Nadine Akkerman: ‘Women’s letters have been ignored for a long time’

25.11.2021 | Dr Nadine Akkerman from the University of Leiden spends her time breaking cipher codes to read the secret letters of 17th-century women. We asked her about her new book on Elizabeth Stuart and about why women made excellent spies during the English Civil War.
Nadine Akkerman
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Nadine Akkerman

You're a scholar of early modern English literature and one of your focal points is women. Why women and why this period?

I like to work on things that nobody else has worked on and in this period, you are likely to end up with women. Some of my books were the first of their kind – my book on women spies Invisible Agents, for instance, was the first book-length study of this fascinating yet hitherto hidden phenomenon. Historians never really thought that women got involved in such nefarious dealings.

What I really like about the period is that it’s in the transition from handwritten sources to printed sources. You have the printed sources in the form of pamphlets and books and early versions of newspapers, and then you have the handwritten documents, the manuscripts. Every manuscript is unique: when you go into an archive and you find a handwritten source, you won’t find that source anywhere else. There’s still a lot to explore and I find that combination really interesting.

Your new book on Elizabeth Stuart, sometime Queen of Bohemia (Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Hearts – features a lot of unique source material, that is, her personal letters. What made you write a book about her?

She is one of the most fascinating women of the 17th century because she lived for so long. She was born in 1596 in the 16th century but she didn’t die until 1662 [at 65 years old]. She is at the epicentre of the bloodiest decades of the 17th century, that of the 30 Years War and the Civil Wars, and she writes about everything. That means that when you study her, you study the greater part of a century. She was seven years old when Elizabeth I died, but even then she understood the importance to the country’s history. She lived through the reigns of her father and her younger brother, and she saw a nephew being restored on the throne of Britain after the Civil War. So she witnessed an awful lot.

She’s also quite witty and fierce – everything you want from a woman in this period. Sometimes letters can be quite distant because people write in formulaic ways, but she’s very aware of those conventions and she manipulates them.

Do you get a special feel for her personality through her letters?

I think so, even though it's still a construction. Her persona is different depending on who she’s interacting with, so every context is constructed. For example, she writes letters to friends, but those friends happen to be ambassadors and the kings and queens of Europe, so there’s a political layer that is embedded in them (as with all other genres).

But you do get a sense of her personality. For instance, she was a great huntress and she spears boars from horseback while eight months pregnant. Another example is when she writes to her friend James Hay, the first Earl of Carlisle, who in her eyes betrays her when he starts negotiating with the Spanish because the Spanish are her enemies. From that moment on, he’s no longer the first Earl of Carlisle to her, he becomes Ugly Filthy Camel Face. But she addresses her letters to him, My Dear Ugly Filthy Camel Face and then signs, Your Affectionate Friend – so it remains tongue-in-cheek.

»My Dear Ugly Filthy Camel Face...«

That’s hilarious! Do you think women’s letters have been overlooked as sources from this time period until now, and is that perhaps what’s happened on the issue of women spies?

Women’s letters have been ignored for a long time, so you can still find new information. Historians have said in the past that there were only male spies in this period, but I’ve uncovered quite a few women by simply looking differently.

Women spies did the same thing as male spies: they wrote in invisible ink, used cipher code, eavesdropped, bribed, infiltrated certain circles and so on. During the Civil Wars, I found women spies in both camps – although more in the camp of the losing party, the King and the Royalists. This was because women were considered incapable of political thought, so if you had money and could choose anyone, you wouldn’t employ a woman. But as it happened, because of those assumptions, women went unsuspected and were invisible, which is perfect for a spy.

Cipher code was the language of the elite before the war, but during the Civil Wars, cipher code became forbidden. If you were caught with a cipher key you could be tried as a spy and executed. So when you’re in the archive and you find cipher code from these years, you immediately think that these people must be hiding something and that they could be working as spies.

There are also direct records, but the winning party – Parliament – tried to hide that they were working with women, so they put them in the account books as nurses instead of spies. I just happened to stumble upon it because I knew the name of one woman spy, who I found listed as a nurse. So I started looking at other nurses and what they were doing. It’s detective work: you find a thread, you pull on it and see what you end up with.

Many of the issues they faced then translate almost directly into the present day

In your book about Elizabeth Stuart, did her letters reveal anything surprising?

There have been other biographies written about her but they tend to repeat the same old clichés, even when there is no evidence or directly contradictory evidence – but that’s how history works. The historian’s job is to look on old subjects with fresh eyes. Writing history is, necessarily, re-writing history. That’s one reason I became interested in her. She was always accused of having started the 30 Years War: her ambition had driven her husband to accept the crown of Bohemia, and she was a sort of Lady Macbeth, pushing her husband to start a war. But nobody had truly looked at her letters.

In fact, she supported her husband once the decision had been made, but before that time, if you read the letters, she’s trying to discourage him. And she talks of being melancholic during their entire reign and depressed about being away from her children. That is all in contrast to the secondary sources.

Another example is that she’s always portrayed as being a bad mother. There’s one enemy pamphlet that said that when she fled Prague, she nearly left a baby behind. But that is enemy propaganda, you can’t just read pamphlets as direct and unbiased presentations of fact! There’s no evidence that she nearly left a baby behind in her panic to escape. All the evidence suggests that her possible exit from Prague had been planned for carefully, and she went to great lengths to make sure her children were safe.

Very interesting that even back then, the attacks directed against women were about being bad mothers and being too ambitious …

And shocking that we still happily parrot the same rhetoric now! You’d think we were capable of a little more self-reflection. It’s one of the things I like about my field, even though I write about the 17th century, which might seem very far away, you never lose the sense that many, many of the issues they faced then translate almost directly into the present day!

Absolutely. Thank you very much for speaking to us, Dr Akkerman, it’s been fascinating.

  (© Emilie Steinmark / AcademiaNet /

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