“An honest man sent to lie abroad for the good of his country” – so said Sir Henry Wotton (1568–1639), describing the role of an ambassador. Kings and nations have always needed to speak to each other, and until the advent of fast long-distance travel and instant communications, that meant sending an ambassador to speak for you at another monarch’s court and to report back on what he saw.


Normally an ambassador, with a suite of aides and staff known collectively as an ‘embassy’, would be sent for a specific purpose; the idea of having ambassadors stationed permanently in another country was pioneered by the 16th-century Kingdom of Spain and the Republic of Venice, which saw the importance of up-to-date information in its all-important commercial activities. In the Middle Ages, messages were often carried by heralds and one of these, thanks to Shakespeare, has become one of the most famous ambassadors in history…


Mountjoy in Shakespeare’s play Henry V

There are two ambassadorial stories in Shakespeare’s Henry V (c1599). Early in the play the young king receives ambassadors from the dauphin who mockingly present him with a gift of tennis balls, suggesting that Henry would be better off staying at home playing tennis than going to war and, as it were, playing and losing against ‘the big boys’. When Henry arrives in France he is confronted by the rather cocksure French herald Mountjoy, who takes a similarly dismissive view of Henry’s small fighting force – until after Henry has triumphed at Agincourt, when Mountjoy has to eat his words and acknowledge Henry’s victory.

As is often the way with Shakespeare’s history plays, he is ducking and weaving with the actual events. The story of the tennis balls may be true, but it is disputed, since it appears in some chronicles but not in others. At 18, the dauphin was 10 years younger than Henry V, who, at 28, was hardly a callow youth, so it seems unlikely the dauphin would have sneered at the English king’s age. The tennis balls incident sounds suspiciously like a neat story made up after the event, though it does reflect an attitude common at the French court. If it did happen, it seems more likely that it happened in Paris, where Henry had sent his own ambassadors, than at Henry’s court in London, where Shakespeare puts it. There was a Montjoye herald in the French camp at Agincourt, which may be where Shakespeare got the name from for his herald, but the Mountjoy of the play seems to have been a useful dramatic device rather than a real person.


Eustace Chapuys (c1490–92?–1556)

Chapuys was the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, to the court of Henry VIII, and he played an important role in the negotiations concerning the king’s marriage to Spanish royal Catherine of Aragon. The emperor was nephew to Catherine, and he instructed Chapuys to do whatever he could to protect his aunt’s position in England and to safeguard both the marriage and England’s loyalty to the Church of Rome. Chapuys certainly acted as spokesman for Catherine, speaking on her behalf to the council and delivering her formal protest to Henry about the way she was being cast off as he attempted to pave the way to marry Anne Boleyn.

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At points Chapuys allowed himself to be drawn in to the dangerous game of intrigue at the Henrician court and he even made attempts to stir up rebellion. He survived, partly because his diplomatic position meant that moving against him might entail a breach in relations between King Henry and the emperor, and partly because Chapuys seems to have genuinely impressed major figures at court, like Thomas Cromwell and even Henry himself.

Chapuys disliked Anne Boleyn intensely, whom he regarded both as an ambitious climber and as a dangerous Protestant; however, he was pragmatic enough to recommend the use of trade embargoes as leverage against England, rather military action or papal decrees. Chapuys was not able to prevent Catherine’s fall from grace, nor to prevent Henry’s marriage to Anne in 1533 and elevation to Queen: in a politically significant moment, Chapuys was obliged, meeting her in a corridor, to bow in acknowledgement of her position.

Throughout his time in England he maintained a steady flow of detailed information back to Charles, which makes his dispatches an unusually rich source of material, albeit a rather one-sided source, for historians today.

A portrait of Anne Boleyn
A portrait of Anne Boleyn, Henry VIII's second queen. Eustace Chapuys disliked Boleyn intensely, regarding her both as an ambitious climber and as a dangerous Protestant. (Photo by Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images/Getty Images)

Sir Thomas Roe (1581–1644)

Sir Thomas Roe undertook various diplomatic missions for James I and Charles I, including a period as ambassador to the Ottoman Sultan at Constantinople, but it is for his ground-breaking mission to Mughal India in 1615­–19 that he is best remembered.

The English East India Company had hit difficulties in its earliest contacts in Asia; not only was there limited demand there for England’s main export, woollen cloth, but they found themselves up against the well-established and decidedly hostile Dutch and Portuguese. Roe’s mission was to establish good relations with the Mughal Emperor Jahangir, so as to allow the East India Company as much latitude as possible for its trading activities, and especially to counteract the anti-English sentiment that the Portuguese were busy instilling at the emperor’s court.

Roe conducted his mission with considerable skill. Communicating via a surprisingly helpful Portuguese Jesuit who acted as interpreter, Roe established good relations with Jahangir, who was already well-disposed towards the English, having been impressed by what he had heard of the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. He was also impressed, it would seem, by the English capacity for drink. Roe conducted himself with a firmness and a refusal to be fobbed off that seems to have impressed the emperor’s court, and, although he never got the formal trade agreement he had been hoping for, he did get Jahangir’s approval for the East India Company to establish itself at Surat and to trade throughout his dominions. In this sense, Sir Thomas Roe has a good claim to be regarded as the founder of the British presence in India.


Lord Macartney (1737­–1806)

Lord Macartney was a career diplomat with something of a gift for making enemies; his term as ambassador to Russia was curtailed when he was accused of sexual misconduct; he was appointed to thegovernorship of Madrasbut fell out badly with the Governor General, Warren Hastings; and his most celebrated diplomatic mission, to China in 1792–93, is best remembered for the confrontation that developed when Macartney refused to perform the traditional kowtowto the emperor, which involved lying prostrate on the floor and banging the head three times. Macartney’s refusal caused deep offence at the emperor’s court, where Britain, along with the rest of the world, was regarded as an insignificant distant vassal state.

Europeans knew relatively little of China in the 18th century, beyond the colourful picture conjured up the accounts of medieval Italian traveller Marco Polo’s travels. Macartney’s mission was to open China up to European trade and especially to the commercial activities of the East India Company, which saw China as a vast potential market for its exports of opium. Macartney’s refusal to kowtowwas seen in some quarters as arrogant – it was lampooned by the cartoonist Gillray – yet it also reflected the growing European sense of their moral superiority to the cultures of the east, however wealthy and powerful they might appear.

Macartney did not achieve the breakthrough in trading relations he had hoped for – in fact, after the kowtowincident, the emperor refused to see him – but Macartney did alert British and European traders to the enormous possibilities for profitable ventures in to China, and sparked off a wave of interest back home in chinoiserie, from crockery and furnishing patterns to a fascination with pagodas. In due course, the legacy of Macartney’s mission was to be the launching of invasions of China in 1839­–42 and then again in 1856–1860 in the name of ‘opening the country up’ to British trade in opium.


John Adams (1735–1826)

John Adams, the second president of the United States, learned international politics the hard way by undertaking diplomatic missions to France during the War of American Independence (1775–83), and to London shortly after the war had ended. His time in France proved frustrating: he spoke little French and was continually overshadowed by Benjamin Franklin, who not only spoke the language but was conducting a sort of one-man diplomatic show, acting the part of an honest backwoodsman at the overly-sophisticated court of Versailles. It was with a mixture of relief and apprehension that in 1785 Adams received the commission to go to London to present his credentials to King George III himself.

An engraving showing John Adams meeting King George III
An engraving depicting American diplomat, politician, and future president John Adams greeting King George III. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Facing the king against whom the Americans had declared war was not an easy task, but both men pulled off what could have been a very awkward interview with considerable grace. The king was frank in telling Adams he had not consented to American independence but he now accepted it, and he ended by inviting Adams to visit his extensive library.

Adams was less successful in his negotiations for a trade treaty with Britain, nor even in getting the British to evacuate their last remaining military posts on American soil. By the time he returned home after three years in London he had achieved little in concrete terms, but he had taken a huge step forward in establishing Anglo-American relations on a sure footing.


Sir Stratford Canning (1786–1880)

Sir Stratford Canning, who also held the title Lord Stratford de Redcliffe, was a towering figure in the story of British diplomacy. He developed unparalleled knowledge of the politics and ways of the court of the Ottoman Empire at Constantinople, where he was first appointed ambassador by his cousin, the future prime minister George Canning; he was later reappointed to the position by the governments of both Peel and Palmerston. At Constantinople he managed, by sheer force of personality, to establish himself as a major figure at the Sultan’s court, making full use of Britain’s political and military weight to impress and impose on the Turkish government. It could even be said that he determined Turkish foreign policy, especially towards the increasing menace posed by Russia.

Engraving depicting Sir Stratford Canning, 1st Viscount Stratford de Redcliffe (1786-1880), British diplomat and politician, circa 1850. Canning is best known as the longtime British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)
A portrait of Sir Stratford Canning, a "towering figure in the story of British diplomacy". (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)

The climax of Canning’s time at Constantinople came in 1853, when an increasingly angry dispute between Catholic and Orthodox monks in Jerusalem prompted the Russian Tsar to send the decidedly undiplomatic Prince Menshikoff to Constantinople to demand the Turks support the Orthodox Church. With Canning on leave the Turks were inclined to concede Menshikoff’s demands, but when Canning returned he emboldened them to resist, even summoning naval back-up beyond the strict terms of his instructions. It was this stand-off between Canning and Menshikoff that led to the outbreak of war between Russia and Turkey in 1853, out of which the Crimean War developed the following year. Canning must bear a heavy responsibility for its outbreak.


Charles Francis Adams (1807–86)

Charles Francis Adams, son of John Quincy Adams and grandson of US founding father John Adams, was therefore descended directly from two American presidents, one of whom had served as minister to the British court. Charles Francis Adams was already a leading campaigner against slavery when Abraham Lincoln’s secretary of state, William H Seward, sent him to London as ambassador, where he arrived in 1861, following in his grandfather’s footsteps.

Charles Francis’s task was even more difficult than John Adams’s had been, since the Civil War had broken out in the States and there were definite moves afoot to get Britain to intervene. It was his task to do what he could to prevent British involvement in the war, whether by military intervention (which was most likely to be on the side of the Confederacy), or by the provision of ships and naval supplies, again to the Confederacy.

The danger of British intervention was hugely increased by the 1861 Trentaffair, when a British steamer carrying two representatives of the Confederacy to negotiate with the governments of Britain and France was stopped and boarded by the United States navy. War was averted by a combination of Adams’s calm but firm diplomacy, and the action of Prince Albert in amending the language of Palmerston’s dispatch to the American government.

Adams also laboured to prevent British-made commerce raiders [ships designed to attack merchant shipping] from being sent to the Confederacy: it was his effort that persuaded the British government to seize the two Laird brother rams [ships] secretly constructed at Birkenhead. He was not able to prevent the launch in 1862 of the CSS Alabama, which went on to attack Federal shipping until it was finally sunk off Cherbourg by the USS Kearsage,having cost the United States some $6 million in lost shipping. However, Adams argued successfully that Britain should compensate the United States government for the losses, and he served on the commission which in 1872 finally settled the compensation sum at $15.5 million, which the British prime minister William Gladstone agreed to pay.


Joachim von Ribbentrop (1893–1946)

Regarded as an embarrassment even by his fellow Nazis, Ribbentrop must count as the most disastrous foreign ambassador ever appointed to the British court. A man of endless pretensions, he claimed to be of noble descent, and affixed the aristocratic “von” to his name by persuading a distant relation to adopt him; Ribbentrop himself was from a decidedly middle-class family and he had made his way in the world as a wine salesman. He had acted as Hitler’s advisor on foreign affairs since joining the Nazi party in 1932 and helped negotiate the Anglo-German naval agreement of 1935, which allowed for proportionate German naval expansion and served to feed Ribbentrop’s already far-reaching ambition and delusions of grandeur. In 1936 Hitler appointed Ribbentrop to London as ambassador, where he caused immediate offence by giving the Heil Hitler salute to the king on presenting his credentials.

Like his American counterpart, Joseph Kennedy, Ribbentrop was deeply anti-British and he revelled in taking offence at any perceived slight or insult. Also like Kennedy, he formed a low opinion of British military preparedness and assured Adolf Hitler that Britain was in no position to do anything to impede the plans for the invasion of Poland. Ribbentrop nurtured his own resentment that Germany had lost its colonies at the end of the First World War and continually urged Hitler to take them back, along with other British colonial possessions. Hitler, however, was not interested. Ribbentrop went on to serve as foreign minister and to negotiate the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which sealed the fate of Poland.

German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (far left), pictured with Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering, making the Nazi salute before a Berlin crowd in 1939. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (far left), pictured with Adolf Hitler and Hermann Goering, making the Nazi salute before a Berlin crowd in 1939. (Photo by Central Press/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Sir Peter Jay (1937–)

Sir Peter Jay’s diplomatic role is best remembered for the manner of his appointment in 1977 as ambassador to the United States. Jay’s background was as a civil servant and journalist, and he was a well-known face from many television appearances. Although it is by no means unusual for ambassadors to be appointed from outside the usual diplomatic circles, Jay’s appointment raised eyebrows because he was the son-in-law to the then-prime minister, James Callaghan. Inevitably, it raised allegations of nepotism. It was precisely for that reason that, as Jay recalls, Callaghan who was the most difficult to convince of the desirability of the appointment.

Jay proved an able ambassador, enjoying good relations with then-president Jimmy Carter and doing much to restore the negative impression of seventies Britain that prevailed in the States, thanks mainly to regular news reports of the country’s continuing economic crisis, runaway inflation and the apparently limitless power of the Trade Unions. As a man closely associated with Labour, Jay’s term of office ended in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher came into office: she would not want a Labour man in such a key embassy.

After his diplomatic career Jay returned to broadcast journalism and was a prominent critic of Milton Freidman’s monetarist policies in the early days of the Thatcher administration.


Sean Lang is a senior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University, specialising in the history of the British empire. He is also a professional playwright and a regular broadcaster on radio and television. You can follow him on Twitter @sf_lang


Dr Seán LangSenior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University

Dr Seán Lang is a senior lecturer in history at Anglia Ruskin University, specialising in modern European history and the history of the British empire.