The Postmistress, the Diplomat, and a Black Chamber?: Alexandrine of Taxis, Sir Balthazar Gerbier and the Power of Postal Control

  • Nadine Akkerman
Part of the Early Modern Literature in History book series (EMLH)


The Chamber of the Thurn and Taxis post in Brussels ran by Alexandrine (1589-1666), Countess of Taxis during the Thirty Years’ War may well have been the first Black Chamber in Europe. Black Chambers were the hidden offices of secret intelligence units, staffed by an elite group of polymaths and scribes allotted their own compartmentalized task, whether translation, short-hand, cryptanalysis, or forging seals, signatures and other marks that authenticated a document. This intelligence team, concealed in a separate quarter of the daily post office, extracted information from the mail of foreign diplomats in a bold but systematic manner. Assuming everything went according to plan, a document could be copied, swiftly resealed, and released into the normal postal channels within a mere couple of hours, without sender or addressee noticing that someone had tampered with the letters.


Postal Service Postal Network English Court Postal Company Taxi Family 
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Notes and Refrence

  1. 1.
    H.Ch.J. Roelofsz (1941) De Invloed van het Geslacht Thurn und Taxis op de Verkeersontwikkeling in Europa van 1500-1900 (Utrecht: De Haan), p. 18.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    For the route of the letters see also J.R. Bruijn (1975) ‘Postvervoer en Reizigersverkeer tussen de Lage Landen en Engeland ca.1650-ca.1870’in P.W.Klein and J.R. Bruijn,eds, Honderd Jaar Engelandvaart: Stoomvaartmaatschappij Zeeland, 1875-1975(Bussum: Uniehoek), pp.19-52 at 19. Part of Gerbier’s treatise is given as an appendix at the end of this chapter.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Kevin Sharpe (1984) ‘Thomas Witherings and the Reform of the Foreign Posts, 1632-40’, Bulletin of the Institute of Historical Research, 57.136, 149-63 at 148.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. 4.
    Daisy Lucy Hobman (1961) Cromwell’s Master Spy: A Study of John Thurloe(London: Chapman & Hall), p. 43. Thurloe’s informer not only referred to the Queen of Bohemia’s court, but also to that of her niece Mary Stuart, the Princess Royall, who had married the Stadholder’s son in 1641 and established her own English court in The Hague in 1642.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    S. Mendelson and P. Crawford (1998) Women in Early Modern England, 1550-1720 (Oxford: Clarendon Press), p. 413. See Claire Walker (2001) ‘Prayer, Patronage, and Political Conspiracy: English Nuns and the Restoration’, Historical Journal, 43.1, 1-23 at 9-10 and 21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    For Salvius as postmaster see Heiko Droste (2006) ‘Sending a Letter Between Amsterdam and Stockholm: A Matter of Trust and Precautions’ in Hans Cools, Marika Keblusek and Badeloch Noldus, eds, Your Humble Servant: Agents in Early Modern Europe(Hilversum: Verloren), pp. 135-48.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    For the French Cabinet Noir see Kahn 162; for the Black Chamber in Vienna see F. Stix (1937) ‘Zur Geschichte und Oranisation der Wiener Geheimen Ziffernkanzlei (von ihren Anfängen bis zum Jahren 1848)’, Mitteilungen des Österreichischen Instituts fÜr Geschichtsforschung, 51, 132 -60.Google Scholar

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© Nadine Akkerman 2011

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  • Nadine Akkerman

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