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Duration 00:07:10

Aphra Behn: Memoirs of a Shee Spy

Best-known as the first professional female writer in England, Aphra Behn was a trailblazing thinker whose work explored themes of women’s rights, slavery and colonial oppression.

In this film, Record Specialist Dr Katy Mair, and Professor of 17th-Century Studies at Loughborough University, Elaine Hobby, tell us the less-well-known story of Aphra Behn the spy – a young woman who was recruited by Charles II and sent to the dangerous city of Antwerp to turn her rumoured former lover into a double agent.

Literary Lives traces the footsteps, through the marks they left in our records, of some of our nation’s famous, and less famous, authors, spotlighting moments in their lives that have shaped them into the characters we know them to be today.


[Specialist Interpretation – Elaine Hobby]

Aphra Behn, who lived in the second-half of the 17th century, was an English playwright, fiction writer, poet and translator. Often dubbed the first professional female writer she penned at least 19 plays, numerous poems and several short works of fiction during her 20 year career.

Before becoming a writer, Behn was employed by Charles II as a spy. It was unexpected for women to work as spies; however as they were traditionally excluded from political activities and often overlooked they could be particularly effective at extracting and passing on information.

Behn’s short career as a spy was frustrating, dangerous, unprofitable and unsuccessful. The National Archives hold 19 of her spying letters sent from Antwerp to her employers in England.

[Aphra Behn Voice-over]

‘Agent: Mistress Aphra Behn, codename Astrea

Target: Master William Scott, codename Celladon

Mission: To know whether Mr Scott has any resolution to become a convert and to serve his KING and COUNTRY. To use all secrecy imaginable’

[Specialist Interpretation – Dr Katy Mair]

In the summer of 1666, Behn is recruited by the King’s spymasters. She is to convince her rumoured former lover, William Scott, to become an informant for the English. Scott is living abroad and treasonously working for the Dutch. Behn’s task is to turn him double agent.

She travels to Antwerp in the low countries, a territory she had never been to where they speak languages she does not know well.

Antwerp at this time is a place of danger, mystery and intrigue. The English are at war with the Dutch Republic and Antwerp is a centre for covert activity.

Behn arranges a meeting with Scott. The stakes are high: Scott is already under observation by his suspicious Dutch employers. Evidence of treasonous activities could lead to his imprisonment and execution.

[Aphra Behn Voice-over]

‘I was forced to get a coach and go a day’s journey with him to have an opportunity to speak with him, … after I had used all arguments to him that were fit for me, he became so extremely willing to undertake your service’

[Specialist Interpretation – Dr Katy Mair]

Behn believes he trusts her. He agrees to spy for Charles II – as long as he is paid and receives a pardon for his previous crimes.

[Aphra Behn Voice-over]

‘I really believe [his] intent is very real and will be very diligent in the way of doing you all the service in the world for the future’

[Specialist Interpretation – Dr Katy Mair]

Scott sends her information, which she dutifully passes on to London. But now her spymasters go cold. Behn needs money, a pardon and instruction to continue to secure Scott’s trust.

[Aphra Behn Voice-over]

‘I have sent several times to Mr Hallsall: but I can get no word of answer…I have by this post sent him things from Celladon who is the readiest man alive to serve his majesty… without any encouragement than barely my word.’

[Specialist Interpretation – Dr Katy Mair]

Behn’s frustration at her situation is palpable. Despite her best efforts, she is now weary, broke and desperate.

[Aphra Behn Voice-over]

‘I confess I carried no more … but 50 pounds and I have not only spent all that upon mere eating and drinking but in borrowing of money to accomplish my desires of seeing and speaking with the man. I am as much more in debt having pawned my very rings.’

[Specialist Interpretation – Dr Katy Mair]

Weeks go by and still Behn has no word from London.

The Great Fire, which started on 2 September, was ravaging the city. Behn would have heard the news in Antwerp, and may even have seen images in newspapers of the City razed to the ground.

She becomes increasingly paranoid about her role as agent. She clashes with another spy in Antwerp, who tries to undermine her, and she fears she has lost the King’s support. She starts to panic.

It is 3 months since she heard from London. Desperate, she writes a bold letter to Lord Arlington, the Secretary of State and overseer of domestic and foreign security. She has failed her mission and lost the trust of Scott. She now needs money to pay her debts and return safely home.

[Aphra Behn Voice-over]

‘Therefore my humble petition to your lordshop is that I may have a final answer of what I am to do, and not let me be disgraced and ruined in a straing place where I have none to pity or help me.’

[Specialist Interpretation – Dr Katy Mair]

At last, Behn’s pleas are heard and she is sent enough money to pay her debts in Antwerp and return home. But even then, her ordeal continues. She still owes money, and Behn is again forced to beg her former employers for financial aid.

They again go silent. With nowhere else to turn, Behn sends a petition to the King to beg for her debts to be paid.

Her petition to the King appears to have worked as her presence in the records disappears. Her spying mission may have been a failure but her resilience, strength of will and ambition are evident.

[Specialist Interpretation – Elaine Hobby]

Behn “the spy” is a remarkable footnote in the history of 1660s England – one of many women who, for reasons of pride, financial gain, ambition and even love, undertook roles as secret agents for their King and country, at great risk and cost to themselves.

What makes Behn’s story more fascinating is that she left behind her espionage career to become a successful playwright and author of fiction and poetry – treading a path to a professional life that few women had previously walked. Renowned during her lifetime, and in the centuries since, she is buried in Westminster Abbey. Her works speak of women’s rights, of colonial oppression and slavery, and chime with many of society’s concerns today.

Behn made her own way in the world, and continues to be an inspiration. Just think: what do you want to do? How can you reshape what’s possible?