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Alkin, Elizabeth [nicknamed Parliament Joan]free

(c. 1600–1655?)
  • Maureen Bell

Alkin, Elizabeth [nicknamed Parliament Joan] (c. 1600–1655?), nurse and spy, was the wife of Francis Alkin, who was hanged as a spy in Oxford by royalist forces during the civil war. Alkin's activities are known largely from her surviving petitions for payment and relief (many of them undated or misattributed in CSP dom.) and from references in contemporary newsbooks.

Employed from the beginning of the civil war as a spy by the earl of Essex, Sir William Waller, and Thomas Fairfax, in 1645 and 1647 Alkin received payments from the committee for the advancement of money for several 'discoveries', including information about the activities of George Mynnes, a Surrey ironmaster who was supplying royalist forces with iron and wire. Increasingly she seems to have concentrated her intelligencing activity on the London news press: in 1648 she was on the trail of Mercurius Melancholicus and the Parliament Kite, and in February 1649 Mercurius Pragmaticus called her an 'old Bitch' who could 'smell out a Loyall-hearted man as soon as the best Blood-hound in the Army' (Mercurius Pragmaticus, sig. 2v). She appears in A Perfect Diurnall (2–9 July 1649) as 'One Jone (a clamerous woman) whose husband was hang'd at Oxford for a spie, & she sometimes imployed in finding out the presses of scandalous pamphlets' (Nevitt, 91).

In June 1649 Alkin was sent to 'the house of correction' for 'great incivilities' to Sir James Harrington MP, and the following month was involved in a fracas in the Salutation tavern in Holborn with some soldiers who apparently suspected her of being a royalist (Williams, 131–3). A dispute in the same year over her occupation of the house of Stephen Fosett, surgeon to Sir Arthur Aston (governor of Oxford during the first war and responsible, she claimed, for her husband's death), resulted in a grant of £50 and a house.

The newspaper the Man in the Moon, whose printer Edward Crouch was arrested in December 1649, warned its readers of Alkin's activities, describing 'Parliament Jone' as 'a fat woman, aged about fifty' (Nevitt, 91). She was involved not only in the detection of royalist newspapers but also in the publication of several short-lived parliamentarian titles. In June 1650 she was apparently one of the publishers of the Impartial Scout; and between then and September 1651 she was involved in several issues of newsbooks associated with Henry Walker: the Moderne Intelligencer, Mercurius Anglicus (October 1650; a royalist title appropriated by anti-royalists), and the Modern Intelligencer (26 August–3 September 1651). Three weeks later Mercurius Scoticus, or, The Royal Messenger appeared with her imprint (23–30 September 1651). The colourful assumption (by Joseph Frank and J. B. Williams) that her publication of pseudo-royalist titles was a means of flushing out royalist buyers of newsbooks remains unsubstantiated, and Nevitt argues for her more complex editorial involvement in a process of 're-appropriating Royalist titles for Parliamentarian consumption' (ibid., 101).

Alkin claimed recompense for the discovery of four presses run by William Dugard at the Merchant Taylors' School, the incident leading to Dugard's committal to Newgate (20 February 1650) for his publication of Salmasius's Defensio regia and Eikon basilike the previous year. Lodgings in Whitehall may have been her reward. In November 1651 she was again pursuing printers, being paid £10 for the discovery of Edward Hall's Manus testium lingua testium; and in the following year she received similar sums for unspecified acts of good service. Often payment was slow, and many of her petitions in pursuit of arrears emphasize the financial distress of her three children and the expenses of her work.

During the First Anglo-Dutch War (1652–4) Alkin pursued new ways in which to serve the state. On 22 February 1653 she petitioned for a position as nurse to maimed seamen in Dover. On 4 April she received £13 6s. 8d. for her care of the sick and wounded in Portsmouth, and on 2 June she claimed expenses for caring for the wounded at Harwich. By November she was apparently back in London: her evidence about a murderous incident involving the brother of the Portuguese ambassador, which occurred at the New Exchange in November 1653, led to the setting up of a committee of investigation by the council of state. In 1654 she was still pursuing payment for her nursing, and in February she asked for a grant from the navy commissioners for her expenses in relieving Dutch prisoners as well as English seamen at Harwich and Ipswich. Her letter reports her financial distress (she had sold her bed and household goods), her terminal illness, and consequent charges for medicine and attendance. A note of 11 May 1655, referring her petition for relief to the committee for petitions, is the last documentary record of her existence, and she presumably died that year. An undated petition requests her burial in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey.

Sources

  • M. Nevitt, ‘Women in the business of revolutionary news: Elizabeth Alkin, “Parliament Joan”, and the Commonwealth newsbook’, News, newspapers, and society in early modern Britain, ed. J. Raymond (1999), 84–108
  • J. McElligott, ‘Propaganda and censorship: the underground royalist newsbook, 1647–1650’, PhD diss., U. Cam., 2000
  • J. Frank, The beginnings of the English newspaper, 1620–1660 (1961)
  • J. B. Williams, A history of English journalism (1908)
  • I. MacDonald, Elizabeth Alkin: a Florence Nightingale of the Commonwealth (1935)
  • G. E. Manwaring, ‘Parliament Joan: the Florence Nightingale of the seventeenth century’, United Service Magazine, 3rd ser., 57 (1918), 301–10
  • Mercurius Pragmaticus, 45 (13–20 Feb 1649), sig. 2v
  • Fourth report, HMC, 3 (1874), 180 n. 56
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