ne of the most striking pictures in The National Gallery is The Ambassadors, the enigmatic portrait by the celebrated Hans Holbein the Younger. It shows Jean de Dinteville, the French Ambassador to England in 1533, and his friend, George de Selve, Bishop of Lavaur, who acted on several occasions as Ambassador to the Emperor, the Venetian Republic and the Holy See. The picture, with the mysterious distorted skull in the foreground, has long been a puzzle. Why are the two together? What do the symbols mean? What does the skull represent? Of one thing, however, there is no doubt: even in Tudor times, ambassadors played a crucial role in determining war and peace between nations. Diplomacy, then as now, was the oil that kept the engines of state running smoothly.
Indeed, one of the most famous definitions of a diplomat was coined 400 years ago by Henry Wotton, three times ambassador to the Venetian Republic for King James I as well as occasional envoy to The Hague and Savoy. He wrote in a friend’s commonplace book that an ambassador was ‘an honest person sent to lie abroad for the good of his country’. The pun on ‘lie’ – also meaning reside – was lost on most people. The King was far from amused. ‘Yt was no jesting matter,’ he sniffed.
Sir Henry, however, survived the gaffe but ran up huge debts because the King did not pay him on time. The problem of money is perhaps familiar to diplomats today, but unlike them, Sir Henry was not protected by diplomatic immunity and was briefly arrested for debt. In those days diplomacy needed a strong stomach and a clear mind. But though he was a poet, historian and cousin of Francis Bacon with friends in high literary places, such as John Donne and Milton, Sir Henry was not always clear about his instructions. He sometimes stirred up quarrels when he was meant to be making peace. He took umbrage at the lack of proper ceremony when presenting his credentials in Venice, and refused to have any dealings with the Doge for the next nine months. And he gave ill-advised support to an Italian adventurer, Tommaso Cerronio, who claimed he had uncovered a plot to assassinate King James, and thus won passage to London at English expense. Unfortunately, Cerronio’s tale proved so ‘senseless and so sleveless’ to the King’s officials that they blamed Wotton for the ‘strange chimeraes and far-fetched ymaginations.’ He was recalled, and ended his career as Provost of Eton – a post also filled by a number of subsequent retiring British Ambassadors.
Diplomacy has always attracted adventurers but rarely, until recently, women. A modern exception was Pamela Harriman, one-time daughter-in-law of Sir Winston Churchill, who rose – according to the Dictionary of National Biography – from rural England to the heart of American political life ‘via the bedrooms of some of the richest men in the world.’ She eventually became President Clinton’s ambassador to Paris. But she did not start off with every advantage. While one of her contemporaries remembered her as ‘hot stuff, a very sexy young thing,’ one of John F Kennedy’s sisters called her a ‘fat, stupid little butterball.’
She married Churchill’s dissolute son Randolph three weeks after meeting him, lived in Downing Street during World War II and got on well with her father-in-law. But marriage to Randolph got off to a sticky start when he insisted on reading Gibbon to her on her honeymoon. It rapidly went downhill from there and ended in divorce. Pamela, after a string of useful liaisons, then married Averell Harriman, wartime US ambassador to Moscow, and inherited US$115 million when he died. She was thus well placed to later become one of the grand hostesses of Washington DC, a patron of the Democrats and a powerful future US Ambassador.
Not all diplomats were as colourful. Lord Curzon, a former viceroy of India and Foreign Secretary, was the antithesis – earnest, upright, clever, arrogant and pompous. Conscious, even at Eton, of his cleverness, he never lived down the famous ditty: ‘My name is George Nathaniel Curzon, I am a most superior person. My cheek is pink, my hair is sleek, I dine at Blenheim once a week.’ He knew from an early age that he was destined for India, and travelled relentlessly through Russia, Persia, Central Asia and Afghanistan, so that by the age of 39 he was one of the most knowledgeable men on Asia when, at that early age, he was appointed viceroy in 1898.
Curzon was both loathed for his condescension and stuffiness while also admired for his commitment in India to reform, to promote an efficient administration and to preserve ancient monuments. He was one of the most powerful of all British viceroys, but his reign ended in acrimony after a quarrel with Kitchener over military equipment, and he left India angry and embittered. He returned to politics in London, championed the opposition to votes for women and joined Lloyd George’s wartime cabinet in 1916, becoming Foreign Secretary in 1919. There he stayed for the next five years, his triumph being the Conference in Lausanne, where he summoned all his old skills of diplomacy to dominate the 11 weeks of wrangling that ended in Turkey regaining full sovereignty over the Turkish mainland.
Just as Curzon is forever linked to India, so another great ninteenth century diplomat is remembered for his dominance of another post – Constantinople. Sir Stratford de Redcliffe served more than three times as Britain’s Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. A cousin of the former Foreign Secretary George Canning, he was first appointed in 1825, returned to serve somewhat unsuccessfully in Parliament (with another brief spell in Constantinople in 1831) and was reappointed in 1841, remaining there for the next 17 years. It was during his time that Pera Palace, the magnificent British embassy – now the Consulate General in Istanbul – was built. His bust still stands at the top of the marble staircase. Perhaps more than any other diplomat, he had unique influence over Turkish policy, and it was de Redcliffe who played the crucial role in underpinning British support for the Sultan in the run-up to the Crimean War. Unlike Curzon, he never forged a successful political career outside diplomacy or held any other appointments. He ended his days, bored and frustrated, firing off endless letters to The Times about the Eastern Question in the 1870s.
Other nineteenth century diplomats – Lord Palmerston – also made the transition to Foreign Secretary or even Prime Minister. So too, a century later, did Douglas Hurd. One, the Earl of Chesterfield, was unprepossessing – ‘squat, with a large head and bad teeth, a stunted giant.’ He made a good marriage, however, learnt several languages, became Ambassador to France and Holland but, in a memorable phrase, ‘choked on the silver spoon with which he was born’ and is now remembered only for the interminable issue of letters to his weak-willed and ineffective son.
Successful foreign diplomats – Talleyrand, Metternich and John Adams – have also moved on to supreme power in their countries. In countries such as the US, many ambassadors make the journey the other way: from congressman, senators or businessmen to heading US embassies overseas, especially plum posts such as London, Paris and Rome. But whereas centuries ago the King’s envoys had not only to sign treaties, negotiate alliances and occasionally seek out a new bride for a prince or king at home, nowadays their duties seem more mundane: hosting visiting trade delegations, co-ordinating demarches with EU colleagues or ensuring that a visiting minister catches his flight on time. Their job is still vital, but they are less likely to be remembered in grand portraits by the top court painter of the day.