Dr Clare Jackson, Senior Tutor of Trinity Hall, Cambridge University, offers a riveting insight into foreign diplomats’ perceptions of seventeenth-century England
Few seventeenth-century diplomats relished the prospect of London as their next posting. In 1652, England was nicknamed ‘Devil-Land’, or ‘Duyvel-Landt’, by an anonymous Dutch pamphleteer. Reversing familiar Latin puns, whereby the English (‘Angli’) were to be cherished as cherubic angels (‘angeli’), the English appeared, rather, as diabolically dreadful king-killers. In January 1649, they had sent shockwaves through Continental Europe by putting their divinely ordained king, Charles I, on trial for high treason and executing him in public. Three days after the regicide, the dazed Spanish Ambassador in London, Alonso de Cárdenas, reported to Philip IV’s court that “we are here in utter chaos, living without religion, king or law, subject entirely to the power of the sword.”
In Devil-Land: England under Siege 1588-1688, foreign diplomats occupy centre stage, supplying vividly detailed commentaries on the most turbulent century in English history. Bookended by two foreign seaborn invasion attempts, Devil-Land opens with Philip II of Spain’s failed Armada in 1588 and concludes with William of Orange, as Dutch Stadtholder, successfully landing at Torbay in Devon a century later, with 500 ships and 15,000 soldiers and prompting his Catholic uncle and father-in-law, King James VII & II, to flee to Louis XIV’s France. As Devil-Land reveals, diplomats’ observations supply richly incisive critiques of Stuart rule in England as foreign ambassadors continually calibrated the standing of their own country vis-à-vis that of other states through interactions at court, intelligence gathering and unofficial patronage. At the same time, ambassadors’ assessments were inescapably subjective and distorted, since diplomats deployed a double vision, observing events in their host country less in terms of their domestic impact than as the basis for reports to be returned to their own country. But as Louis XIV reminded a newly dispatched envoy to London in 1663, “there is nothing in the whole world that does not come under the cognisance and fall within the sphere of an ambassador.”
Since ambassadors personified the rulers of the states they represented, the stakes could be fatally high for those envoys who found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time. Shortly after Charles I’s regicide in 1649, for example, the leaders of England’s new republican Commonwealth sent the Dutch-born lawyer, Isaac Dorislaus – who had been a prosecutor in the king’s trial – as its representative to the Dutch States-General. But before Dorislaus had reached The Hague to present his credentials, he was murdered by a dozen Royalist supporters of Charles I at the Witte Zwaan Inn in Scheveningen. Dorislaus’s attackers sought sanctuary at the Portuguese Embassy in The Hague and claimed diplomatic immunity, although the Dutch authorities – still shocked by the recent regicide – seemed disinclined to pursue a prosecution. Less than a year later, the English Commonwealth dispatched another envoy, Anthony Ascham, to Philip IV’s court in Madrid but shortly after his arrival, Ascham was murdered by six English, Scots and Irish soldiers at a local guest house in May 1650. All but one of the fleeing attackers found sanctuary in a nearby hospital, after being refused asylum by the Venetian ambassador, Pietro Basadonna. The Venetian did, however, facilitate the discreet escape of the single Protestant attacker, following appeals from Royalist representatives of Charles I’s exiled son, Charles II. As Basadonna acknowledged to the Doge and Senate, he had thus “the good fortune to receive simultaneously the thanks of the king [Philip IV] for declining to receive the murderers of the republican envoy and those of the Royalist ambassadors for saving their steward.”
But then, as now, diplomatic immunity had its limits. In July 1654, Lisbon’s Ambassador in London, Dom João Rodriguez de Sá e Menezes, count of Peneguião, signed a new Anglo-Portuguese alliance in the morning of the day on which his younger brother was publicly executed in London for involvement in the murder of an innocent English bystander in a case of mistaken identity. The case had generated extensive debate as to whether an ambassador’s brother could claim immunity from criminal prosecution, with Chief Justice Henry Rolle warning that the country would be left in “a frightful condition … if the doctrine were laid down that all who are in the employment of a foreign ambassador in England may rob, ravish and murder with impunity!” Even in court circles, longstanding disputes over diplomatic precedence could, on occasion, prove fatal. After the Stuart monarchy’s restoration, a ceremonial procession was held to celebrate the public entry into London of Sweden’s Ambassador, Count Nils Nillsson Brahe, in September 1661. But when the coach carrying the Spanish Ambassador forced its way in front of the French Ambassador’s coach, the Spanish delegation opened fire and several Frenchmen and horses were killed, forcing the French delegation to withdraw from the procession. As street protests continued, the French Ambassador, Godefroy d’Estrades, complained to Louis XIV’s ministers that “in the course of eight days, I was twice in danger of being assassinated and a musket ball went through my hat; soldiers and a mob have come to attack me in my own house.”
So although, to modern minds, Louis XIV’s regime at Versailles now seems a remarkable regime in itself, it was seventeenth-century England that contemporary diplomats deemed chaotic. In 1680, a despairing French Ambassador in London, Paul Barillon d’Amoncourt, marquis of Branges, warned Louis that “what I write will appear to your Majesty very extraordinary, but England has no resemblance to other countries.” To foreign envoys residing in London, ‘Devil-Land’ was inherently unstable and infuriatingly unpredictable: its political infrastructure was weak, its inhabitants were dangerously capricious, and its intentions were impossible to fathom. As one flummoxed Venetian envoy, Anzolo Correr, concluded in the 1630s, “there was no school in the world where one could learn how to negotiate with the English.”
Parallels with the present are for Devil-Land’s readers to discern. By coincidence, the book was commissioned by Penguin in the week that followed the referendum held on 23 June 2016 in which a majority of the United Kingdom’s electorate voted to leave the European Union and was completed in the week after the UK’s final departure from the EU, following expiry of the ‘transition period’ on 31 December 2020. Written in the shadow of Brexit speculation and debate, Devil-Land’s focus on the contingent mutability of seventeenth-century England’s relations with its Continental neighbours provides perspective, if scant comfort, for its readers.
By the time Devil-Land was published on 30 September 2021, a new entente discordiale in Franco-British creations had been created by Australia’s announcement of Aukus: a three-way strategic defence alliance with the United States and Britain that required Australia to abandon a multi-billion-dollar contract to purchase French submarines. For the first time in the history of the United States, France had recalled its ambassador from Washington and had also broken off diplomatic relations with Canberra. But when asked why their diplomatic counterpart in London had not been recalled, the French foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, dismissed Britain as the redundant “fifth wheel on the carriage.” When it comes to trading insults, evidently not much has changed from 1638 when Louis XIV’s chief minister, Cardinal Richelieu, “stated emphatically that, at present, England might be called the country where they talk of everything and conclude nothing.”
Devil-Land: England under Siege, 1588-1688 (Allen Lane, 2021), Clare Jackson
Claire Jackson is the senior tutor of Trinity Hall, Cambridge University. She has presented a number of highly successful programmes on the Stuart dynasty for the BBC and is the author of Charles II in the penguin Monarchs series.