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  • Writer's pictureMarc Zakian

England's first female spy

Updated: Jan 12, 2023

Aphra Behn was an English playwright, poet, and novelist.

Aphra Behn  British History Podcast
Aphra Behn Portrait

She was also a spy.

Behn was probably born in 1640 in Canterbury – home to another literary “spy” Christopher Marlowe.

We know little about her early years. One story has her as the daughter of a barber and a wet nurse.

As a female, she would have had no formal education. It possible she come from a family who went against tradition and educated their daughter. So was she self taught? Self-tuition was practised by some women in the 17th century - if the parents to allowed it.

Behn most likely spent time copying poems and other writings, which inspired and educated her.

She grew up during the English Civil War, a child of the political tensions of the time. She wrote about travelling with her father to the English colony of Surinam. During the trip, Behn recounted meeting an African slave leader, whose story she turned into her most famous work: Oroonoko.

The Surinam trip part is one of the great mysteries of Aphra Behn. She may have acted as a spy.

On her return to England from Surinam in 1664, she married Johan Behn. The couple separated soon after, but from this time she used "Mrs Behn" as her professional name.

By 1666, Behn was part of the royal court. When war broke out between England and the Netherlands she was recruited as a political agent in Antwerp on behalf of King Charles II. Her mission was to establish a relationship with William Scot, son of Thomas Scot - a regicide who had been executed in on the orders of King Charles in 1660.

This extraordinary woman had achieved many firsts in her life. The first English woman to make a living as a writer; Britain’s first successful female playwright; and the country’s first lady novelist.

Behn is buried in Westminster Abbey - not in poets corner, but in the cloister

In our Women and War history podcast, we visit the tomb of Aphra Behn in Westminster Abbey and look at her life as a secret agent. How did England’s first female spy escape from Holland?

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