Through foreign eyes: the forgotten ambassadors to the Tudor court

The Tudor period is one of the most vibrant, captivating and controversial periods of English history, and the intrigues and machinations of Henry VIII and his wives remain vivid to us centuries later. For this we are indebted in large part to the reports of numerous ambassadors who were appointed to the Tudor court. Yet, says Lauren Mackay, we spare little thought for the ambassadors themselves and their own stories

Here, writing for History Extra, she explores the lives and experiences of five lesser-known ambassadors whose dispatches have vividly captured a world full of intrigue, espionage and drama…

 

Inigo de Mendoza, served Charles V as imperial ambassador, 1526–29

Mendoza was a Castilian clergyman and diplomat in the service of Emperor Charles V (ruler of both the Spanish Empire and the Holy Roman Empire) who appointed him ambassador to the English court in 1526. However, Mendoza’s ambassadorship did not begin auspiciously. He travelled through France to reach his post, but despite a peace treaty being in place between Francis I and Charles V, the French were keen to obstruct Anglo–imperial relations and arrested Mendoza. He was jailed in Arques in northern France for several months on trumped-up charges of being an enemy spy, despite the French king's promise of safe conduct.

When he was finally released and allowed to travel to London, Mendoza’s assignment was to promote reconciliation between Henry VIII and his wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon, and to have him end his pursuit of Anne Boleyn. Further, Mendoza was to promote an English alliance with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, thus disabling France. He was frustrated in the former task and thoroughly thwarted in the latter.

Mendoza was mismatched for the position of ambassador. He struggled to be an impartial observer at court: he blustered, protested, complained and, fatally for a diplomat, let his anger and frustration cloud his judgement. Instead of cultivating relationships with the most powerful men at court, Mendoza stubbornly fought them and thereby alienated himself. He was disastrously outclassed by Henry VIII’s shrewd councillors and was certainly no match for the king’s chief advisor – the ambitious, brilliant-minded father figure, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey.

Mendoza’s letters to Emperor Charles V reveal that Wolsey outmanoeuvred him and made it his personal mission to make the ambassador’s life as difficult as possible. Not only did Wolsey read every dispatch sent by Mendoza, he then placed him under house arrest in 1528 when England was at war with the Emperor. Mendoza’s dispatches give the impression of a frazzled, enraged and often desperate man. It came as no surprise that in 1528 Mendoza demanded to be recalled, yet the increasing complexity of Henry VIII’s divorce made clear the need not only for a skilled diplomat, but a diplomat with legal and canonical training, who could understand the legal issues of the king’s divorce suit and who could champion Queen Catherine to her husband and his councilors. His replacement was Eustace Chapuys.

In Mendoza’s own words: “At the day fixed, I went to Greenwich, and met the King as he was issuing forth to go to mass. I commenced to speak in a voice so loud and so intelligible that I could be heard by all, saying that I had attended in the Court for three years, during which I had constantly offered the amity of Charles to the King, between whose predecessors and those of the Emperor a firm alliance had perpetually subsisted, while with the King's adversaries the Emperor had remained at enmity.”


Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, c1509. Inigo de Mendoza’s assignment was to promote reconciliation between Henry and Catherine. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

 

Augustino Scarpinello, Milanese ambassador 1525–32

Augustino Scarpinello, the Milanese ambassador to Henry VIII’s court, is often overlooked yet he is a vital source of information about Cardinal Thomas Wolsey’s disgrace and downfall.

Scarpinello’s embassy was rather complex, owing to the fact that the Duchy of Milan was highly prized and constantly fought over. The French had long maintained a claim to the duchy and had ousted the ruling Sforza family in 1499. Yet in 1525 Emperor Charles V defeated the French at the battle of Pavia and Milan became part of his empire. He installed Francesco Sforza as Duke of Milan, who became in effect a puppet of the Holy Roman Empire. Such an action sowed the seeds of rebellion, and in 1526 Francis I of France, Pope Clement, the Republics of Venice and Florence, and Sforza – all of whom objected to Charles’ aggressive tactics and the imperial hegemony – signed the League of Cognac, a coalition against Charles.

Scarpinello’s master, the Duke of Milan, was fully immersed in secret rebellion and subterfuge, and the fact that he arrived at the Tudor court with no official communication or introduction from the Duke meant that Wolsey could not officially acknowledge him as an ambassador.

Yet despite the unsteady start in his post, Scarpinello and Cardinal Wolsey developed a rapport, and from Scarpinello’s reports to the Duke of Milan we gain an insight into Wolsey's motives for various policies, his relationship with Henry VIII and his personal character. Henry did not sign the League of Cognac but Wolsey, always partial to the French, was eager to assist Sforza against Charles V, and communicated via Scarpinello. The Milanese ambassador was thrilled by Wolsey’s support and constantly praised the Cardinal to his master. Yet Sforza lacked diplomatic grace, and Scarpinello advised him to maintain friendly and constant correspondence not only with the King and Cardinal Wolsey, but also Thomas Boleyn, one of Henry VIII’s most respected ambassadors. Scarpinello noted that only writing occasional letters to those three key figures would be seen as an affront, not a compliment.

Scarpinello was also instrumental in securing a handsome pension for Wolsey of 10,000 ducats a year, and worked to secure gifts of horses and armour for Henry VIII to maintain England’s support of Milan’s independence from Charles V.

Scarpinello witnessed Wolsey’s downfall from 1528 onwards when he failed to secure Henry VIII’s divorce. He wrote anxiously of Wolsey’s disgrace, alarmed by the prospect of losing so great an ally.

In his own words: “Of the result of [Wolsey’s] arrest and of its causes I have been unable to hear any authentic account; on obtaining certain intelligence I will not fail to transmit it. Some say that the Cardinal purposed making his escape; some that he wished and advised the Pope to make some necessary provision in his own favour, and in that of all the English clergy, contrary to the statutes of the realm, and to the will of the King.

“Others, more friendly to his right reverend lordship, attribute everything to the envy and fear of his rivals, who had now repented of having made him fall on a feather-bed, from which being afraid he might look back and rise again, they determined to make an end of him.”

 

Mario Savorgnano, Venetian ambassador, 1531

Mario Savorgnano, a wealthy Venetian aristocrat, came to the Tudor court in 1531.

Savorgnano was an accomplished soldier and classical scholar who was also known for his Latin and Greek translations of scholarly texts. His reports give us the impression of a man with an eye for intricate, personal detail, often expressed with an almost mischievous manner.

Savorgnano seems to have been on tour, and England was one of several destinations he visited. Although he promptly felt the absence of the Venetian sun, he found the English weather more favourable than that of France, and described in detail the magnificence of Dover and Canterbury.

He was not so impressed by London, however. He had much to report about the architecture of the capital (which he found rather ugly), as well as the men of court and their drinking habits, and even the quality of the wine served, lamenting that English vineyards were inferior to those of the Italian and French. He spoke highly of English women in general, praising their beauty, but rather disapprovingly reported that married women in London seemed quite comfortable being taken to taverns by men other than their husband − to which their husbands did not object.

Despite his brief stay in England, Savorgnano managed to describe Henry VIII in great detail. He greatly admired the king, often praising his stature and very good looks, but he was not in the least enamoured by his mistress, Anne Boleyn. The ambassador openly criticised Anne, declaring himself to be an ardent admirer and supporter of Queen Catherine. He scathingly reported that Henry’s only flaw was that he allowed himself to be totally controlled by Anne, much to his detriment.

In his own words: “[Henry] is tall of stature, very well formed, and of very handsome presence, beyond measure affable, and I never saw a prince better disposed than this one. He is also learned and accomplished, and most generous and kind, and were it not that he now seeks to repudiate his wife, after having lived with her for 22 years, he would be no less perfectly good, and equally prudent.

“But this thing detracts greatly from his merits, as there is now living with him a young woman of noble birth, though many say of bad character, whose will is law to him, and he is expected to marry her, should the divorce take place, which it is supposed will not be effected, as the peers of the realm, both spiritual and temporal, and the people are opposed to it; nor during the present Queen's life will they have any other Queen in the kingdom.”


Anne Boleyn. Mario Savorgnano was not in the least enamoured by Henry VIII’s mistress. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

 

Charles de Marillac, French ambassador, 1538–43

In 1538, one of our most important sources of this period, Eustace Chapuys, who served Charles V as imperial ambassador, left the English court for Brussels and did not return for a year and a half. Tudor historians might have felt his absence more keenly were it not for the arrival of the new French ambassador Charles de Marillac.

Marillac, to the delight of the historian, had a penchant for detailed and witty descriptions of Henry VIII and his court, and we are particularly indebted to him for his detailed reports about one of the King’s more elusive queens, Anne of Cleves. But rivalry is a hazard in most professions, and the diplomatic world is not exempt: Marillac and Chapuys clashed, and their antagonism was evident throughout their careers and throughout their numerous dispatches. Marillac had not even met the absent ambassador upon his arrival, but nonetheless described Chapuys as having more malice than cunning and devoted entire letters to the French king Francis I dismissing Chapuys’ reliability, complaining of his lack of diplomatic integrity, and assuring the king that he, Marillac, was far more popular than his imperial counterpart.

Quite by chance, Marillac was lodged in the house in London that Chapuys had recently vacated, and he could barely contain his glee when he wrote that he had found a bundle of Chapuys’ private correspondence and reports to Emperor Charles V. It was a windfall indeed for Marillac, who wasted no time in informing the imperial ambassador upon his return to court in 1540. But Chapuys, never to be bettered, quickly gained the upper hand by turning Marillac’s most trusted servant into his own right-hand man. The servant fed him a profusion of intelligence on Marillac and his highly sensitive correspondence with King Francis I. Chapuys rewarded this informer (who may have equally disliked Marillac) by eventually securing the young man a plum position at the imperial court.

Marillac was furious at having been thwarted by his rival. In his own words: “The Emperor's new ambassador (Chapuys) of whom I wrote in one of my late dispatches, arrived here six days ago. He has met with a very meager reception at this Court, where, to say the truth, he has scarcely any friends, for, if I am to believe what the King himself tells me, no one here esteems or likes him. The duke of Norfolk, who nowadays has the chief management of affairs, clearly shows his dislike of him… The Imperial ambassador will no longer find his Cromwell to warrant the follies that entered his head once.”


Charles de Marillac devoted entire letters to the French king Francis I, pictured here c1520-25 (1956), dismissing Chapuys’ reliability. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

 

François van der Delft,  Imperial ambassador, 1545–50

François van der Delft replaced the long serving, and long suffering, imperial ambassador Eustace Chapuys, who had completed 15 years at the Tudor court, in 1545. Although described in historical texts rather promisingly as a Flemish knight, van der Delft made a rather shaky debut at court. He lacked the stylish flair, charm and confidence that Chapuys had exuded.

Chapuys personally introduced and recommended his successor to various contacts in England, yet within weeks of Chapuys’ departure it seemed that van der Delft was already floundering. Charles V had become accustomed to an extremely high degree of detail and frequency in the dispatches from England and complained that the new ambassador wasn’t performing his duties properly.

Unhappy with this new replacement, Charles wrote to Chapuys repeating his complaints and beseeched him to give his successor some instructions. Although Chapuys was peacefully retired in Louvain, he took on the mantle of mentor to the new ambassador, advising van der Delft as to what level of communication the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire required and what relationships and networks to cultivate. Under Chapuys’ careful guidance, van der Delft did gain confidence, but he refused to ingratiate himself with the court.

The transition between reigns, from Henry VIII to his nine-year-old son Edward VI, was rapid, and van der Delft struggled to keep up. Edward VI was firmly under the control of his uncle, the ambitious and power-hungry Edward Seymour, who Henry had appointed as Lord Protector for his young son until the boy reached maturity.

Van der Delft is not the most reliable source for Edward VI’s reign. He understood very little English, and, unusually for an ambassador, depended heavily on information fed to him by the English court, rather than rely on his own informants and spies. His primary contact at the English court was William Paget, comptroller of Edward VI’s household, whose version of current events the ambassador accepted wholeheartedly, and even worse, passed on to his master without verifying the information. On a number of occasions he imprudently offered advice, such as when he encouraged Henry’s eldest daughter Mary, a steadfast Catholic, to flee England during the reign of her Protestant half-brother Edward VI. Van der Delft was replaced in 1550.


Edward VI. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

In his own words: “Paget requested me very urgently to keep the matter quite secret and again repeated to me his wish that I should write an account of it to your Majesty as an actual fact. Whatever truth or otherwise there may be in this I presume that your Majesty will be better informed than anyone else. Paget still shows on every occasion his devotion to your Majesty. I also entertain him to the best of my ability, seeing that everything here goes through his hands, and that there is not one of them who can excel him in the management of affairs.”

Lauren Mackay is the author of Inside the Tudor Court: Henry VIII and his Six Wives through the eyes of the Spanish Ambassador (Amberley, 2015). Lauren's second book on the Tudor court will be published by IB Tauris in 2018.

To find out more about Lauren, visit www.laurenmackay.co.uk

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