Jessie Childs reviews Invisible Agents by Nadine Akkerman
The great politician and historian of the Civil War era, Edward Hyde, Earl of Clarendon, had a sister. She went by the name of Mrs Edwards, and sometimes Mistress St Barbe, Mistress Simburbe or Mr Gotherintone.
She worked for the Sealed Knot, the Royalist secret society determined to put the Stuarts back on the throne, and she is one of several women unmasked in Nadine Akkerman's groundbreaking study of female spies in 17th-century Britain.
When the Royalists lost the war, they did not give up the fight. Hyde's sister ran the London end of operations, communicating with the Stuart court in exile via an apothecary-clearing house in the Old Bailey. She was "at the heart of things", writes Akkerman, a reader in early modern English literature at Leiden University, and she made sure that the Knot stayed tight.
After a failed uprising in 1655, however, it began to unravel. Her letters were going missing. She feared a mole. Her communications became more urgent. "If you fail," she told Charles Stuart (later Charles II), "I break."
Why have we not heard of her? Partly, suggests Akkerman, because she was so good at covering her tracks, but also because she has been systematically ignored. In the 17th century, male spies were executed, usually hanged, and displayed on the gibbet.
The crime and the punishment were exposed. Not so the women: in Ireland they were banished to Barbados (no holiday then) and in England they were incarcerated or occasionally drowned, like witches, because female espionage, like sorcery, was seen as a shameful perversion of nature. And just as the women's bodies were submerged, so were their records.
Hyde's sister's name is nowhere in his exhaustive History of the Rebellion, nor in his autobiography, nor in his manuscript drafts, nor in subsequent biographies of him. Nor does she appear in the 18th-century printed volumes of the papers of John Thurloe, Oliver Cromwell's spymaster.
Her letters were not deemed appropriate for a collection of state papers. Women, wrote Sir Lewis Dyve, were "vessels too weak for the retention of strong liquor".
But just as the Catholic wives, widows and spinsters of the Elizabethan era used their supposed frailty as cover to protect forbidden priests, so the "she-intelligencers" of the next century found it the perfect veil for their activities. Akkerman cites a letter in Thurloe's 73-volume archive that did not make the cut because it is ostensibly about family matters.
It is from one "Fran: Edwards" to his, or her, sister. By paying attention to the "materiality" of the text - the paper, ink, handwriting, seal and folding pattern - Akkerman reveals it to be a message from Charles Stuart to Hyde's sister. It most certainly contains "strong liquor".
The best way to catch a spy is to become one and Akkerman has immersed herself in the devices and networks of her targets. She knows their aliases and has cracked the codes. She even has an "Index Occultus" and an enciphered dedication, while scattered among her extensive footnotes are links to videos, which show all sorts of interesting things like how (in a time before envelopes) to "lock" a letter into its folds, or make invisible ink from artichoke juice.
If your favourite part of Bond is Q's lair, you will love this book.
It is not news that there were female spies in the 17th century, but, through a series of case studies, Akkerman amplifies our understanding of their quantity and significance. They came from all walks of life, from glamorous Royalists like Lady d'Aubigny, who hid a royal commission in her hair, to Elizabeth Alkin, aka "Parliament Joan" ("Joan" was a generic name for a rustic woman), who signed her name with a mark and so is missed in the catalogues and indexes.
Some of the women thrilled to the spying game. "I know you prefer that so much before the lazy quiet most here place their happiness in," Elizabeth Carey, Lady Mordaunt was told, though her spiritual diary suggests that she may have struggled with her choices.
Most of the women were desperate - for money, for their children, for their cause, for a way out of their lives. Jane Whorwood, who tried to spring Charles I from captivity (and almost certainly "swived" with him, too), had a brute of a husband, who left her for his mistress and beat her to within an inch of her life. "They have one thing in common," writes Akkerman, "when they operated, they did so as de facto single women."
There was a stigma, especially for those who were not high-born. Alkin was savaged in the Royalist press as "a clamorous woman" and "old bitch". It is not always clear in the records if payments for "secret service" refer to the world's oldest, or to its second-oldest, profession. Contemporaries - and subsequent generations - were quick to conflate the two.
Akkerman shows how a single transcription error in the 18th century - "Mr" instead of "Mrs" - has led to the fiction that Diana Gennings inveigled herself into Royalist circles through a relationship (sexual, naturally) with one Mr Philips, rather than by friendship with his wife. Similarly, Bishop Burnet's apparently vindictive insinuation that Elizabeth Murray had an affair with Oliver Cromwell has led people to believe that she had more agency as a spy than the evidence permits.
Invisible Agents is a triumph of scholarly rigour, original thinking and crisp prose. It is, in every sense, a cracking book. Akkerman concludes with a compelling chapter on the writer Aphra Behn, who "may have fooled us all", and offers the tantalising prospect that "there are, doubtless, many more women waiting to be uncovered".
But what of Lord Clarendon's sister? Akkerman cites a letter in his papers that he did not mention in print. In fairness, he didn't destroy it, either. It may have been too painful to revisit. It reveals that she was arrested in Wiltshire and taken to Westminster, where she was deprived of sleep, strip searched and threatened with muskets and pistols.
She is thought to have lost her mind: "Sometimes she would cry that her keepers intended to kill her & to tear her in pieces." She was transferred to Lambeth House and died within a week.
Akkerman plausibly suggests that her brutal treatment might have had something to do with a vendetta by Cromwell against her brother.
If so, it does not speak well for the Protector's character. But it is also a testament to the spy's own force. She was simply too dangerous to be allowed to thrive. The letter to Clarendon ends: "I will number your sister among them that have the glory of Martyrs."
Her name was Susan Hyde.
Jessie Childs is the author of God's Traitors: Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England, available for £12.99 on the Telegraph Bookshop. Her next book will be about the siege of Basing House in the English Civil War.
Invisible Agents is available on the Telegraph Bookshop for £16.99