All Dressed Up and Left in the Sea: Retrieving a 400-Year-old Gown of a Double Spy
400 years ago travels across the sea were quite difficult. Bad weather conditions often meant tragedies. One example of a difficult journey comes from February 1642, when a ship was crossing from Dover to Hellevoetsluis in the Netherlands. The vessel was a part of the royal fleet, but the sea didn’t care much who the ship’s owners were…it still sunk on a cold winter day.
One of the people on this ship was Jean Kerr, Countess of Roxburghe and lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria, the consort of Charles I. She is known to have traveled with beautiful clothes and accessories. However, that was all forgotten when water began to enter the ship. There was no time to lose and nobody cared to waste time by bringing unnecessary things as they scrambled off the sinking ship. By then, the Dutch fleet had already lost 12 ships, so the vessel itself was seen as a painful loss; the beautiful wardrobe was looked upon as the least of their worries.
A Gown Emerges from Deep Waters
The exploration of the ship, which is the main character of this article, started in 2014. In April 2016, the scuba divers announced that two years earlier they had discovered a well preserved garment near the Dutch island of Texel.
Dutch ships in the roadstead of Texel; in the middle the 'Gouden Leeuw,' the flagship of Cornelis Tromp. (1671) by Ludolf Bakhuizen. (Public Domain)
The artifacts are one of the greatest examples of a discovery of personal items to be found by underwater archaeologists to date. The most important of the artifacts was a complete 17th century gown which was created in a style characteristic to the highest courts of Europe in the late first half of the century.
The personal items from the shipwreck are like a message from the past which tells the story of the owner and many other high-society women from her time. Apart from the gorgeous dress, the researchers also discovered many other items including a comb, books bearing the Stuart coat of arms, a clutch purse, and a pomander.
The clutch. (University of Amsterdam)
The artifacts were all buried in the sand of the seabed so they were well protected from erosion. It is a very unusual situation because normally these types of objects are some of the first victims, following dead bodies, of the cold water, salt, and the sea animals.
The gowns for upper-class women from this period were classical dresses that were nicely decorated. By then, there were already various choices of patterns and colors of fabrics to satisfy different tastes. Every single gown was made for a specific woman and they were seen as pieces of art. This was also true about the gown found tucked under the seafloor. Moreover, according to the researcher Nadine Akkerman, of Leiden University, the gown became the key to the riddle of to whom the artifacts belonged.
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The Lady Who Traveled the Sea
The main evidence which helped in the identification of the silk dress’ owner came from a letter written by Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of James I, and the so-called Winter Queen - who was living in exile in The Hague in this period. According to the Akkerman, Elizabeth wrote about the ladies-in-waiting losing their wardrobes, which suggested that the identity of the specific woman who wore the dress could be found.
Akkreman is a specialist in women’s history and has published two volumes of Elizabeth Stuart’s correspondence, so she has enough experience to connect the facts from these letters. According to her research, the official reason of the voyage was to take Charles I’s nine-year-old daughter Mary to join her husband, William II, Prince of Orange.
Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia and the so-called ‘Winter Queen’ (1613). (Public Domain)
However, the real purpose of her travel was apparently to sell the crown jewels through Elizabeth Stuart’s contacts and raise money for the Royalist army. It was a dangerous mission for a woman, she needed to be very careful and couldn't make any mistakes. It also wasn't the first time when she received was so trusted by Elizabeth. Part of the Elizabeth's letter was written in cipher, suggesting how close they were and how important the success of the mission was.
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It is known that the owner of the dress was a Catholic woman and that she became a spy in the court of James I, Charles’ father. She was apparently passing on information to the King of Spain. Her life appears as very adventurous and fascinating. It seems that Kerr, who lived to be 56 years old and died during the following year, was experienced in her work as a spy.
Her dress was large size, but also old fashioned. She served as a lady-in-waiting to Anne of Denmark, wife of James I. As she was, in fact, a double spy, she had a very dangerous life. It is unknown if she died of injuries she may have suffered after the catastrophic shipwreck, or if she was given up as a scapegoat and assassinated.
A portrait of ‘Jean 2nd Wife of 1st Earl of Roxburghe’ (Adel in Nederland)
A Modern Exhibit and a Long-Forgotten Tale
Exhibitions around the world contain many pieces of clothing which were taken out of the water. However, most of the examples of fabrics are only pieces. The discovery from the waters of the Netherlands is unique because it's very rare to find a complete gown from the 17th century in such a good shape, but it also puts a new light onto the history of the female spy in Europe. The gown and other precious items appeared on display in the Kaap Skil Museum on the island of Texel.
Top Image: The 400-year-old dress. Source: Kaap Skil
Anna Sieradzka , Żony modne, 1993.
400-year-old dress found in shipwreck sheds light on plot to pawn crown jewels available at:
‘Royal’ 17th century dress found under sand off the coast of Texel, available at:
One of the “most important” shipwreck treasures ever discovered by Annalee Newitz,available at: