A 400-year-old silk dress discovered in a shipwreck off the Dutch coast has shed new light on a daring top-secret mission to pawn the crown jewels on the eve of the English civil war. The well-preserved garment was found by divers off the Dutch island of Texel two years ago, but its existence had been kept secret while researchers traced
its origin.

The dress, described as one of the most important maritime discoveries ever made in the Netherlands, belonged to Jean Kerr, Countess of Roxburghe and lady-in-waiting to Queen Henrietta Maria, the consort of Charles I.  It was lost when part of a royal fleet of 12 ships sank in bad weather while crossing from Dover to Hellevoetsluis in the Netherlands
in February 1642.

What made the Catholic noblewoman’s role more intriguing was that she had been a spy in the court of James I, Charles’s father, passing on information to the King of Spain.
A number of other items, including a comb, books bearing the Stuart coat of arms and a pomander, were also found in the wreck. They were buried in sand on the seabed, protecting them from erosion.

Historian Nadine Akkerman of Leiden University identified the silk dress on the basis of 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 at the time. It was a fortuitous discovery for Akkerman, who specialises in women’s history and has published two volumes of Elizabeth Stuart’s correspondence.

“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,” she said. “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.”

The official purpose of the voyage was to take Charles I’s nine-year-old daughter Mary to join her husband, William II, Prince of Orange, after they had been married the year before. But the real reason was to sell the crown jewels through Elizabeth Stuart’s contacts and raise money for the Royalist army.

“It was a particularly dangerous and sensitive mission, which is indicated by the fact that part of Elizabeth’s letter was written in cipher,” said Akkerman.

Akkerman and fellow historian Helmer Helmers, of Amsterdam University, deduced that the dress belonged to Kerr based on its large size and old-fashioned style. Kerr, who was 56 years old at the time of the crossing and died the following year, was the oldest member of the royal party by some margin.

“She was a fascinating lady,” said Akkerman. “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.”

The dress items from the shipwreck are on display in the Kaap Skil Museum on the island of Texel until May 16.