A gift-portrait with a poem in Latin by Andrew Marvell, sent from Oliver Cromwell to Queen Christina of Sweden by Edward Holberton

CromwellOliver Cromwell was painted many times by the artist Robert Walker but this image is a special one: Cromwell is shown wearing a white mantle, which frames a gold pendant on which appear the three crowns of Sweden.* Its connection with Andrew Marvell’s poem, and with an exchange of portraits which took place between Cromwell and Queen Christina in 1653, was only re-established relatively recently. The identification brings into focus some of the ways in which a gift-portrait can do diplomatic work.

The exchange of portraits had become a regular feature of early modern diplomacy.[1] In a context where meetings between princes were expensive and infrequent, a portrait might serve as a surrogate for a monarch, and represent his or her power and magnificence. Exchanges of portraits were part of the economy of prestige, which took place around diplomatic embassies. By presenting such a gift, a diplomat could demonstrate his intimacy with and knowledge of the prince that he represented. Similarly, princes who collected such portraits could use them to show their own diplomatic prestige, and the history of their relationships with other dynasties and states. As with Walker’s painting of Cromwell, a gift-portrait could suggest shared cultural values and interests, or hint at the political directions a negotiation might take. The inclusion of verse on a gift portrait is relatively unusual, however, and it allows this representation of Cromwell to be especially eloquent. Marvell’s lines ventriloquize Cromwell. He had not yet become Lord Protector, and though a powerful political figure, his official role was Lord General of the republic’s army. Accordingly, in Marvell’s poem, he claims that the lines on his face are from military service. He acknowledges his role in the wars that led to the execution of Charles I (which Queen Christina had condemned), but this experience, he claims, has not made him hostile to all monarchs:

Bellipotens virgo, septem regina trionum.

Christina, arctoi lucida stella poli;

Cernis quas merui dura sub casside rugas;

Sicque senex armis impiger ora fero;

Invia Fatorum dum per vestigia nitor,

Exequor et populi fortia jussa manu.

At tibi submittit frontem reverentior umbra,

Nec sunt hi vultus regibus usque truces.

Powerful Virgin, Queen of the Seven Oxen. Christina, clear star of the northern pole. You see what wrinkles I have acquired under a hard helmet. Thus an old man, yet vigorous, I face my enemies while I press through the pathless tracks of the Fates and execute the strong commands of the people with force. But this image submits its brow more respectfully to you, nor are these features always hostile to kings.[2]

The nuances of Marvell’s ‘reading’ of the portrait are illuminated by the diplomatic context. At the time when this portrait was sent to Christina, the English republic was embroiled in the first Anglo-Dutch war of 1652-54. English privateers had captured some Swedish ships, and Christina had sent several emissaries to ask for their release. One of these men, Benjamin Bonnel, having had little success in petitioning the Council of State, approached one of its members in particular – Cromwell. Over the coming months Bonnel developed a political relationship with Cromwell on behalf of Christina (it was Bonnel who reports having received and sent on the portrait of Cromwell in September 1653). This relationship was useful to Christina because it might help in her longer-term diplomatic strategy of a negotiating an Anglo-Swedish treaty. Like many European monarchs, Christina had expressed horror at the republic’s execution of Charles I, but with the republic’s successes in Scotland and against the formidable Dutch navy in the seas of Northern Europe, it became an attractive ally. Cromwell had been growing disillusioned with the radicalism of some MPs in Barebone’s Parliament. Along with some allies among the more moderate officers and MPs, he had been hoping to negotiate an alliance with the United Provinces. At the same time, he realised that an alliance with Sweden might be a more reliable option. An Anglo-Swedish alliance would give the English republic legitimacy and influence in diplomatic and commercial affairs, and in the longer term, it could become the core of a Protestant alliance.

Cromwell’s position was therefore delicately-poised, and might be easily misunderstood. Though no record survives of the gift, it seems highly likely that the three-crown pendant modelled by Cromwell was a gift sent to him by Christina. Sending a gift between private individuals during war was an established way of signalling that peace was desired between the parties, and something comparable seems to have been happening here, showing that Christina was not so hostile to the English republic after all. But the kind of unofficial diplomacy that Cromwell and Bonnel had been conducting was ostensibly banned under the republic, so Cromwell could not receive Christina’s gifts with due ostentation. The portrait exchange nicely negotiates this difficulty, by demonstrating gratitude which Cromwell could not show so well in public in England. According to ambassador Bulstrode Whitelocke, who was sent to Sweden shortly after this exchange, Christina had been forming high expectations of Cromwell, and saw a parallel between the Lord General and the founder of her own royal line, Gustavus I, who ‘had risen up and rescued his country from the bondage and oppression … and for his reward, he was at last elected king of Sweden’.[3] Although some in England shared these expectations, Cromwell was far from comfortable with the idea of becoming king, and recognised the political difficulties that it would entail, so Walker’s portrait and Marvell’s epigram attempt to refocus Christina’s anticipations.

The cuirass armour is a standard element of portrait costume for military men in European portraits of this period. The white mantle is more unusual. Draped and tied as it is, it corresponds to the Roman paludamentum, the military counterpart to the civilian toga. The tactful message to Christina is that for all his influence, and his receptiveness to Swedish amity, Cromwell is still the republic’s military servant, not its political leader.

Marvell’s poem emphasises that Cromwell is an instrument of the Republic too, but it uses the epigram’s conventional formal ‘turn’ to reassure that he is not a republican zealot, and to highlight a particular show of respect to Christina in modelling the three-crown arms of Sweden. In the epigram the Lord General is ‘senex’ – an old man. This detail is perhaps a little surprising, but it gives some context to his gratitude for the pendant. Cromwell was of the same generation as Christina’s father, Gustavus Adolphus, whose campaigns during the Thirty Years War had made him into a Protestant hero in the eyes of his admirers in England. Cromwell’s age helps to explain why his hardened features soften into an expression of respect for the Swedish monarch. Barely suppressing reference to the regicide, he disavows anti-monarchism, but perhaps only for a special kind of monarch – a Swedish Vasa.

It turned out that Cromwell and Christina had very different visions of what an Anglo-Swedish alliance might involve, and Whitelocke’s negotiations in Sweden proved very difficult. Both the portrait epigram, like Marvell’s longer diplomatic poem ‘Angelo suo Marvellius’ (which Marvell sent later to a member of Whitelocke’s entourage) do a different, though complementary, kind of diplomatic work. They soften cultural differences, by suggesting shared aspirations, and historical perspectives. It doing so, they also throw light on some of abilities that were needed from an aspiring diplomatic secretary at this point. Marvell’s poem seems to have been written as part of his pursuit of patronage for a diplomatic career, and he later gained a job as a secretary in the commonwealth’s Latin office, where he translated and drafted diplomatic documents. The epigram showcases some of the competencies needed in this role. In a few lines it shows a delicate sense of decorum, as well as the ability to bend it slightly for an extraordinary occasion. The poem itself is a kind of letter, including a carefully-crafted address: as ‘clear star of the northern pole’ the Swedish queen becomes a stable point of reference for Cromwell, something by which he navigates. While the republic’s enemies were seeking to represent them as low-born revolutionaries, this also provides implicit reassurance that Cromwell is not seeking to subvert monarchies abroad.

In giving Cromwell’s image a voice, Marvell’s poem also shows how to make an absent figure engagingly present. His Cromwell speaks with respect and pays compliments, but he does so with a directness which implies England’s autonomous and equal authority within the international system. And like ‘Angelo suo Marvellius’, this poem also shows Christina that her messages and gifts are being read, reproduced, and circulated in ways that invite further diplomatic exchanges and do her reputation and memory credit – in spite of the secrecy, they provoke elegant literary responses from accomplished Latinists such as Marvell.

* Image reproduced with the kind permission of the Euston Estate.

[1] Tracey A. Sowerby, ‘‘A Memorial and a Pledge of Faith’: Portraiture and Early Modern Diplomatic Culture’, English Historical Review, 129 (2014), 296-331.

[2] The Poems of Andrew Marvell. ed. Nigel Smith, 2nd edn (Harlow: Pearson/Longman, 2007), p. 314

[3] Bulstrode Whitelocke, A Journal of the Swedish Ambassy, in the Years M.DC.LIII and M.DC.LIV, from the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland, ed. Charles Morton, 2 vols. (London: T. Becket and P. A. de Hondt, 1772), I, 296.

Further Reading:

Edward Holberton, ‘Bellipotens Virgo’, Times Literary Supplement, 21 November 2008

—, Poetry and the Cromwellian Protectorate: Culture, Politics, and Institutions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

John Kerrigan, Archipelagic English: Literature, History, and Politics, 1603–1707 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)

Laura Knoppers, Constructing Cromwell: Ceremony, Portrait, and Print, 1645–1661 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000)

Nigel Smith, Andrew Marvell: The Chameleon (Pittsburgh: Yale University Press, 2010)

The Poems of Andrew Marvell. ed. Nigel Smith, 2nd edn (Harlow: Pearson/Longman, 2007).

Tracey A. Sowerby, ‘‘A Memorial and a Pledge of Faith’: Portraiture and Early Modern Diplomatic Culture’, English Historical Review, 129 (2014), 296-331.

Bulstrode Whitelocke, A Journal of the Swedish Ambassy, in the Years M.DC.LIII and M.DC.LIV, from the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland, ed. Charles Morton, 2 vols. (London: T. Becket and P. A. de Hondt, 1772), I, 296.

Blair Worden, Literature and Politics in Cromwellian England: John Milton, Andrew Marvell, Marchamont Nedham (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007)


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