Packed between beams of wood and buried in sand, the crate had lain undisturbed on the seabed for nearly 400 years – the lost cargo of a mysterious shipwreck – and the intrigue surrounding it would only deepen. Located by a team of Netherlands-based scuba divers in August 2014, the container was too delicate and weighty to move. So, one of the divers reached inside…
Texel island is surrounded by the chilly waters of the Wadden Sea. Located in the southeastern reaches of Europe’s North Sea, the landmass lies 60 miles north of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. However, it’s worlds apart from the metropolitan buzz of the Dutch capital. Home to fewer than 14,000 people, Texel is dotted with small villages, desolate sand dunes and wind-swept beaches.
But while it may be hard to imagine now, Texel was once an important harbor for Dutch India Company ships. Seeking to exploit the powerful winds that batter the island during winter, captains would drop anchor offshore and wait for favorable sailing conditions. Yet Northern Europe’s winter storms can be brutal and unforgiving. Indeed, up to 1,000 vessels are thought to have sunk off Texel between the 16th and 19th centuries.
So it is that shipwrecks have provided Texel’s islanders with a steady source of informal revenue for centuries. In fact, some 4,000 pounds of wreckage continue to wash up on the island each day. And local lore tells of prized finds such as shipping containers filled with fur-lined jackets. Naturally, then, searching the sands is a popular pursuit on Texel. But arguably the most adventurous treasure hunters belong to an informal diving outfit known as the Texel Diving Club.
Now, according to national and E.U. law, it is illegal for anyone except those with licenses and official permission to excavate archaeological sites. So when the diving club recovered a priceless object from a sunken crate off Texel, they certainly broke the law. Some may say that their actions were indeed tantamount to looting. Others, however, could argue that without the diving team’s intervention, the shipwreck’s precious cargo might have washed away in a matter of days.
Either way, though, what the underwater explorers did with the object that they had recovered – which to their untrained eyes resembled a sand-encrusted package – demonstrates why excavation should probably be left to the professionals. You see, after returning to their clubhouse, the divers casually washed the item down with a hose in the garden. They then realized that it was not a package but, in fact, a silk dress. Still, uninterested, they left it to dry hanging from a mirror.
Then, at the diving club’s annual barbeque a few weeks later, one of the guests, Corina Hordijk, realized that the divers had salvaged something extremely valuable. And Hordijk certainly knows what she’s talking about. As it turns out, you see, she just happens to manage the island’s Kaap Skil Maritime and Beachcombers Museum. “It was so surreal,” Hordijk told The New Yorker in September 2017. “I stepped in and saw the dress, and I directly saw that it was the treasure of the century.”
The dress was in excellent condition, too, given that it had spent close to four centuries buried in a sandbar. Indeed, shielded from microbes, sunlight and the natural processes of decay, it had sustained only minor damage in the form of discolored patches. And now, for the record, the garment is being properly preserved in a climate-controlled chamber at a professional archaeological center.
As for the other items recovered by the salvagers, they included an embroidered purse, a lice comb, high-quality wood and what may have been boxes of spices. Yet there was one specific object that helped historians to unravel the secrets of the mysterious shipwreck – and its fine silk dress. It was a leather-bound book with a royal coat of arms emblazoning its cover.
“There is direct evidence that at least part of the cargo belonged to the English royal family,” a spokesperson from the Kaap Skill museum told website DutchNews in 2016. “Given the richness of the rest of the cargo, this is not entirely impossible.” In fact, Nadine Akkerman, a historian from Leiden University, has managed to connect the sunken ship to Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of Britain’s King James I.
“I was sitting in the airport on my way back from a conference when I immediately recalled a letter which Elizabeth had written about the ladies-in-waiting losing their wardrobes,” Akkerman told The Guardian in 2016. “It’s quite extraordinary to have found a 17th-century dress at all. But to be able to connect it with an individual is really spectacular.”
Born in 1596 and later crowned Queen of Bohemia at the age of 23, Elizabeth Stuart came to be nicknamed the “Winter Queen.” Why did she acquire this interesting moniker? Well, because she spent just a single winter in Prague before Catholic forces toppled her from power. And thereafter, she resided in exile in The Hague, in the Netherlands, with her husband, Frederick V.
“The maides… haue lost all theire clothes. There bagage ship sprong a leake and sank,” Elizabeth intriguingly wrote in 1642. She was apparently describing the loss of a vessel carrying the belongings of a very select group of women. The garments’ owners were, it appears, part of the court of King Charles I in Britain; there, they worked for his wife, Queen Consort Henrietta Maria, as ladies-in-waiting. Apart from that, though, the note was quite dull – except for the fact that some of it was in a mysterious code.
So, the plot thickens. Working as a representative of European Protestantism, Elizabeth was an ardent lobbyist and canny political mover. What’s more, in her bid to regain the lands taken from her family, she deployed a wide range of diplomatic and military strategies. She was, in fact, a spy. And in her lifetime she penned over 2,000 correspondences, many of them encrypted in cipher.
“[Elizabeth] wrote hundreds of letters in cipher code, employing at least seven keys, encrypting her letters herself with hieroglyphics,” wrote Akkerman for the Oxford University Press blog in 2015. “Cipher codes were meant to protect her letters from prying eyes. [And] she did everything in her power to stop her father, the Duke of Buckingham, and later her brother from reading the plans she was devising to undermine the Crown.”
Now if Akkerman’s theory is correct, then the sunken ship off Texel belonged to a 12-strong fleet that had been traveling from Dover, England, to the Netherlands town of Hellevoetsluis. And, intriguingly, those ships had indeed floundered when they encountered inclement weather. Officially, the fleet had been entrusted with delivering Mary, the nine-year-old daughter of Charles I, to her husband, William II, Prince of Orange. Unofficially, however, Henrietta Maria had, it seems, a very different plan.
“It was a particularly dangerous mission, which is indicated by the fact that part of Elizabeth’s letter was written in cipher,” Akkerman told The Guardian. The Queen Consort had, in fact, hatched a scheme to sell Britain’s Crown Jewels. As it turns out, she was doing so to raise funds for the Royalist army, which was fighting a domestic war at the time. And she intended to use Elizabeth Stuart’s underground network to make the sale.
As for the silk dress – which is apparently quite large – Akkerman thinks it may have belonged to one of Queen Henrietta’s ladies. The woman in question, Jean Kerr, was actually the Countess of Roxburghe. At the time, Kerr was 56 and one of four women employed by the Queen Consort. And, as it transpires, she was a long-serving royal spy, having worked for at least one previous queen.
“[Kerr] was a fascinating lady,” Akkerman explained to The Guardian. “Anne [of Denmark, wife of James I] knew her lady-in-waiting was passing on information, and it served her rather well, because she could claim to know nothing. But it was a dangerous strategy for Jean Kerr, because at any moment she could have been given up as a scapegoat.”
Akkerman’s theory is far from proven, mind you. Yet it does paint an intriguing – if somewhat fraught – picture of 17th-century European politics. Modern technology has delivered efficiency to the practice of intelligence work; but international espionage is clearly a very old and murky institution. Some things, it seems, just never change.