The Duchess of York’s Spy Aunt

anne hyde york
Anne Hyde, Duchess of York (public domain)

It is unclear if Anne, the future Duchess of York, even knew her aunt well but Susan Hyde, the sister of her father Edward Hyde, the future 1st Earl of Clarendon, has been relegated to less than a footnote in history.

The date of her birth is not known, but she was baptised on 22 July 1607. Her parents were Henry Hyde MP and Mary Langford, and it appears that she remained unmarried. Susan, though now almost forgotten, was part of the Royalist secret organisation called The Sealed Knot operating in England during the Commonwealth and she was eventually unmasked. The Sealed Knot was the only group personally sanctioned by Charles Stuart (the future King Charles II in exile) and was likely founded in February 1654. It probably consisted of six leaders and a secretary. Susan operated in it and was one of the agents in direct contact with the King (who used the code name Fran Edwards). Other code names include Mrs Kate (for Queen Henrietta Maria) and Cousin Blithe (for the Prince of Orange).

The Sealed Knot was to have three objectives; it was to have the power to control any royalist plot (while the royalists themselves were dreadfully divided and scattered), it had to stop “absurd and desperate attempts to overthrow Oliver Cromwell (the Lord Protector) and prevent “impossible undertakings.”1 Susan’s brother Edward was Charles’ chief advisor, and it was now his own sister Susan who would arrange the Sealed Knot’s communications between France and England.

Female spies managed to remain under the radar for a number of reasons, and their letters were often thought to be of a domestic nature and thus of little importance. On 16 July 1655, Charles wrote to Susan, “to say all of kindnesse from vs to little John” and ends with “god be thanked both he and all your freinds heare and at home are very well”, signing it “Fran Edwards.”2 Such letters were often code for something else.

However, Edward probably underestimated Cromwell’s own agents, who even before the founding of the Sealed Knot were intercepting Susan’s correspondence. The earliest letter that can be traced back to Susan is dated 14 June 1653 from S.H. (Susan) to Monsieur D’Esmond at Paris (Edward). Susan later began sending letters via an apothecary called Anthony Hinton of the Old Bailey, who also acted as a postmaster. There are some surviving letters that give clues as to Susan’s whereabouts during this time. For a while, she lived “over against Baynard’s Castle”, before she moved to Hart Hall in Oxford.

Susan’s last letter to Charles Stuart dates from 13 September 1656, and she wrote that the apothecary would be travelling and this would prevent her from receiving letters. She also wrote of her belief in a leak in the organisation writing, “I muste desire your cautione, being so much concerned in your trade, that if you fayle, I breacke.”3 It was this very letter that the apothecary was carrying when he was apprehended two days later.

Susan’s own fate only became clear in a letter written by John Cosin to her brother Edward on 1 December 1656. He wrote, “A very melancholy Account of the cruel vsage of one Mrs Hyde, a Relation of the Chancellour’s who had been seized upon suspicion of illicit correspondence; & tho nothing was found upon her, yet they used her so ill, & terrified her so much that she lost her senses, & expired in a few days in that condition.”4 The apothecary had given her up.

Susan had been arrested by three officers who took her to Marlborough without allowing her food or sleep and then made her stand in silence before a council for two hours. She was then brought to a house in Westminster where she and her maid were kept in “secure custody.” When her keeper learned that she had asked for a pen and paper, he “breake into her lodgings with company about him, & finding her in her bed, he asked for the paper that she had written, & being answered that there was not any written, he forced her to rise, & at that dead time of night would haue carryed her to Lambeth prison, pretending that she meant to make an Escape, & that he was in danger to be hanged for her, then he called for muskets & pistols & so frighted her that he was faine to let her goe into bed again, for she fell into such a trembling that she was not able to speak, or stirre or stop further in the meane time they tare away all her clothes, & threatned to have her away in the morning.”5

Susan apparently went insane shortly after and “sometimes she would cry, that her keepers intended to kill her, & to teare her in pieces.”6 She was escorted to Lambeth Palace, where she died a week later on 23 September 1656 (The new style date would be 3 October). Of her last hours, John Cosin wrote, “My daughter to whom she had sent her man, was not sufferd to enter into her chamber: Mr Thriscroste prevayled to have a Minister ^of her acquaintance to^ attend her, & to pray by her, but she know him not, & yet she prayed with him, and without him, all the time of her trouble. Of other matters she spake not a word, but that she said once she had nothing but innocencie & God to preserve her from the rage of her rude keepers. 6 houres before she dyed she lay very quietly, & fainted away without praying. She disposed of nothing that she had; & my daughter tells me, that what was left is kept very close, though she believes it was not much. Mrs Chaffin got her burryed, but the mayd knows not how. And thus I haue related you all that my daughter (who is very sad at it) was able to write; but I will number your sister among them that haue the glory of the Martyrs.”

Even though she had been essential to her brother for four years, he makes no mention of her in his autobiography. Susan’s body was “conveyed away by stealth”7 and was thus not listed on the Lambeth Church Burial Registers.8

  1. Invisible Agents by Nadine Akkerman p.96
  2. Fran:Edwards to [Susan Hyde], 6 July 1655, Bod. Rawl. MS A.41, p.206 ii
  3. S.H. to Mr Edwardes (Charles Stuart) 3 Sept. 1656, Bod., Tawl. MS A. 42 p.53
  4. Cosin to Sir Edward Hyde, 1 Dec. 1656 Bod., Clarendon MS 53, fo. 74v
  5. Cosin to Sir Edward Hyde, 1 Dec. 1656 Bod., Clarendon MS 53, fo. 73v-74r
  6. Cosin to Sir Edward Hyde, 1 Dec. 1656 Bod., Clarendon MS 53, fo. 74r
  7. Invisible Agents by Nadine Akkerman p.110
  8. Main source: Invisible Agents by Nadine Akkerman p.89-117

About Moniek Bloks 2763 Articles
My name is Moniek and I am from the Netherlands. I began this website in 2013 because I wanted to share these women's amazing stories.

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