The reluctant ambassador: the life and times of Tudor diplomat Sir Thomas Chaloner
His career spanned four dramatic reigns, from Henry VIII to Elizabeth I, and he was entrusted with increasingly delicate missions in France, Scotland, Flanders and finally Spain, where he was resident ambassador at the court of Philip II. Why, then, do we know so little about the Tudor ambassador Sir Thomas Chaloner? In his new book, Dan O'Sullivan investigates Chaloner’s remarkable life and times...
Here, writing for History Extra, O'Sullivan introduces you to the reluctant ambassador who longed for his home in England…
This story is set in one of the most turbulent periods of English history, when the government's religious and political policies seemed to change from year to year, and ambitious courtiers and diplomats needed to watch their balance on fortune's slippery wheel. Those who fell off could easily end their lives on the block, as did so many of Thomas Chaloner's patrons and colleagues. But he himself was a survivor because, as he once wrote to a friend, he knew how to keep his opinions to himself.
In 1541 the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, ruler of Spain, the Netherlands and much else, collected a large army to deal once and for all with a pressing problem – the Barbary pirates, who were supported by the Turkish sultan and constituted a permanent hazard for all who sailed in the Mediterranean. Charles did not have the manpower to launch a full-scale attack on Constantinople itself but he reckoned that once his army had landed near the pirates' main base in Algiers, resistance would crumble. Then Algiers would fall and thousands of Christians, enslaved by the pirates, could be rescued.
Unfortunately, from the start things went very wrong. Opposition was fiercer than expected, the weather was brutal to troops that had to spend nights in the open, and to cap it all Charles's fleet of war ships and transports, on which his soldiers relied for food and also for an eventual withdrawal, was shattered by a violent storm while at anchor. In less than an hour half the fleet had been sunk, with the loss of 8,000 men.
Accompanying Charles on his expedition was a small group of Englishmen, of whom the youngest was the 20-year-old Thomas Chaloner, who was experiencing his first taste of foreign travel. When the storm struck he was on board a galley that soon lost its anchor, along with its neighbours. William Hakluyt, chronicler of Tudor voyages, takes up the story:
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“Thomas Chaloner escaped most wonderfully with his life. For the galley wherein he was, being either dashed against the rocks or shaken with mighty storms and so cast away, after he had saved himself a long while by swimming, when his strength failed him, his arms & hands being faint and weary, with great difficulty laying hold with his teeth on a cable, which was cast out of the next galley, not without breaking and loss of certain of his teeth, at length [he] recovered himself, and returned home into his country in safety.”
Thus it was that Chaloner's career very nearly came to an end before it had properly started. One might remark that it was lucky he could swim – an unusual skill in those days, even for professional sailors. He had other accomplishments too. His father, Roger, a successful London mercer, had seen him through grammar school and Cambridge, and had then found him a place in the household of Thomas Cromwell – a position seen as a stepping stone towards the higher ranks of government service.
By the time of his near drowning Chaloner was already fluent in Latin – essential at university where all the lectures were in Latin. At his college, thought to be St John's, the students were even expected to talk to each other in that language. More unusually, Chaloner also had a grasp of French and Italian, implying that Roger had hired private tutors to teach him these languages, which were not on the school or university curriculum. Something else that was to turn out an asset for him was that he had made friends at university with a certain William Cecil, later Lord Burghley. Many years later Cecil would become Elizabeth I's secretary of state, and the most powerful man in England.
After the failure to capture Algiers, Charles V's depleted and demoralised army sailed home in the transports that had survived the storm. Chaloner and the other Englishmen accompanied the emperor to Spain. They were no doubt shocked to learn that during their absence Henry VIII's recently married young wife, Catherine Howard, had been accused of adultery, and was now in the Tower, shortly to be executed.
Soon after Chaloner finally returned home he was able to make his first real step up the ladder of promotion. He was appointed one of the two clerks to the Privy Council, the body that, under the monarch, effectively ran the country. The council dealt with all kinds of matter, from private requests and punishments to issues of national finance, diplomacy and war. The clerks were well paid but expected to work hard for their money. They kept detailed minutes of council meetings, wrote dozens of letters, and were often dispatched far and wide on council business.
Because of his ability to speak Italian and French, Chaloner often found himself sent to meet foreigners – for instance, to deliver funds to bands of mercenaries hired to fight England's wars. As he became more experienced he was trusted with more delicate missions. To take one example, there was the case of Robert Holgate, archbishop of York, who, at the age of 68 had caused some scandal by marrying Barbara Wentworth who was more than 40 years his junior. Then a young man appeared who claimed that the marriage was invalid because he and Barbara had been betrothed when they were both children. Chaloner was sent up to York along with an ecclesiastical lawyer to investigate.
After the death of Henry VIII in 1547 the country was run by Edward Seymour, duke of Somerset, as protector for the nine-year-old Edward VI. Somerset had an ambitious policy to unite England and Scotland by betrothing Edward to the young Mary, Queen of Scots, and when the Scots objected to this plan he decided to use force. He led an army across the border towards Edinburgh, defeating an ill-trained and out-of-date Scottish force at the battle of Pinkie Cleugh. Chaloner played a major part in Somerset's campaign by organising and paying the various mercenary bands that accompanied the English. As reward he was knighted by Somerset – another important step up the ladder.
By now Chaloner had married a wealthy widow, Joan Leigh, and on the death of his father found himself the head of an extended family that included two younger brothers, two unmarried sisters and various elderly relatives. He had a house in London and lands to look after in different parts of the country, and consequently spent many hours on horseback, either on missions for the council or to oversee his estates in the north of England. Somehow he also found the time to write poetry, and to translate works from Latin – one of these being the well-known satire by Erasmus, In Praise of Folly. This period of his life is fairly well documented because an account book of his income and expenditure has survived.
On Edward VI’s early death in 1553 – probably from tuberculosis – he was succeeded as monarch by his Catholic sister Mary. Chaloner composed, but of course did not publish, a poem about Lady Jane Grey in which he berates “cruel and pitiless Mary” for executing her young rival. While many others, such as his friend William Cecil, chose to leave the country during Mary's reign, the cautious Chaloner not only stayed but managed to remain in government service. Mary even sent him to Scotland to meet the regent, Mary of Guise, and complain about Scottish involvement in anti-English rebellion in Northern Ireland.
When Elizabeth I succeeded Mary in 1558, Chaloner was sent to the new emperor of the Holy Roman Empire to discuss the possibility that one of his sons, the archduke Ferdinand, might marry the queen. Chaloner came home with a portrait of the young Ferdinand I to present to Elizabeth, and for a short time marriage seemed on the cards. But then it became known that Ferdinand was already secretly married to a German woman, so attention shifted to his brother, the archduke Charles, as a possible suitor.
Cecil sent Chaloner to the Netherlands in June 1559 to be a fully-fledged ambassador to Philip II, who was then holding court at Ghent. When Philip decided to return to Spain there was a discussion about whether or not England needed a permanent ambassador at his court in Madrid. Chaloner suggested a few names to Cecil but was horrified to learn that he himself had been picked. He had known for some time that he would hate Spain, “that country of heat and inquisition”. When he finally landed at Bilbao in February 1562 he found that all his fears were justified. His luggage was taken away to be searched for heretical books, and when he complained to Philip, no apology was forthcoming. After a difficult journey he reached Madrid, only to be advised by the previous ambassador to start requesting his recall home straight away.
Chaloner proved to be a cautious and careful ambassador but, judging by his letters home, he was also a worrier. He worried about his lack of funds and the high cost of living in Madrid; about his difficulties in obtaining interviews with Philip; and his failure to penetrate the aura of secrecy that hung about the Spanish court. He worried about not receiving his due wage as ambassador, and whether this might be due to its having been stolen en route.
An important part of Chaloner’s job was to obtain and send home the latest news from Spain, and also to deliver the latest news from England, and this was sometimes difficult. For example, Chaloner was caused a good deal of embarrassment when in the summer of 1562 Elizabeth took the decision to send military aid to the Huguenots in France who were engaged in a civil war against the French government. William Cecil told Chaloner to deny that any such decision had been taken, which he did – until he heard from other sources that an English army had actually been sent to fight in France, thus completely contradicting what he had told everybody at court.
Above all, Chaloner worried about his own health. He put down his “quartan agues” (bouts of fever every few days) and his inability to sleep at night to Spanish weather and Spanish food. During those sleepless nights he occupied himself by composing reams of Latin verse that remained unpublished until several years after his death. Reading his letters to Cecil and his other friends, one would put him down as a dedicated hypochondriac, except for the fact that when he was finally allowed to quit Spain some four years later he had to take to his bed, and died within a few months. His ‘agues’ were probably due to malaria, but according to Andreas Vesalius, Philip's court physician, he also suffered from kidney stones brought on by drinking Spanish wines that had been adulterated with lime or chalk to make them look whiter.
A couple of years after Chaloner first arrived in Madrid, relations between England and Spain, not brilliant in the first place, suddenly darkened. This was because when Elizabeth I joined in the French wars of religion it became possible for English sea captains to obtain ‘letters of marque’ allowing them to attack French shipping, or to confiscate cargoes bound for France. This was a lucrative business, and soon there were dozens of these freebooters at large, many of them not considering it necessary to distinguish too closely between French and other foreign ships. The Spanish authorities saw them as pirates, and Philip retaliated by ordering all English ships trading in Spanish waters to be seized, and their crews imprisoned. In most cases these sailors were treated extremely roughly, and had to subsist on a diet of bread and water.
It was Chaloner's duty as ambassador to intercede for these unfortunates. He received information from his contacts up and down Spain as well as numerous messages from the prisoners themselves. He pulled every string he could think of, worrying all the time that he was not doing enough. Always he was up against the rigid Spanish bureaucracy. Officials were never in a hurry to help, especially in cases concerning ‘heretics’. All this did nothing to improve the ambassador's health and peace of mind. Nevertheless, he did succeed in certain cases in achieving the release of sailors who would otherwise have died in prison.
A final worry for Chaloner was that he had no heir to carry on his name and look after his estates. His wife, Joan, had died childless many years earlier, and now he was isolated in a foreign land where he was unlikely to meet any eligible women – the ones he did meet being Catholics and therefore for him unmarriageable.
However, before he became an ambassador, Chaloner had as a young widower enjoyed a full social life, and it seems that he was able to persuade a lady whom he had known at that time to visit him in Spain with a view to matrimony. Audrey Frodsham, aged about 35 and unmarried, was from a gentry family of Cheshire. We do not know exactly when she and her servants arrived at Bilbao, but we do know from oblique phrases in Chaloner's letters that she must have left in June 1564, just when Chaloner was embroiled in the issue of the imprisoned sailors.
Audrey's trip is important because by the time she left she must have been pregnant with Chaloner’s future son, another Thomas. Some historians who have written about Chaloner have assumed that Thomas Chaloner junior must have been Chaloner's stepson, but this now seems unlikely [the baby was likely conceived sometime before June 1564]. In any case, when Chaloner did retire home, more than a year after Audrey's visit, he found her and her baby in his house to welcome him. In September 1565 the couple were married, and a month after that Chaloner died, having made a will leaving everything to his son and his widow.
As ambassador Chaloner was unlucky because relations between Spain and England were starting to deteriorate during his time in office. Nevertheless, Sir Thomas performed his task with skill and discretion. One could say he was a man who dedicated his life to duty.
Dan O'Sullivan is author of The Reluctant Ambassador: The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Chaloner, a Tudor Diplomat (Amberley Publishing, 2016).