The Compleat Ambassador (1655) and its Manuscript Predecessors

Jason Powell

Figure 1: Title page of The Compleat Ambassador (1655) with facing frontispiece by the engraver William Faithorne the elder.

The late 1640s and the 1650s witnessed a new popular interest in letters of state. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, no clear division existed between official papers and the personal documents of the men who held political office. This made it easier for antiquarians such as Sir Robert Cotton to collect and share letters of state and other historical materials in manuscript, beginning in the 1580s. By the 1650s, some official papers had begun to appear in print. Collections such as Cabala, mysteries of state, in letters of the great ministers of K. James and K. Charles (1654 [i.e., 1653]), proposed to set forth “the mysteries of Government … where the great Ministers of State are presented naked, their Consultations, Designs, Policies … exposed to every mans eye”.[1] This miscellany, ‘Faithfully Collected by a Noble Hand’, included letters written during a five-year period between 1619 and 1624. It was quickly followed by sequels and enlarged editions presenting documents dating from 1533 to 1636. One successor volume noted that the original Cabala had been ‘seen and approved’ by the world.[2] Some of the letters in these books involved diplomacy, but their focus was generally much broader. However, in 1655, the publishers of Cabala, Gabriel Bedell and Thomas Collins, arranged for the printing of another volume centred more closely on ambassadorial correspondence.

That book was The Compleat Ambassador, a collection of letters relating to Queen Elizabeth I’s potential marriage to a French prince, Henry, duke of Anjou, and the negotiations that followed the abandonment of that marriage.[3] It contains letters and other documents dating from between 1569 and 1573 that were written primarily by the English diplomats involved in the negotiations—Sir Francis Walsingham (c.1532-1590), Sir Thomas Smith (1513-1577) and Sir Henry Norris (c.1525-1601)—as well as Elizabeth’s principal secretary, William Cecil, Lord Burghley (1520/1-1598).[4]

The title page announced The Compleat Ambassador as having been “Faithfully Collected by the truly Honourable, Sir Dudly Digges Knight, late Master of the Rolls.” Dudley Digges (1582/3-1639) was the son of the practical mathematician Thomas Digges, and was named for his father’s patron (and his own godfather) Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester. He was also a diplomat, having served as a commissioner in the Low Countries from 1620-1 and as special ambassador to Russia in 1618. Cabala had been “Faithfully Collected by a Noble Hand,” and the association of Digges’s name with The Compleat Ambassador may have supported its claims to be a mystery of state.

However, a partial survey of manuscripts containing the same material raises questions about this work’s connection with Dudley Digges. At least four survive in Yale University Library.[5] Four more are in the British Library.[6] A manuscript at Harvard’s Houghton Library contains some of the same material,[7] and a volume in Cambridge includes eight letters from The Compleat Ambassador.[8] Another related manuscript resides at Meisei University in Japan.[9] Reports of the Historical Manuscripts Commission mention several more in private collections that may have since been sold.

Did this lively manuscript tradition precede or follow the print volume? It was common at this time to collect copies of the letters of ‘great men’ as models for one’s own conduct or writings, or simply as objects of curiosity. They sometimes appeared in manuscript volumes dedicated to such letters, or in personal notebooks that may also have contained poetry, recipes, sermons, financial notes and other material. There were also scriptoria, where professional scribes copied material for individual buyers according to their tastes. At the same time, scribal copies from printed books were fairly common, especially selections – a few poems, a tract, or a handful of letters that caught a collector’s attention. However, the large number of surviving manuscripts related to The Compleat Ambassador raises the question of whether the manuscript used by Bedell and Collins was indeed ‘Faithfully Collected’ by Digges, or it was simply one of many copies circulating at the time.

There is already some evidence that diplomatic letters were of interest to the kind of people who copied and collected letters in manuscript long before the publication of The Compleat Ambassador. British Library Additional MS 5498, for instance, is a collection of papers associated with the diplomacy of Philip Hoby (1504/5–1558), who represented England abroad in nine missions to Spain, France, Germany and the Low Countries. While the manuscript is undated, the scribe’s hand that entered all of this material seems to be characteristic of the late sixteenth- or early seventeenth-century, and watermarks in the paper resemble those in papers dating from 1543 and 1568.[10] This manuscript clearly predated The Compleat Ambassador. It is perhaps not much of a leap to go from isolated interest in a particular ambassador’s letters to a somewhat broader focus on a particular set of negotiations.

Library catalogues are typically non-committal on the exact relationship of these volumes to the printed edition. For instance, the Houghton Library catalogue notes that it is ‘unclear whether this is a transcription of the Digges’ manuscript compilation or of the printed edition’. Scholars have not yet considered these questions in detail either. However, a close study of one manuscript, Meisei MR0840 (Mu), and comparison with another (BL Harley 260, or Ha), suggests that these letters must have circulated independently from the printed book.

Mu is a large volume containing 1039 pages in an early blind-stamped calf binding. It includes not only what seems at first to be a full copy of The Compleat Ambassador, but also Francis Bacon’s ‘Certaine observations vpon a libell’ (1592) and his ‘Of Tribute’. It also contains 162 pages copied directly from a deluxe sixteenth-century manuscript of model letters and speeches that is now in the British Library.[11]

The most revealing feature of Mu, however, is that it contains eight letters from the same set of diplomatic negotiations that are not present in The Compleat Ambassador:

  • one from Walsingham to Burghley on 13 May 1571 (p. 295)
  • another from Walsingham to Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, on 6 December 1571 (p. 430)
  • two more from Burghley to Walsingham, dating from 28 December 1571, and 12 January 1571[/2?], respectively (pp. 464, 464-5)
  • one from Leicester to Walsingham on 13 January 1571[/2?], (pp. 465-6)
  • and three from [Smith] to Burghley from 8 March and 10 March 1571[/2?] and 22 April 1572 (pp. 543-50, 550, and 564-8)

A list of ten preceding letters on p. 571 and a segment about ‘slaunderous bookes brought from Paris’ in a letter by Burghley to Walsingham are also lacking in The Compleat Ambassador.[12] Several of these letters go unmentioned in the standard calendars, and thus may not have been used been previously used by historians. As it is highly unlikely that a scribe copying from a printed book would have had access to additional letters from the same set of negotiations collected in that book, these letters in Mu appear to prove that it was not copied from The Compleat Ambassador.

Could Mu have been actual copy from which The Compleat Ambassador was made, in which process the stationers simply elected for one reason or another not to print these eight letters? This appears unlikely. There is no evidence linking it to Digges. Moreover, like The Compleat Ambassador, Ha omits the eight letters above in Mu. But crucially, Ha includes the passage by Burghley about ‘slaunderous bookes’ and the list in Mu that is also absent from The Compleat Ambassador.[13] It too must derive from some source other than the printed book.

Figure 2: Letters by Sir Thomas Smith and William Cecil, Lord Burghley, in The Compleat Ambassador. In Meisei University MS MR0840 (Mu), the postscript from Burghley to Walsingham on p. 347 is part of the body of the letter. It is followed there by a passage about ‘slaunderous bookes brought from Paris’ that the ‘Ffrench Ambassador hath promised’ to suppress.

Together, the Meisei and Harley manuscripts suggest that The Compleat Ambassador did not originate in a bespoke volume ‘Faithfully Collected’ by Dudley Digges. These two manuscripts and the others mentioned above suggest instead that diplomatic letters from the Anjou negotiations were scribally published before their production in print by Bedell and Collins. Digges may have owned a collection of diplomatic letters produced by a professional scriptorium, where copies of all kinds of material were available for sale to any and all who could pay.[14]

The publication of The Compleat Ambassador in 1655 was not quite the landmark it might seem at first glance. Rather, this volume built on a deeper tradition of bespoke manuscript collections and scribal publications involving letters of state. Mu, Ha and the collection of Philip Hoby’s letters in BL Additional MS 5498 suggests that interest in the ‘the mysteries of Government’ as contained in diplomatic letters long predated the publication of The Compleat Ambassador in 1655.

The Compleat Ambassador is nonetheless a remarkable volume. Its publication in 1655 made diplomatic letters more widely available to those who could not afford the higher price of scribally published material. It capped a long process by which diplomacy was brought into popular knowledge. This arguably began with chronicles by Hall and Holinshed and the entertainment of foreign ambassadors in sixteenth-century London. It continued through the English history plays staged by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. By 1655, the reading public of London was interested in English diplomatic history, and diplomatic letters were a marketable commodity for London printers.


Further Reading

Gary Bell, A Handlist of British Diplomatic Representatives, 1509–1688 (London: Royal Historical Society, 1990).

Cabala, mysteries of state, in letters of the great ministers of K. James and K. Charles (London, 1654 [i.e., 1653]), Wing C183.

The compleat ambassador: or Two treaties of the intended marriage of Qu: Elizabeth of glorious memory (London, 1655), Wing D1453.

James Daybell, The Material Letter in Early Modern England: Manuscript Letters and the Culture and Practices of Letter-Writing, 1512-1635 (Basingstoke, 2012).

Louis Fagan, A Descriptive Catalogue of the Engraved Works of William Faithorne (London, 1888).

Harold Love, Scribal Publication in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford, 1993).

Jason Powell (ed.), The Complete Works of Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, 2 vols. (Oxford, forthcoming 2016), vol. 1.

Alan Stewart, “Letters” in Andrew Hadfield (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of English Prose, 1500-1640 (Oxford, 2013)


[1] Wing C183, A3r.

[2] Wing S2110, A2r; see also Wing C184.

[3] The compleat ambassador: or Two treaties of the intended marriage of Qu: Elizabeth of glorious memory (London, 1655).

[4] On the marriage negotiations see Susan Doran, Monarchy and Matrimony: The Courtships of Elizabeth I (London, 1996), pp. 99-130.

[5] Obsborne fb3, fb4, fb5 and fb31.

[6] British Library Stowe MS 147; Additional MSS 4103, 30156 and 48046; and Harley MS 260.

[7] Harvard, Houghton Library, f MS Eng 879.

[8] Cambridge University Library Mm.1.43.

[9] Meisei University MS MR0840. The British Library also holds two microfilms of manuscripts held elsewhere. These are RP 450/4 and 2102. The latter is a microfilm of the Meisei manuscript.

[10] See Jason Powell, ed., The Complete Works of Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, 2 vols. (Oxford, 2016), vol. 1, pp. 375-7

[11] BL Additional MS 33271. See Jason Powell, ed., The Complete Works of Sir Thomas Wyatt the Elder, 2 vols. (Oxford, 2016), vol. 1, pp. 350-2 and 352-60.

[12] The letter from Burghley to Walsingham is undated in The Compleat Ambassador, p. 347, but given as 30 March 1573 in Mu, p. 870. The entirety of the missing passage is transcribed in Powell, p. 358.

[13] BL Harley MS 260, ff. 448v and 229r, respectively.

[14] On scribal publication, see Harold Love, Scribal Publication in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993).