The Ingenious Tricks of 17th Century Female Spies

Illustration for article titled The Ingenious Tricks of 17th Century Female Spies

Female spies were not unheard of in 17th century Europe. In fact, espionage by women was occasionally seen as preferable because it was less expected and—if caught—a woman’s punishment (a few months in the Tower of London, maybe) was less drastic than a man’s (death by hanging).


Dr. Nadine Akkerman of Leiden University will soon publish the extensive research she’s been doing on 17th century female spies (often subtly referred to as “adventuresses” or “Royalist heroines” in old documents) in “Female Spies or ‘she-Intelligencers’: Towards a Gendered History of Seventeenth-Century Espionage.”

In the summary, Dr. Akkerman writes that, “female spying activities were by no means out of the ordinary in the context of British intercontinental relations in the first half of the seventeenth century. In fact, playwrights, nurses, ladies-in-waiting, postmistresses, and women in other professions and positions operated as spies during this period.”

Among these spies were poet/playwright Aphra Behn (pictured above) and Queen of Bohemia, Elizabeth Stewart.

Atlas Obscura’s Urvija Banerji writes that while Dr. Akkerman “was examining letters sent by Elizabeth Stuart...during her exile in the Hague, she discovered that some were filled with secret codes. The ones delivered through official postal channels contained either false or largely superficial information, while the letters sent via Brussels and Antwerp were filled with ciphers and even invisible ink. Akkerman was intrigued as to why the queen would require such covert correspondence. This was her first encounter with the 17th-century female spy.”

The tactics used by these female spies were nothing short of brilliant. In one (recommended by a female spy to her brother), a letter writer uses artichoke juice as an invisible ink that only appears when the paper is heated.

In another, an egg shell is softened by vinegar, cut into, inserted with a message and rehardened by cold water.

Thank you, Dr. Nadine Akkerman and Atlas Obscura, for introducing me to my new favorite hiding place. If anything strange happens to me, check my eggs.


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Image via Getty.



I’m torn because I want to learn about badass women spies but if they were that good at spying why is this scholar able to study them hundreds of years later?