist Agents, Conspirators and Spies: Their Role in the British Civil Wars, 1640-1660-Geoffrey Smith-Farnham, Ashgate, 2011, ISBN: 9780754666936; 252pp.; Price: £60.00
Geoffrey Smith, The Cavaliers in Exile 1640–60 (Basingstoke, 2003).
Literature of Exile in the English Revolution and its Aftermath, 1640–1690, ed. Philip Major (London, 2010).Back to (2)
David Underdown, Royalist Conspiracy 1649–1660 (New Haven, CT, 1960).Back to
P Higgins, ‘The reactions of women, with special reference to women petitions’, in Manning, Politics, Religion and the English Civil War, p. 197.
Clarke, Bob (2004). From Grub Street to Fleet Street. London: Routledge. ISBN 978-0-7546-5007-2.

About the Author

Nadine Akkerman is a Reader in Early Modern English Literature at Leiden University. She has published extensively on women's history, diplomacy, and masques, and curated several exhibitions. In the academic year 2015/16, she was Fellow at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities and Social Sciences (NIAS-KNAW). She is the editor of The Correspondence of Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia (OUP, three volumes, of which the first appeared in 2011), for which her prize-winning PhD (2008) serves as the groundwork. She is currently writing a biography of Elizabeth Stuart (forthcoming from OUP). In 2017, the World Cultural Council recognised the transformative effect of her work in the form of a Special Recognition Award.