Welcome to the blog for the Textual Ambassadors Research Network. This space  features updates, events, ideas, reviews, news and comments on diplomatic history and literary events and reflections concerning cultures of diplomacy and literary writing across the early modern world. We look forward to this blog providing space for the exchange of ideas about our diplomatic and literary past. Please do check out the rest of our site to find out more about our research network, which was funded by the AHRC between 2012 and 2015.


Sock diplomacy?

Tracey writes: Justin Trudeau’s socks have been in the news again recently. During the NATO summit in May he wore NATO-themed socks. In June his feet showcased support for EID and for Gay Pride, prompting a Guardian writer to jokingly ask Can Justin Trudeau’s socks bring peace to the world? Then at the UN in October, Trudeau once again sported socks with a Star Wars theme. This time they featured Chewbacca, prompting Vanity Fair to speculate about the purpose of Trudeau’s colourful choices. Were they a dig at another world leader? Or does the Canadian Prime Minister just like Star Wars?

In an age when politicians often turn to stylists for advice about projecting the right image, Trudeau’s socks stand out for their character. They have even been termed ‘sock diplomacy’. So does he always match his footwear to the occasion? And should we always look to his feet to see if there is a subtext he is trying to communicate just in case? To some extent the question is immaterial: whatever he chooses to wear could be interpreted as a political statement, whether that was his intention or not. One tends to suspect, however, that, at least some of his choices have been deliberate.

‘Sock diplomacy’ may be new, but sartorial diplomacy has a long history. We can place Trudeau in a long tradition of leaders (and their representatives) who used their sartorial choices to communicate diplomatic messages. At one level we can see that in the portraits that princes sent to one another: in these, their choice of clothing was usually designed to establish their credentials as magnificent monarchs. Scholars such as Ulinka Rublack and Maria Hayward have shown that clothing was political the early modern period. Styles, colours, and patterns could all indicate political allegiances.

We can see this clearly in the portrait of Elizabeth Stuart, painted around the time of her marriage to the Elector Palatine Frederick V. Elizabeth’s status as an English princess is explicitly articulated through the intricate lace in her ruff and around the neckline of her dress which includes heraldic beasts, royal arms and other royal motifs. A conversation between Don John, the Governor General of the Low Countries, and one of Elizabeth I’s ambassadors illustrates how dress, and discussions about it, could be surrogates for more explicit political dialogue. When shown a portrait of the English queen in 1577, Don John invited the ambassador to discuss whether Elizabeth ever wore Spanish fashion, because sartorial choices were deemed to indicate alliances. In responding that Elizabeth wore clothes of Italian, Spanish and French fashion, ‘as occasion served’, the ambassador signalled that his queen would only support the Spanish when she felt it appropriate.

weisskunigThe ambassadors who represented such monarchs were also expected to dress impressively, so much so that Thomas More satirised their grandeur in his Utopia (1516). The splendour of ambassadorial dress at the time that More was writing is captured in this image by Hans Burgkmair. Produced for Der Weisskunig, it purports to depict an embassy from Muscovy to the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. It also conveys something of a sense of how dress was used to denote hierarchies: the most important figures—the Emperor and the Russian principal—wear more opulent robes than the others present. We also get a sense of how sartorial choices indicated political allegiances, as the Muscovites’ clothes reflect their place of origin and their hats in particular mark them out as distinct from the Emperor’s retinue.

In Utopia More described an embassy to Utopia from another fictional people, the Anemolians, which included a large ambassadorial train of 100 men, all clothed in bright colours, many in silks. The ambassadors themselves, dressed in cloth of gold, were also covered in gold jewellery and precious stones. The joke of course being, that all of the accoutrements that the Anemolians valued were marks of disgrace in Utopian society.

More’s discussion of the embassy is telling in another respect: once the Anemolians realised that their clothes were interfering with their missions, they donned more appropriate garb. In other words, while the incident satirises diplomatic pomp, it also attests to diplomatic flexibility and a recognition that clothes sent political signals that could be culture-specific. Moreover, it highlights a dilemma faced by many early modern ambassadors: embrace the sartorial styles of their host court in order to fit in, or showcase their identity as the representative of a foreign prince by maintaining the fashions of their home court.

Kingly books as diplomatic gifts

ApologiaTracey writes: I’ve long had an interest in how printed books moved through diplomatic channels. In fact, it’s one of the reasons I was so keen on our network. While at the wonderful Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel this summer, I had the opportunity to further it by spending some time and I am very grateful to the MWW Forschungsverbund for the chance to spend time at the library and meet researchers working on a variety of interesting and important book history projects. I was looking at a particularly unusual (and interesting) case of the relationship between books and diplomacy: the second edition of James VI/I’s An apologie for the oath of allegiance, which defended the king’s policies towards Catholics in his kingdoms. This second edition was somewhat rewritten and issued in the king’s own name in 1609. As many other government polemics had been, it was widely circulated through diplomatic channels. But unlike previous polemical campaigns, James planned to send lavishly bound Latin copies of the book as gifts to dozens of European rulers. These included princes of Catholic and various different Protestant persuasions.

James’s gift of the Apologie was intimately linked with his status as king in three main ways. Firstly, and most basically, it was by the king’s own hand and represented his views. Secondly, it defended his headship of the church and exhorted other rulers to separate themselves from submission to the papacy. And thirdly, as a diplomatic gift, it was embedded within the honour politics associated with inter-princely gift-giving. The way in which it was treated by the potentates to whom it was given, then, impacted upon James’s kingly honour very directly. Reading about the princely reception of the book at numerous European courts, highlighted the uniqueness of this moment: I certainly can’t think of another case of a book written by a king being given directly by that king as a gift to dozens of other rulers. (Henry VIII’s Assertio septem sacramentorum was distributed by the Pope.) What really interested me, and what I shall continue to work on, however, was the variegated princely reception of the work, which highlighted the flexibility and interconnectedness of the diplomatic languages of ritual and gift-exchange and allowed some catholic princes to keep both the Pope and king James (relatively) happy.

Practices of Diplomacy in the Early Modern World c.1410-1800 now available

book coverThe first volume of essays from our project was published by Routledge in May. Edited by Tracey Sowerby and Jan Hennings, the volume focusses on three key areas: status and ceremony, diplomatic sociability and entertainment, and diplomatic gifts. For abstracts of the essays, see here.

Were dangerous diplomatic gifts always dangerous?

Tracey writes: In May I had the good fortune to co-organise a workshop on dangerous gifts at the Central European University in Budapest.  This gave me an opportunity to write about a curious case of the Pope, Clement VIII sending a gift of relics to Anne of Denmark, the queen consort of James VI/I shortly after James’s accession to the English throne. Historians now largely agree that Anne converted to Catholicism at some point, with recent work by Maureen Meikle and Helen Payne pointing to a date in the early 1590s. But the Pope sending such charged items as gifts to her was, nevertheless, an aggressive diplomatic ploy given her husband’s status as a Protestant king. In short, it was a challenge to his position as head of the English church. This then raises various questions about what, exactly, the Pope was trying to achieve with his gift. James had been engaged in secret correspondence with the papacy in the late 1590s, promising to convert to Catholicism in the event that he needed military aid to claim the English throne after Elizabeth’s death and the pope provided it. So was the gift sent in the belief that James would be sympathetic and allow his wife to keep it? Or was something else going on? Probably the latter: this dangerous gift was one that that Pope could send with impunity—because of the status of the items, it cost his reputation nothing if rejected but it would help him to discern where King James was prepared to draw religious boundaries.

More broadly, though, this incident got me thinking. We are used to thinking that the processes involved in diplomatic gift-giving might hold inherent dangers due to the link between the conventions of gift-exchange and international politics.  But should we perhaps pay more attention to those instances where the inherent danger of diplomatic gifting (whether due to the process or the nature of the item(s) given) might be diplomatically useful precisely because of the danger? For instance as a potential point of pressure that could force an unambiguous response in the symbolic realm when oral and verbal discourses had failed to produce a clear answer to important questions.

Conference on Diplomatic Cultures

elizabeth dutch ambsTracey writes: In March 2016 I hosted the second of two conferences dedicated to examining diplomatic cultures in particular courtly centres. The first had focussed on the Papal and Habsburg courts; this looked at the English, French and Ottoman courts. Papers approached the topic from a range of disciplinary perspectives, including literature, art history and history. We explored languages of diplomacy, the links between artists and embassies, and the politics (and military overtones) of diplomatic display. Several papers examined diplomatic sociability and the extent to which diplomats at particular courts cooperated, either to further the shared goals of the princes they represented or due to familial relationships between the two. As with the first conference there was a strong comparative element to some papers, which raised questions about issues such as how ceremonial at one court might impact on that of another, how missions sent to the same court at the same time from different types of powers might be treated, and how embassies might learn from their predecessors. This event was generously supported by the British Academy, while TORCH at Oxford provided us with a friendly environment. A full report will be available shortly.

Conference on Gender and Diplomacy

Tracey writes: I had a pleasant end to the term in March (2016), jetting off to a conference in Vienna dedicated to Gender and Diplomacy in the early modern period, hosted by the Don Juan Archiv. The organisers had assembled scholars working on a range of topics and approaches to diplomacy, whose work focussed on Europe and the Ottoman Empire (previously the Archiv has hosted events exploring other forms of European-Ottoman interactions). I’m far from the only scholar to think that gender in diplomacy is a rich, but underexplored topic, so it was great to have an event dedicated to the subject. Several of the papers focussed on the activities of ambassadors’ wives, one explored the history of the term ’embajodora’ (ambassadress). Yet others tackled the diplomatic agency of important women at courts, whether consorts, mistresses, or courtiers and understandably the diplomacy of interdynastic marriage ran throughout several contributions. Material culture got some attention with a paper on dress and another on gifts. My own paper focussed on chivalry and Elizabethan diplomacy, in part exploring a rather unique moment when an English diplomat challenged a French nobleman to a duel to defend his queen’s honour! 

Upcoming Conference on Diplomacy to be held in Oxford

Tracey writes: On 14 and 15 March 2016 I’ll be hosting a conference at Oxford on cultural exchanges at the early modern English French, and Ottoman Courts that brings together scholars from Europe and the UK to think about diplomacy and the dynamics of cultural transfer and adaptation. Thanks to a BARSEA award, the conference is free. Read the Centres of Diplomacy II programme to see what’s on offer and for details of how to register.

Conference on diplomatic cultures

max i giving audience to an ambassador BMTracey writes: What can focussing on the activities of diplomats at a specific court tell us about the nature and development of early modern diplomatic cultures? That was the question that inspired a conference I recently hosted (Centres of Diplomacy, Centres of Culture I, September 2015) that was generously supported by the British Academy thanks to a BARSEA award. The event examined diplomatic cultures at the Habsburg and Papal courts from the fifteenth to the seventeenth century. Papers addressed humanism, sociability, ceremonial, ethnographic literature and images of diplomacy. This issue could be particularly acute in cases where the ambassador or his wife received a formal position at the host court, as was the case with some Habsburg representatives sent to their relatives’ courts. Gender, while not the subject of an individual paper, was also a thread throughout several of the papers, whether the focus was on interactions between diplomats and the queen consort or the ways in which ambassadresses might contribute to the embassy or the ways that ceremonial might be used to demarcate status within a royal marriage. The importance of, and disputes over, ceremonial was a feature across several papers and particularly marked the open session which looked at the negotiations surrounding the Anglo-Spanish peace of Madrid.  Another theme was how well diplomatic service at one court might translate to another, even one ruled over by a different branch of the same ruling dynasty. Other papers explored the cultural relativism at play between courts through the experiences of individual diplomats who were courtiers at one Habsburg court and sent to serve at another.

Upcoming Conference on Diplomacy at the Habsburg and Papal Courts

Tracey writes: On 21 and 22 September I’ll be hosting a conference at Oxford on cultural exchanges at the early modern Habsburg and Papal Courts that brings together scholars from Europe, the USA and the UK to think about diplomacy and the dynamics of cultural transfer and adaptation. Thanks to a BARSEA award, the conference is free. More details, including the programme and how to register, can be found here.

The Final Network Workshop

Tracey writes: We welcomed several network members to a workshop in August that was made possible thanks to the generosity of Keble College, Oxford. At the workshop we discussed the ways in which English diplomatic activity in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries interacted with textual production not just in England, but also in Europe. Papers looked at a range of issues, from diplomatic manuals to ambassadors’ letter books, from the interplay between diplomatic audiences and the texts later circulated about them to the ways in which English poet-diplomats engaged with dramatic culture at foreign courts and many other things besides. This is all work in progress for a collection of essays that Jo and I are editing. An exhilarating and exhausting day—it was great to see the fruits of our collective labours on the project—but also a sad one, as it marked the final Textual Ambassadors event.


Tracey writes: one of the things I have been thinking about recently is the way that royal letters would have looked when they were delivered to foreign sovereigns. How were they sealed? Was the outside of the letter decorated and if so, how? Was the letter delivered in any form of protective or decorative bag or box?

Predictably enough, the answer depends on where the letter was being sent and to whom and when. A wide variety of techniques were used to indicate the prestige of the sender and recipient—at Socotra, for instance, the king’s royal letters were delivered to the English ambassador via a state elephant, whereas at the French court it would not be usual for the ambassador to hand the letter to the king himself. In other courts, royal letters were covered with expensive cloth or paraded in exquisitely decorated boxes.

A chat with a colleague, Daniel Starza Smith, about how letters were secured proved very useful. Daniel has been collaborating with Jana D’Ambrogio to research letter-locking techniques. They’ve produced some enlightening demonstrations of the different methods used. These are well worth a look here.

A Third Workshop for the Network

In April we held a third workshop at TORCH to discuss early drafts of our essays for a volume that I am editing with Jo on literature and diplomacy in early modern Europe and beyond. We were able to read drafts of many of the essays and extended abstracts of others in advance of the workshop and offer each other feedback on the day. We had productive discussions of translation theory and practice, genre and diplomacy, material texts and the afterlives of diplomatic reports (whether in the archives or in private hands). Collectively these raised important questions about the nature of the early modern public(s), the role of poetry in creating shared understanding between diplomatic actors, the ways in which diplomacy shaped literary form, and the ways that historians approach the diplomatic archive.

Queens Consort and Cultural Exchange

Tracey writes: In April 2015 I attended an interesting workshop on queens consort, run by the Marrying Cultures project. Speakers examined the cultural activities of consorts from across Europe, ranging from music to ballet to gardening to literature. They provided fascinating examples of inter-dynastic marriage facilitating cultural transfer between European polities and the ongoing role that consorts could play in the process. Several papers addressed the cultural and political agency of consorts after they had been widowed and others explored how the reputation and image of the consort was shaped by visual and literary representations that were at least partially out of the queen’s control. The invitation to speak gave me a welcome excuse to look at Katherine of Aragon and Anne of Cleves in more detail. At the end of the conference we were treated to a concert of music for consorts by members of the Marrying Cultures project team. To read more, about the event, click here.

New books by network members

Congratulations to Christopher Warren, one of our network members, whose book Literature and the Law of Nations, 1580-1680 was recently published by OUP.  

Congratulations to Will Rossiter, one of our network members, on the publication of Wyatt Abroad, which examines the poems Wyatt composed while on embassy (or that were inspired by his overseas experience) and compares them to Wyatt’s source

SRS Conference, Berlin

Tracey writes: The SRS conference in Berlin in March 2015 had lots of diplomatic and literary offerings. So many, in fact, that it was impossible to hear all of the papers I would have liked. In a session that explored modes of diplomatic representation, Christine Vogel discussed the conventions of gift-giving that French ambassadors had to negotiate at the Ottoman court in the later seventeenth century. I looked at the various ways in which ambassadorial plate, royal letters, and gifts represented the rulers responsible for them. I was lucky enough to chair a fascinating session on Elizabeth I and governance in which Sue Doran discussed what Elizabeth I thought about counsel, Jennifer Andersen looked at the 1599 Bishops’ Ban and Cyndia Susan Clegg revealed an important discovery of a copy of an Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer that sheds new light on the early Elizabethan Religious Settlement.

One highlight was a roundtable session organised by Warren Boutcher on Transnational Literatures and Languages in English Renaissance Culture. Speakers highlighted several of the ways in which English literary cultures transcended national and linguistic borders and collectively argued for a greater appreciation of the influences of foreign languages and literatures on  the literature produced in the English Renaissance. Some of the ideas raised in the session about how scholars might productively work across national boundaries look set to be explored in a forthcoming workshop at QMUL organised by Peter Auger.

‘Spenser’s Messengers’ video

Joanna writes: The video podcast of ‘Spenser’s Messengers’, my talk at UC Berkeley (see my previous blog entry), is now available. My hosts at Berkeley, network members Timothy Hampton and Diego Pirillo, were warm and thoughtful hosts. I also got the chance to catch up with an old friend from my student days, Mairi McLaughlin, whose current project – a linguistic study of early modern French news – touches on diplomatic agency in conveying  and translating European news.

I was also grateful to both Tim and Jeffrey Knapp for helpful questions and comments following my talk. I’ve since enjoyed reading Jeff’s book An Empire Nowhere, which he kindly sent to me. I’ve also enjoyed revisiting Tim’s thoughts on diplomacy as a space in which epic negotiates its relationship with romance, in Fictions of Embassy, as I think further about the use Spenser makes of Tasso. Discussion after the talk really helped me rethink the political implications I drew out towards its conclusion. I’ve since been thinking about how the dark poetics of The Faerie Queene react not only against diplomatic duplicities (as I argue in my talk) but also against the monarchical limitations placed on diplomatic and quasi-diplomatic representation.

Screenshot 2014-08-11 09.23.47Tim pointed me toward the early modern emblem ‘Praesentia nocet’ (pictured left) in Diego de Saavedra Fajardo’s Idea de un principe politico Christiano representada en cien empress [Idea of a Christian political prince portrayed in a hundred emblems] (Monaco, 1640) (p. 564). The commentary that follows compares two princes to the sun and the moon: they must keep away from each other or an eclipse will obscure the world. Saavedra Fajardo illustrates this advice with a great many examples of diplomatic relations failing through monarchs meeting.

This is an emblem about the diplomatic wisdom of avoiding face-to-face meetings between princes of the same degree, as its entry on the book’s contents page notes: ‘Huyendo las vistas con otros Principes iguales‘. ‘Most certainly’, Saavedra Fajardo advises, ‘Princes ought to negotiate through ambassadors’ (‘lo mas seguro es, que los Principes traten los negocios por sus Embajaderos’, p. 565). Mind you, he had an interest in saying that. In his title-page dedication to Philip IV of Spain, he emphasizes his own experience on the Spanish Council of the Indies, as Philip’s ambassador to Mantua and Switzerland, and as his resident ambassador in Germany.

Screenshot 2014-08-07 10.43.58

More broadly, the importance of indirection and wise interpretive practices for peaceful relations is reflected in Andrea Alciato’s emblem Littera occidit spiritus vivificat (The letter kills, the spirit gives life). Alciato’s illustration of this quotation from 2 Corinthians 3.6 in his Emblemata  is pictured right (this emblem features in the 1546 edition onward). Alciato accompanies it with a short mythical account of the invention of the alphabet that links war with literality and peace with wise interpretation:

Vipereos Cadmus dentes ut credidit arvis,
Sevit & Aonio semina dira solo:
Terrigenum clypeata cohors exorta virorum est,
Hostili inter se qui cecidêre manu.
Evasere quibus monitu Tritonidos armis
Abiectis data pax, dextraque iuncta fuit.
Primus Agenorides elementa, notasque magistris
Tradidit, iis suavem iunxit & harmoniam.
Quorum discipulos contraria plurima vexant,
Non nisi Palladia quae dirimuntur ope.

When Cadmus committed those viper’s teeth to the fields [i.e. invented the alphabet], he sowed terrible seeds in Aonian soil: an armed band of men arose, born from the earth, and with murderous hands set to killing one another. Some of these men escaped; heeding Tritonian Athena’s advice [i.e. wisdom], they threw away their arms, made peace, and joined their right hands. This son of Agenor was first to pass on to teachers the letters of the alphabet and the first principles of learning, and to these he added sweet harmony. But scholars in these matters are vexed by many, many disputes, except when these are solved by the aid of Pallas Athena.

Presence harms and the letter kills. Spenser was no fan of literality in his poetic writing, to put it mildly, and he handled a good many (often frustrating) letters from London during his short time working for the English administration in Ireland. Elizabeth I is the absent presence of both The Faerie Queene and Irish affairs, and her intrusions into both appear increasingly unwelcome to Spenser, although the New English settlers in Ireland also felt abandoned by the Elizabethan government. The freedom of delegation – the delegated power to pursue the spirit of the cause not the monarchical or governmental letter – may also be part of Arthur’s reception of his mission to Belge as a chivalric quest in the episode that I discuss below.

Where is the international law?

The_Faerie_Queene_frontispieceJoanna writes: I’ve been giving a lot of thought to diplomacy in Edmund Spenser’s epic poem from the 1590s, The Faerie Queene, recently. I ran an undergraduate workshop on Spenser and international affairs last term, and I’m going to be giving a talk on ‘Spenser’s Messengers’ to the Diplomacy and Culture Studies Group at UC Berkeley next week. One thing that’s been troubling me is how little there seems to be about emerging international law in Book 5 of the epic, which deals with the virtue of justice, despite that book’s great interest in contemporary international affairs.

One example is the trial of Duessa, a figure of duplicity who represents Mary, Queen of Scots, for conspiring against the life of Queen Mercilla, one of the poem’s many figures for Queen Elizabeth I – a reference to Mary’s plotting, trial and death in the 1580s. Spenser dedicates just two lines to ‘the law of Nations’ which ‘gainst her rose, / And reasons brought, that no man could refute’ – reasons he does not elaborate on (V.ix.44, ll.3-4).

Then again in Canto 10, King Arthur takes on the enterprise of fighting the Tyrant Geryoneo (a thinly veiled allegory of King Philip II of Spain) on behalf of the widow Belge (the Spanish-ruled Low Countries). This episode draws on the idea then current in European political writings that a foreign prince could oppose a conqueror who ruled as a tyrant. But, as Andrew Zurcher has argued (Spenser’s Legal Language, p. 151), Spenser seems more interested in expanding the idea of English equity, fused with the merciful prerogative of the English crown, to cover foreign interventions, than he is in international law per se.

In fact, Spenser pushes the episode as far from early modern diplomatic practice, and as far into chivalric romance, as he can, allowing Mercilla/Elizabeth to make a personal equitable judgement on Belge’s international plea. The deputation from the Low Countries to Elizabeth in 1585, which lead to the signing of the Treaty of Nonsuch between the queen and the Dutch rebels, becomes ‘two Springals of full tender yeares… from forrein land’ who arrive to seek aid for their wronged ‘mother’ Belge among the many who flock to Queen Mercilla’s court to beg for mercies (V.x.6). Arthur then takes up the cause as if it were a chivalric quest:

He stepped forth with courage bold and great,
Admyr’d of all the rest in presence there,
And humbly gan that mightie Queene entreat,
To graunt him that aduenture for his former feat. (V.x.15)

That is perhaps unsurprising. The Faerie Queene is a work of epic romance and its allegories are all set within an archaic chivalric world. But elsewhere, when Spenser deals with other diplomatic occasions, he portrays them not as courtly quests granted by royal favour, but through troublesome or troubled messengers. Take, for example, the delivery of fraudulent diplomatic letters from Duessa to the King of Eden at the end of Book I, by her messenger Archimago, an allegory of hypocrisy. That scene much more closely follows early modern diplomatic conventions – which Spenser seems to see as characterized by duplicity, fraud and hypocrisy.

That might be explanation enough for Spenser’s avoidance of allusions to diplomacy in his allegory of the Low Countries’ appeal to Elizabeth. An ardent Protestant, there’s no doubt he approved of English intervention in the Dutch rebellion against the Spanish. Perhaps he wanted to place it on a higher level than diplomatic machination and grant it higher religious justification than customary international law. In his view, at least – a view that had highly problematic repercussions for his attitude to justified action in Ireland.

Writing with onions and other techniques

Page from John Cotgrave's Wit's Interpreter (1655)

Page from John Cotgrave’s Wit’s Inteterpreter (1655)

Tracey writes: In preparation for an upcoming conference paper, I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about secrecy and transparency in Tudor diplomacy. More recently, my thoughts have turned to secret modes of communication. We know something about the techniques that were used in the early modern period because many of them were eventually put into the public domain. John Cotgrave’s Wit’s Interpreter (1655) published many of the methods for encoding messages that writers did not want others to read, including simple substitution codes. But Cotgrave also introduced readers to other methods, such as writing on a blank piece of paper with a solution made of dissolved alum. Once dry, nothing would appear on the paper until it became wet, at which point the secret message would appear. Other methods involved writing in lemon juice, orange juice, milk or even writing with onions. Once more, the paper would seem clean to the unknowing. But once heated near a fire, or covered in powder, the message would appear. Other manuals recommended using egg white or wax, which would only appear when the recipient painted over the paper, revealing the message in white.

onionsSo I was thinking about how commonly Tudor ambassadors employed such methods. It’s fairly common to encounter encrypted material and we even have several books of ciphers used by Tudor diplomats. But there aren’t that many obvious instances of other forms of secret writing, perhaps because to the naked eye it can be difficult to tell what might once have been juice and what was merely a light ink.  Edward Stafford, the English ambassador in France in the late 1580s, certainly received and sent letters written wholly or partially in orange juice. During difficult negotiations with Henry III in 1588, Stafford sent Thomas Leighton a letter with hidden writing that would only be revealed when coal dust was sprinkled on the page, but he had to send instructions for how to reveal its hidden message via Sir Francis Walsingham, who was back in England. So quite how effective such communication was is difficult to assess.

lemonsSome diplomats, though, were more thorough. Sir Thomas Smith, who served Elizabeth in France during the equally turbulent early 1560s, wrote to Ambrose Dudley, the earl of Warwick and one of Elizabeth’s military commanders, in November 1562, telling Warwick to ‘warme thys well to the fyer and youe shall se[e] more’ (TNA PRO SP70/44, f.127r). Warwick clearly did so, as the rest of the letter appears in a lighter ink, possibly lemon juice. In this hidden message, Smith further instructed Warwick to ‘leave no pece of paper untryed by fyer that shall come to you from me’ (TNA PRO SP70/44, f.127v). So perhaps there are more letters written wholly or in part with lemons, oranges, and onions in the National Archives than we think.

Transnational print culture

Tracey writes: Dr Jason Peacey (UCL) gave a lecture at Keble College at the end of February. This was based on new research from his current project on the transnational dynamics of English print culture, in particular the links between English and Dutch print cultures. Dr Peacey was keen to get away from established narratives that have been overly concerned with the surveillance of the British oppositional and radical diaspora and to encourage us to think about what he termed the ‘diplomacy of print’. He showed that diplomats such as Thomas Chudleigh had a key role to play in the transnational dynamics of print culture. On the one hand, British diplomats monitored the works coming off the Dutch presses and were particularly concerned with any works by British dissidents. This they tried to suppress, either by trying to secure post facto censorship or by trying to stop such items being published in the first place. On the other hand, British diplomats promoted positive messages through Dutch print. For instance, they tried to secure the publication of positive stories in the Dutch Gazettes and the promoted the publication of works such as diplomatic memorials in the Netherlands in an effort to engage the interest and sympathies of the Dutch political elite. Official English works were also promoted, with one being printed in Dutch and French and sent to Italy, Sweden, Denmark and the Hanse towns. Overall, Dr Peacey made a strong case that understanding a national print culture in isolation was insufficient and that it is only by appreciating transnational concerns and connections that we will understand British print culture more fully. Clearly, diplomats have an important part to play in this story.

I found Dr Peacey’s lecture of particular interest as my own research on diplomacy has often been concerned with the role of English diplomats in the international circulation of books. Some of the issues that were of concern to Charles II’s governmentthe suppression of critical and insulting print, efforts to censor salacious print, the desire to promote government policies to a foreign audiencewere also issues that concerned Henry VIII. Certainly Henry’s ambassadors distributed polemical texts to key rulers and diplomats. But the post-Restoration government’s efforts were more sophisticated and sought to engage a much broader spectrum of political society. Dr Peacey’s lecture also raised questions about whether (and how well) British ambassadors managed to integrate themselves into local literary and print communities when abroad and the extent to which they could draw on the expertise of foreign printers when defending the honour of their king. And if ambassadors did have links to local printers, then might they have used these for personal, as well as professional matters?

Languages of Diplomacy Workshop

Tracey writes: Last week I was at a very interesting workshop for another AHRC funded research network on early modern diplomacy led by Toby Osborne at Durham: The Languages of Diplomacy between the Early Modern and Modern Worlds. This workshop brought together scholars working in various branches of history (art, architectural, diplomatic, political) with scholars engaged in curatorial practice and literary scholars to examine ritual languages of diplomacy. Several of the papers explored how spaces within the palace and city were used in diplomatic encounters and posed interesting questions about how rulers might use different spaces (eg in a queen consort’s palace) in order to free themselves from the ceremonial conventions of their courts. Other papers invited us to think about the ways in which ceremonies which were not exclusively diplomatic in nature might be exploited by rulers seeking to send diplomatic messages to international observers. Two papers ranged far beyond Europe, tackling what Russian and South Asian diplomatic theatres might have in common with European diplomatic practices and what the key points of difference might be. Another strong theme emerging from the workshop was the role of the material and visual arts in diplomacy. Several papers considered diplomatic gifts, exploring issues such as gendered gifting, how the prestige of the decorative arts might be used to assert international superiority, and how state portraits were used in gifting strategies and as a highly visual part of the broader diplomatic vocabulary of the court.

Diplomacy lecture in Oxford

Tracey writes: On Tuesday 25 February Jason Peacey will be lecturing on seventeenth-century diplomacy and print culture at Keble College, Oxford. If you’re interested, click here:

Sidneys Past


Joanna writes: I’ve recently been making arrangements for the network’s next workshop, which will be in April at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge (pictured to the left on a wintry morning). I’m excited at the prospect of another meeting of network minds as congenial and thought-provoking as our last. I’m also excited about the location, not just because the food is good (the catering team has won awards) but also because it’s oddly appropriate. The family of the college’s sixteenth-century foundress dabbled fairly extensively in both diplomacy and literature, and a number of our network members have written about Sidneys past.*

Sidney Sussex was founded in 1596 by legacy of Lady Frances Radcliffe, née Sidney, Countess of Sussex (pictured below in a portrait that hangs in the College’s hall, courtesy of the College). She was aunt to the famous courtier poet Philip Sidney, who wrote the first sustained piece of literary criticism in English, still a thrilling read: The Defence of Poesy, published posthumously in 1595.

Lady Frances G.181

Sir Philip had grand political ambitions that were destined to remain unfulfilled, in part perhaps because he offended Queen Elizabeth I by intervening in arguments over her proposed marriage with the French Duke of Alençon (in a published letter and an entertainment he wrote for her called The Lady of May). But by then he’d already had a chance to flex his diplomatic muscles on a mission to the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in 1577 and he was drawn to diplomacy throughout his subsequent years of frustrated ambition and literary writing.

Sidney’s patronage of the influential diplomatic theorist Alberico Gentili was one expression of that interest, and both Diego Pirillo and I have given some thought to that relationship. Diego writes about Gentili – whose most influential work Three Books on Embassies (1585) is dedicated to Sidney – in his essays and his book on Italian religious exiles in Elizabethan England, many of whom put their language skills and learning to the service of English diplomacy. I’ve argued (in this book) that there were connections between Gentili’s theory of embassy and Sidney’s theory of poesy or fiction, which are both portrayed as faithful representations of ultimate or sovereign truths (a point that was more than a bit idealistic about diplomacy – and literature too).

Elsewhere, Sidney seemed less hopeful. Jason Powell has written compellingly about the poet’s expression of his diplomatic frustrations in his sonnet sequence Astrophil and Stella (in this book); and about Sidney’s exploration of the diplomatic orator’s ability to displace and circumvent his sovereign’s words – in service of higher truths perhaps, but not of a real queen. Chris Warren has exposed Sidney’s ambivalence towards cosmopolitan claims in his prose romance Arcadia, and towards the legally and morally fraught aspects of war and empire that Gentili addresses in his writings (in this book).

After his death, Sidney’s writing took on a diplomatic life of its own. Edward Wilson-Lee’s research traces the European translations of the Arcadia; among many other repurposings, the romance became the basis for a French play by Andre Mareschal called La cour bergere, performed in front of Sir Philip’s nephew, Robert Sidney, second Earl of Leicester, while he was ambassador in France in 1636–41. The Arcadia also served as a prose model for a number of semi-factual accounts, including a report on Sir Thomas Smith’s embassy to Russia in 1604–05.

Other members of the Sidney family dipped into literary diplomacy (as Edward argues in a forthcoming essay), as did many members of the wider political and literary circle centered on the Sidney/Leicester family, both in England and among their extensive Continental contacts. The French lawyer and diplomatic theorist Jean Hotman worked as secretary to the first Earl of Leicester, and another French reformer and ambassador (for the Elector of Saxony) Hubert Languet mentored Sir Philip on his Continental trips.

This is just the start (no doubt other members of this network could contribute more examples), and it’s just one English instance of our global research interests. These Sidneys past pick up on a tension that was particularly provocative to discussion in our first workshop – between the cosmopolitanism of the literary communities involved in diplomacy and the shaping influence of national interests and traditions, even national coteries such as theirs.

* You can follow up on the research mentioned in this post by taking a look at our network members’ research profiles (and by following the links included there to their webpages).

Susan Brigden on Thomas Wyatt

There will be a discussion of network member Susan Brigden’s recent prize winning study of the diplomat poet Sir Thomas Wyatt on Wednesday 2 December at 4.30pm in St Anne’s College Oxford. Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, Dr David Starkey and Dr Chris Stamatikis will speak to the book, followed by a Q&A session and discussion.

Books across borders

Joanna writes: I recently gave a talk I called ‘Books Across Borders’ for the Cambridge Festival of Ideas The Festival is an annual affair that showcases work going on in the academic arts, humanities and social sciences at Cambridge and makes it available to public audiences. This year the theme was ‘Frontiers’ and I used two case studies from my research – the diplomats and writers Sir Thomas Smith and Matthew Prior – to reflect on diplomatic involvement in moving books across frontiers. Sharing the stories and ideas that lie behind this network with a non-academic audience challenged me to think about the contemporary relevance of early modern textual ambassadors and I finished my talk with some reflections on cultural diplomacy today that suggested some of the same tensions are still around.

‘Books are cultural ambassadors, as hundreds of publishers have said unblushingly to officials with purse-strings’ said Gordon Graham in 1990, in a speech in London (later printed on the nationalism that (in his view) still held the publishing industry back in the late twentieth century. As head of a publishing house, former president of the British Publishers Association and a board member of the British Library, Graham was in a position to know. He spoke of ‘cultural ambassadors’ because he wanted to advocate greater international book trade, and less preciousness about traffic in books, but his metaphor unintentionally cut both ways: ambassadors may be international mediators but they are also representatives of national interests.

I see that tension all the time in my work. The books taken and sent across borders by early modern diplomats may well have mediated between countries and readers, but those international movements of books were undoubtedly also inspired by national interests, values and prejudices. Matthew Prior might have pursued book exchanges for the good of the international republic of letters, as he wrote in one of his letters. But he certainly also claimed elsewhere, tongue-in-cheek but half-serious too, that Britain would thank him more for moving books than for his work making treaties, because those book imports and exports enhanced the nation’s cultural capital.

The tension between ideals of international exchange and the pursuit of national interest still haunts cultural diplomacy today. In an important and defining early use of the term cultural diplomacy, in a U.S. Department of State Bulletin of 1959, the department’s secretary for educational and cultural affairs wrote that ‘today we have, in the forefront of the implementation of our foreign policy, “cultural diplomacy,” to my mind the most important means of bringing complete mutual understanding between peoples’. This utopian complete mutual understanding is also a tool for the implementation of ‘our’ foreign policy – implicitly, it is complete mutual alignment with American aims and values.

We’ve moved on from that cold war battle for international alliances, but cultural diplomacy remains a common term in public policy and arts discourses – and the tensions have not gone away. The non-governmental Institute for Cultural Diplomacy may aim to promote global peace and stability through intercultural relations – but when IR theorist Joseph Nye argues that culture is a means of exerting soft power in the international arena, he means that cultural products can help a state attract others to want what they want.

This is all very familiar from the books handled by Smith and Prior and other early modern diplomats. And books had their part to play: the origins of U.S. cultural diplomacy are indebted to the establishment of American overseas libraries in the 1930s and 40s, and British Council libraries have long formed part of our cultural outreach. Now governments have new transnational textual spaces to negotiate; the British foreign office runs a twitter account today. But whatever the textual space, they still have to address that same tension between internationalism and national interest so evident in the diplomatic exchanges of early modern books across borders.

These are all just a few thoughts: my expertise lies in early modern literature. But it’s good to get a chance to think transhistorically now and then – reason to be glad I gave that talk at the Festival of Ideas.

Warsaw conference on pre-modern diplomats

Tracey writes: In late September I attended a conference in Warsaw organised by the Premodern diplomats. This was a convivial gathering of international scholars working on various aspects of early modern diplomacy. Many of the speakers would categorise themselves as diplomatic history experts. Encouragingly, though, I met several scholars whose work was primarily in another area but who had found that it nonetheless intersected with diplomacy in productive ways.

The keynote speaker was Dan Riches from the University of Alabama. He proposed that the insights of studies of cosmopolitanism can help us to understand early modern diplomacy, not least as diplomatic identities are often difficult to categorise and/or contain competing elements. Panel themes ranged from finance to gender and included several on the diplomacy of specific powers such as Tudor England and the papacy. Papers additionally addressed topics such as interdynastic marriage, diplomatic news, cipher and non-European embassies. I was sorry not to be able to hear all of the papers.

My paper looked at gift giving in Tudor diplomacy, arguing that the receipt and subsequent use of diplomatic gifts could be used to mediate international relations, just as the giving of the gift did so. I found the other two papers on my panel on gifts very interesting. Samuel Morrison Gallacher tackled the unusual but rich topic of how politicians managed the process of refusing unwanted gifts and why they did so. Focussing on Rubens, Michael Auwers suggested that there are occasions when we should view the sending of an artist on a diplomatic mission as a form of gift: the present of the opportunity to be painted by the artist. This raises the question of to what extent sculptors, musicians, etc. were chosen for diplomatic missions for similar reasons.

Textual Ambassadors workshop one

Tracey writes: we recently held our first workshop, which examined the state of the field and asked what directions future research should take. This was marked by open dialogue across the disciplines, including some productive debates about how we should think about various aspects of the subject. Network members discussed their research, focussing on ways in which this contributes to an interdisciplinary understanding of the relationship between early modern diplomatic practices and literatures. Individual papers tackled diverse genres from translation to diplomatic reports and ranged widely over various European literary communities. We addressed questions of disciplinarity, periodization, terminology and many other important issues. To read more about the themes that emerged from discussion, short summaries of individual papers or a survey of the current state of the field, click here.

Workshop on diplomatic spaces

Tracey writes: in June I  attended a very interesting workshop on ‘Spaces of Diplomacy’ at UCL organised by the Diplomatic Cultures Research Network. This proved fascinating on a number of levels. In part because the participants were drawn from many different disciplines — international relations, literary studies, geography, history, etc. And also because several of the speakers were practitioners. So this was a useful opportunity to learn about the modern day workings of diplomacy and the cultural concerns contemporary diplomats have. To read more about it, click here.