Espionage Techniques of Seventeenth-Century Women

Spying in the seventeenth century was a man’s job. That had been the prevailing impression, until the Veni research by Nadine Akkerman from Leiden University...

Nadine Akkerman uncovered a network of dozens of female spies from the seventeenth century. Together with MIT, she created videos of the techniques these women used to send secret letters.

Nadine Akkerman uncovered a network of dozens of female spies from the seventeenth century. Together with MIT, she created videos of the techniques these women used to send secret letters.

With England as location, Nadine Akkerman uncovered a network of more than sixty female spies. Some of the techniques that these women used to send secret letters have now been recreated in videos on the MIT website.

The title of Nadine Akkerman’s Veni research was 'Female Spies'. She thought of the idea when she was cracking a secret code in the letters of Elizabeth Stuart (1596-1662), a Scottish princess who lived in exile in The Hague for forty years. "I've been working for over ten years on the correspondence of Elizabeth Stuart,” says Akkerman. In these letters, she discovered a reference to what was perhaps the first female spy. "That’s when I started searching, and there turned out to be many more."


Letters and payment books

She researched ciphered letters, but also looked at the payment books of the Secret Service in England, which also included women. “Finding a name in there does not have to mean she was a spy. Sometimes ‘Secret Service’ was used as a euphemism for sexual practices and the recorded payment would be for a visit to a women who was in fact a prostitute.”

Above suspicion because of gender

There were many more female spies in the seventeenth century than you might think, says Akkerman. “I found about sixty female spies in overlapping networks. Women in that time were not suspicious at all: one could not imagine a woman being so politically active. If a male spy was caught, he was quartered or hanged. Women who were caught were imprisoned for three months in a luxurious room of the Tower of London and then released. Nobody really believed that they were guilty."

Delivering letters

Researcher Nadine Akkerman received a Veni grant for her research on female spies in the seventeenth century. On video, she captured some of their spy techniques, like hiding little notes in raw eggs.

Researcher Nadine Akkerman received a Veni grant for her research on female spies in the seventeenth century. On video, she captured some of their spy techniques, like hiding little notes in raw eggs.

Women did the same type of work as male spies. "They were only used slightly more often to deliver letters, because they were not searched." Akkerman discovered a number of techniques that the women used to send secret messages. From invisible ink made from artichokes to hiding little notes in raw eggs. Together with MIT, she creates videos in which she shows how the women cracked codes, what invisible ink they used and how they smuggled the notes. The upcoming year she will retreat to the NIAS in Wassenaar to compile her findings in a book.


Sources such as the Magiae Naturalis (1558; 1644 ed. book 16-chapter IV) by Giambattista della Porta and A Thousand Notable Things (1579) by Thomas Lupton provide a step by step description of how to smuggle notes in raw eggs. Akkerman collaborated with MIT to precisely recreate this recipe:

'To put a Shedule, or lytle wryting into an Egge, lay an Egge certaine dayes in strong vynegar, vntyl it be soft, and wryte your name or what you lyst in a lytle peece of paper, and folde the paper as harde together as you can: then with a Raser cut the sayd Egge in the toppe fynely, and aduisedly: through the which, putt the little paper into the Egge cyrcumspectedly, and then put the Egge into cold water, and immediately the shell wyl be hard as it was before. A proper secrete.'

More info
Videos MIT female spies

Source: NWO
Translated by Alyssa Westhoek

Last Modified: 24-09-2015