Female Spies or 'she-Intelligencers': Towards a Gendered History of Seventeenth-Century Espionage


The role of female spies in early modern Europe was much more extensive than scholars have assumed until now. Women could not be appointed as ambassadors or official diplomats. They were, however, welcomed within alternative, semi-private spaces - such as the secretariats of households and distribution centres of mail - engaging with the production, surveying and gathering of intelligence. The scholarship that has been done on English early modern convents on the Continent reveals the more worldly activities of nuns: their involvement in politics and espionage. A few nuns who acted as spies for the Stuart cause have received significant attention. Yet these and other case studies are still considered as isolated incidents. The predominant historiography of early modern intelligence or espionage typically characterizes the seventeenth-century world of the spy as a female-free zone.

This project argues 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. This means that they secretly obtained information from the enemy either out of political or religious convictions, or to obtain money or power. Unlike men, these women were not restricted by codes of chivalry and honour. Sometimes they worked alone, but there is substantial evidence to suggest involvement in secret spy networks. Hitherto unexamined archival material reveals the underground whereabouts of early modern female spies. For the first time, it is possible to comprehensively explore their contribution to the European spying trade in the seventeenth century. By analysing neglected (continental) spy centres and integrating these groups of female intelligencers into the traditional, male-orientated historical narratives, I will proceed towards a gendered history of early modern espionage.


Book or monography

  • NNW Akkerman(2018): Invisible Agents pp. 288 , Oxford

Chapter in book

  • N.N.W. Akkerman, N.N.W. Akkerman, B Houben(2014): The Politics of Female Households pp. 287 - 309 , Leiden
  • N.N.W. Akkerman, N.N.W. Akkerman, B. Houben, B. Houben(2014): The Politics of Female Households pp. 1 - 27 , Leiden
  • M.P. Hannay, N.N.W. Akkerman, M.G. Brennan, M.E. Lamb(2015): The Ashgate Research Companion to The Sidneys, 1500-1700 pp. 133 - 150 , Farnham, UK; Burlington, USA

Publication meant for a broad audience

  • (2014): Courtly Rivals in The Hague pp. 1 - 117

Publications for the general public


Project number


Main applicant

Dr. N.N.W. Akkerman

Affiliated with

Universiteit Leiden, Faculteit der Geesteswetenschappen, Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society (LUCAS)

Team members

Dr. N.N.W. Akkerman


01/03/2011 to 28/02/2015