The Economist writes about the lives of fifteenth-century ambassadors:
Economist.com: ...PERMANENT ambassadors came on the scene at the end of the 15th century, almost by accident. They became permanent largely because it was convenient for their rulers to leave them where they were. In other words, they got stuck. Formal visitations by envoys, dipping into a country and out again, were commonplace by then and well organised. As an ambassador negotiating a peace treaty, you would be given sumptuous lodgings and, if peace was wanted very badly, showered with silver cups and greyhounds. The life of the long-term envoy was more precarious than this. Since they found their royal hosts disinclined to long-term hospitality, they had to combine a few sparkles of high life with a lot of fending for themselves. As foreigners, they were victims of prejudice to an almost comic degree. As for their diplomatic brief, the state of communications in the 1490s meant that they were usually reduced to making it up as they went along.
This article features the English travails of four men: Dr Rodrigo Gonzalez de Puebla, envoy from Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, in London from 1495 to negotiate the marriage of their daughter Katharine with Henry VII's son Arthur (a marriage that lasted only six months. Katharine then wed Henry VIII, who abandoned Catholicism to divorce her); his rival Pedro de Ayala, originally the Spanish envoy to Scotland; Raimondo Soncino, envoy from the Sforza dukes of Milan; and Andrea Trevisano, from the Signory of Venice. Unlike de Puebla, these last two had no pressing business in England. They seem to have been sent in 1497 because the country was rich and its king was powerful, and with no other brief...
Being an economist, the thing I am most interested in is relative prices:
A single candle costs more than a chicken. A plain-paper notebook costs twice as much as a dagger (and forty times as much as a chicken). A horse costs three times as much as an indulgence.
PERMANENT ambassadors came on the scene at the end of the 15th century, almost by accident. They became permanent largely because it was convenient for their rulers to leave them where they were. In other words, they got stuck.
Formal visitations by envoys, dipping into a country and out again, were commonplace by then and well organised. As an ambassador negotiating a peace treaty, you would be given sumptuous lodgings and, if peace was wanted very badly, showered with silver cups and greyhounds. The life of the long-term envoy was more precarious than this. Since they found their royal hosts disinclined to long-term hospitality, they had to combine a few sparkles of high life with a lot of fending for themselves. As foreigners, they were victims of prejudice to an almost comic degree. As for their diplomatic brief, the state of communications in the 1490s meant that they were usually reduced to making it up as they went along.
This article features the English travails of four men: Dr Rodrigo Gonzalez de Puebla, envoy from Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, in London from 1495 to negotiate the marriage of their daughter Katharine with Henry VII's son Arthur (a marriage that lasted only six months. Katharine then wed Henry VIII, who abandoned Catholicism to divorce her); his rival Pedro de Ayala, originally the Spanish envoy to Scotland; Raimondo Soncino, envoy from the Sforza dukes of Milan; and Andrea Trevisano, from the Signory of Venice. Unlike de Puebla, these last two had no pressing business in England. They seem to have been sent in 1497 because the country was rich and its king was powerful, and with no other brief.
First, however, they had to get there. This filled them with dread, for even Venetian ambassadors did not much like the sea. Long delays were also likely. “In default of wind, tide and shipping”, envoys were sometimes held up for weeks at Calais. When their small ship sailed, they shared it with their horses. These were not just useful transport but, far more important, status symbols, much like big cars nowadays. Other countries' envoys would note the precise number and send it home. Ten horses was poor; 20 was standard, a number even the Scots could manage sometimes; 30 was impressive, the sort of figure expected from the profligate French.
Lacking horses, you could still cut a reasonable figure with a large number of gold chains round your neck. These, too, were noted and roughly valued by all who saw them. Chains worth £1,000 or more (in days when a small ship might set you back £40) were considered ambassador-class, though it was not always wise to flaunt them in England. “There is no country in the world”, wrote a Venetian friend of Soncino's and Trevisano's, “where there are as many thieves and robbers as in England; few venture forth alone in the country, excepting in the middle of the day, and fewer still in the towns at night, and least of all in London.” So with chains stowed and horses assembled, still groggy from mal de mer and in dread of being mugged, the new arrivals slowly made their way on unspeakable roads from Dover up to London.
Servants were also a status-indicator; but here the permanent envoys seem to have done badly. Had they been on a specific mission, they would have had lower-ranking underlings in the delegation, each with a specific job (the third-ranker usually found the lodgings for the night), besides a crowd of “people” for show. As it was, they seem merely to have had a few servants to shop and tidy their clothes. Soncino and Trevisano both had number-twos, partly for safety in numbers, but de Puebla, who was crippled, Jewish and ugly, seems to have been a loner.
England surprised them with the beauty of its fields, valleys, woods and water, and not least with its weather. “The rain falls almost every day during the months of June, July and August, and the islanders say they never have any spring here,” wrote Soncino's Venetian friend. The food was good, especially the fish, but the water was undrinkable and the home-grown wine past contemplation. Instead, envoys tried the beer and ale: “These liquors are much liked by [the English], nor are they disliked by foreigners, after they have drunk them four or six times.”
As foreigners, the envoys were objects of great curiosity. Even in London, which was full of foreign merchants, outsiders were stared at as though they had fallen from the moon. A visitor from Trento in 1497 found, to his surprise, that Londoners chased after people, kicked them and beat them, simply for being Italian. Soncino's Venetian friend recorded that Englishmen thought that there were no men other than themselves, “and no other world but England; and when they see a handsome foreigner, they say that ‘he looks like an Englishman', and ‘It is a great pity that he is not an Englishman'; and when they partake of any delicacy with a foreigner, they ask him ‘whether such a thing is made in their country?'” In short, “They have an antipathy to foreigners, and imagine they never come into their island, but to make themselves masters of it, and to usurp their goods.”Plus ça change.
London itself, when the envoys reached it, astonished them. The goldsmiths' and silversmiths' shops in Cheapside alone, they reported, were like all the shops of Florence, Venice and Milan rolled together. Soncino's landlord, who rented him a room in an ordinary private house, had silver plate worth £20 (the lower limit for being considered a “person of consequence”). Even inn-keepers laid their tables with silver cups and spoons. Soncino and his friend were hardly surprised to find, as they dined in his lodgings one morning, small pearls in their mussels. The whole place seemed larded with wealth and display. That same year the Bishop of Cambrai, sent to London from the luxury-loving court of Burgundy, complained that his salary of 600 gold florins was not possibly enough “when going on embassy to rich and very ostentatious people”.
Living in England, as Cambrai had anticipated, was extremely expensive. The tables on this page give a rough guide to daily living expenses, and compare per diem payments for temporary envoys in the other important countries of Europe. The income of de Puebla, Soncino and the rest was much more precarious than this, and their letters home (though no doubt exaggerated for effect) tell desperate tales of poverty. They themselves were not on per diems, but had been sent with a pot of money that had to be topped up somehow, usually by merchants from their own countries, who were somewhat elusive and set their own exchange rates.
Soncino's lodging probably cost around a shilling (12d) a night, with meals included. De Puebla rented a suite of rooms at the Austin Friars, but was also renowned for staying “in the house of a mason who keeps dishonest women” where a seat at the slopped-down common table cost 2d a day. To supplement these pie-and-beer meals, he tried to cadge food at court. Henry VII, enquiring once why the Spanish envoy had come round yet again, was told: “to eat”.
In fact, the court was the only place where the envoys could supplement their diets or their salaries. Royal rewards (very rare, unless an actual treaty had been concluded) came in the form of purses of gold, accepted with craven gratitude and then, back in the lodgings, carefully checked, tooth-tested and weighed. (“The king gave him 300 nobles, neither seen nor counted by him”.) Dining at court, as Soncino and Trevisano did fairly often, allowed them to sample the king's excellent French wines and to eat 60-course feasts, from “pottage-pig” through “larks ingrayled” to “castles of jelly”. But gastronomy had its price. Soncino's Venetian friend complained that these meals lasted for hours, with much slower service than in Italy, and were sometimes consumed in total silence.
Royal receptions, which usually occurred when new ambassadors were presented, offered kudos but no sustenance for their hungry colleagues. No wine flowed, only guarded small-talk, as envoys tried to judge who was most in, or out, of the king's favour. The trick for the last half of the 1490s was to mingle freely without encountering, or being seen to be talking to, the French ambassador. (France was universally out of favour after a rash invasion of Italy.) At one reception, in 1497 in the palace of Westminster, Soncino had to warn Henry VII himself to be less loud in his remarks about the French, as the hated gentleman wandered into view.
By hanging round the court, the envoys fulfilled their chief unstated mission: to spy. They did so only half-competently, since all they could understand at first was the Latin in which sanitised public statements were delivered, and in any language they were routinely lied to. Deprived of full understanding, the envoys fell back on interpreting body language: how often the king removed his hat to them, how wide he opened his eyes, whether he smiled, and how other people reacted to what he said. In their letters, Henry (one of the dourer English monarchs) comes over as almost frenetic, since every gesture meant something. Often, of course, his gestures were deliberately misleading too.
An audience with him was an awesome occasion. Soncino, admitted to “his wonderful presence” at Woodstock in 1497, was astonished to find him standing, leaning on a gilt chair. He wore purple robes trimmed with ermine and an extraordinary collar of rubies and pearls, “which seemed to me something most rich”. The envoy, after deep obeisance, uttered his prepared words; the king nodded and smiled. Neither Soncino nor Trevisano got any more out of Henry than this, nor would they have expected to. Kings seldom spoke; they left that task to underlings, such as archbishops.
De Puebla, by his own account at least, was an extraordinary exception to this rule. Henry constantly confided in him. He sent him breaking news, via gentlemen of the chamber, before anyone else had it, sought his advice, and drew him aside for private chats. De Puebla revelled in this access, even when, on one occasion, “he was furious, and every word that came out of his mouth was like vipers.” The Spanish ambassador portrayed himself as actively making policy, pushing Henry this way and that. His enemies countered that Henry was using him, turning him into an English agent. That seemed likelier and, unfortunately for him, Ferdinand and Isabella often took that view.
The Spanish sovereigns made horrendous employers. Soncino and Trevisano merely feared they had been forgotten in England; de Puebla knew he never was, for the fierce instructions and rebukes kept coming. (“You must write at least twice a month, and tell us everything that transpires.”“That is the biggest joke in the whole world.”“There was nothing in our letter that could have caused you to interpret it the way you did.”) Their motive for nagging was financial as well as political. They wished to keep their daughter's dowry down; Henry wanted to jack it up.
Everything was argued over. The Spanish sovereigns wanted Katharine's clothes and jewels counted in; Henry wanted them over and above. Both sides wished to fix, at different levels, the rate of exchange between the pound sterling and the Spanish maravedi. De Puebla incurred particular wrath because in 1497, when Henry faced two big rebellions, he took no advantage of the king's travails to force the dowry down. His sovereigns wondered aloud whether to replace him; but de Puebla, “devoutly kissing your royal hands and feet”, as his dispatches routinely began or ended, just about appeased them, and kept his job.
The English dislike foreigners, “and imagine they never come into their island, but to make themselves masters of it, and to usurp their goods”
He did so despite enduring the worst humiliation for an ambassador: to be undercut by a charming fellow-countryman who became a favourite at court. Pedro de Ayala came to London from his Scottish posting in 1497 and, to de Puebla's horror, stayed, styling himself “Ambassador to England”. Their mutual loathing is comically preserved in the letters each sent back to Spain, begging for the other to be sacked for doing a rotten job. (“Though bidden to go to Flanders, Ayala has the impudence to stay in London. I beg you to send him the strictest orders to leave.”)
For all envoys, keeping in touch with home was harder than doing the spying, or the lying, their employers constantly required. Reports could be fabricated, and many were. Rumour was as good as fact, and few could say which was which. When Trevisano was told in August 1497 that Henry (then confidently proceeding through Somerset) was about to flee the country, or when he misheard about the “extensive marshes” (in truth “marches”, ie, border areas) between England and Scotland, he never checked, but wrote it down. Soncino relied heavily on whatever he was told by Richmond Herald, a Frenchman who was close enough to Henry to be the king's voice. “I believe it all,” he wrote innocently, “because he is a wise man.”
Getting the dispatches home was another matter. On average, letters reached Milan or Venice in about three weeks. De Puebla's to Spain sometimes took twice as long. Messengers got drunk, mislaid the papers, or fell ill on the road. Ships were blown off course, or sank. Vital letters sent to Henry by Ferdinand and Isabella seem to have drowned with the envoy who carried them—or so they claimed later, though in truth they had never been mustard-keen to send them. Other letters still carry salt-water stains. Fretting in Madrid or Tortosa, the Spanish sovereigns often thought de Puebla was not bothering to write. When he protested that he was, copiously, they barked at him some more. (“None of your last has arrived. Please always send duplicates.”) This problem, of course, cut both ways: rulers waiting weeks for news, while envoys waited weeks for their instructions. It is a wonder, under these conditions, that long-term diplomacy could be carried on at all.
Nor were these dispatches secure. Anyone could open and read them, as James IV of Scotland did in 1496, discovering that the new Spanish envoys to Scotland had been instructed to string him along in his delusions of marrying a Spanish infanta. The only protection was cipher. This, however, was a science in its infancy. Only the Spanish rulers made a stab at it for diplomatic letters, and it was not a success. The simplest form of their cipher was to replace certain words with Roman numerals, but the code kept changing and expanding, until MCCCCLXXXVIII meant “sea”, DCCCXXXIX meant “the” and DCCCCLXVIIII meant “in”. Few envoys got the hang of it. (“Impossible”, came back the cries from Madrid. “Nonsense.”“Cannot be understood.”“Order the ambassador to send another dispatch.”) One royal letter sarcastically thanks de Puebla for not only encoding his letter but for thoughtfully including the code-book.
After several years of brusque treatment by their employers, opacity from those they were sent to spy on and raw prejudice from the English in general, it is hardly surprising that all these envoys wanted to go home. Trevisano ended several of his letters with bald requests to return, “seeing that his stay in England is of no importance.” All complained that they were broke. Soncino said he had to come home to bury his father. Pedro de Ayala (who was actually having a good time) begged to be given the archdeaconry of Segovia. De Puebla, who had been offered both a bishopric and an honourable marriage in England, said his health would never stand it, and pleaded to come home. In the end, one by one, they were relieved.
Yet their jobs continued. A pair of permanent eyes and ears in another country was now proven indispensable. Once established, with communications steadily improving too, the job of an ambassador could only get easier. De Puebla, Soncino and Trevisano were brave pioneers—even if their field, strewn with facile chit-chat and ruthless lying, was not always one to write home about.Posted by DeLong at December 24, 2002 12:40 PM | Trackback