The term ‘ambassador’ (from the Latin ambaxiator or ambasciator, a synonym of envoy) was in recorded use in northern Italy since the early twelfth century. In England, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use appears in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, written around 1374 and first printed by William Caxton in 1477. On the fourth of book of Chaucer’s long poem, there are two stanzas describing the mission of Greek ‘Ambassatours’ to Troy.
By the mid-fifteenth century, the traditional system of ad hoc diplomatic communication and negotiation that predominated in the medieval period began to face a process of transformation. The intensification of diplomatic contacts across Europe, particularly in the Italian peninsula, instigated the development of new practices and structures of representations that paved the way to the emergence and consolidation of the figure of the resident ambassador throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Ludovico Sforza’s decision to send a resident ambassador to the court of Henry VII in 1490 increased the growing influence of Italian diplomatic practices and theory in Tudor England. Some years later, in 1505, Henry VII instructed John Stile, initially appointed as an envoy in a special mission to Spain, to remain there as a resident ambassador. During the 1520s, under the direction of Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII had resident embassies in France, Venice and Spain. The turbulent years following the Henrician reformation and the reign of Mary I slowed the formalisation of English diplomacy. Indeed, Elizabeth I invested in a gradual professionalization of her diplomatic corps, appointing individuals as ambassadors and envoys who had reputable experience or expertise in political, diplomatic and administrative affairs. However, the office of the ambassador changed most profoundly under the Stuarts, when James I established permanent embassies in Paris, Madrid, Venice and the Hague. Notwithstanding the political vicissitudes of the Tudor and Stuart periods, or perhaps indeed because of them, English diplomats, jurists and scholars, as well as foreign exiles based in the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, such as the Italian lawyer Alberico Gentili, were heavily involved in the theoretical and juridical debates surrounding the office of the ambassador.
The figure of the ambassador was always a figure caught in-between. In his De legationibus libri tres (1590), Gentili defined the ambassador as a diplomatic agent (legatus) ‘not only appointed by the state, but also in the name of the state, and as the representative of the state’ (Vt legatus is fit qui non modò public, sed public etiam nomine & publica indutus persona). In other words, ambassadors were true representatives of sovereignty, acting in the name of a state or a prince. Ambassadors had to develop a specific persona or character which would enable them to act and speak on behalf of their prince without losing their own autonomous self. This function of double representation forced an ambassador to construct a performative self which allowed him to manipulate his two personae according to circumstance. Jean Hotman, for example, made an analogy with theatre to explain the limits of the representative function of ambassadorship. For the author of the Ambassador (1603), an ‘Ambassage and a Comedie are different things’ since ambassadors were not able to ‘play diverse partes under divers garments’. Even though an ambassador facilitated the communication between different princes, he only represented one of them and his legitimacy and dignity relied on this close bond between him and his prince. If an ambassador represented multiple rulers, he would no longer be a representative of sovereignty, but a mere messenger.
Such a precise function stressed the importance of the personal qualities of the holder of an ambassadorial post. Most early modern treatises on the office of the ambassador highlighted the importance of appointing virtuous individuals whose physical appearance, intellectual abilities, aristocratic background and moral integrity could reflect and enhance the reputation of the prince, rendering the Renaissance concept of civility essential to the political and personal relationships between different cultures. This type contained some parallels with Renaissance discussions of the ideal courtier, who was often presented as well-educated, politically savvy, gracious, and — more controversially — adept at dissimulation.
Sir Henry Wotton, who served as English resident ambassador in Venice in three different missions between 1604 and 1623, is often remembered by his quip that an ambassador was ‘an honest man sent abroad to lie for the good of his country’. Wotton’s pun played both with the extraterritorial dimension of ambassadorship and with the widespread perception of the resident ambassador as an ‘honest (or licensed) spy’, an ambiguous figure responsible for collecting intelligence from his host, interfering in local affairs, and participating in intrigue. The need for intelligence and news at home made diplomats essential gathers of all sorts of information from court gossip to suspicious military movements or news of strange phenomena. As Robert Cecil reminded William Trumbull, the English ambassador at Brussels between 1609 and 1625, in a letter from 1610, the main function of an ambassador was to ‘observe and advertise’ so that Cecil could ‘make use for the best of His Majesty’s service of what I receive from you’. This knowledge-gathering functions of ambassadors often blurred the distinction between diplomacy and espionage. The salary of Sir Thomas Edmondes, the English resident ambassador in France (1610-1616), covered, for example, his ‘diet and intelligence.’
The thin line separating diplomacy from espionage also triggered anxieties concerning the activities of foreign ambassadors residing in England. One of the figures who epitomized the dangerous presence of the foreign resident ambassador for Jacobean observers was Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, count of Gondomar and Spanish ambassador to England from 1613 to 1622. Indeed, Gondomar regularly complained to Madrid that his duty to obtain valuable information on James I and English politics through all possible means, including bribery and espionage, made ambassadorship ‘a nasty job … since one has to be mixed up in business like this’.
The emergence of the resident ambassador as an integral part of early modern statecraft led to literary reflections that explored many of the issues raised by diplomatic and legal treatises. The allegorical and satirical character of the Black Knight in Thomas Middleton’s immensely popular and controversial play, The Game at Chess (1624), for instance, was largely inspired by Gondomar and explored the anxieties and suspicions raised by the presence of foreign ambassadors.
As mediators between different rulers of states, ambassadors were required to have the capacity to operate within different societies and courtly environments. They needed to be able to manipulate languages, bureaucratic systems, and rituals that shaped a range of foreign polities. These transcultural skills highlighted the importance of cross-cultural knowledge and experience. While the sixteenth century saw a concern in appointing ambassadorial posts to individuals of the highest social standing, those who possessed the necessary qualities to imbue his person with the prince’s persona and virtues, the mid-seventeenth century brought the increasing bureaucratization of the early modern state. This served to formalise diplomatic practices, allowing for the emergence of a new professional diplomat. Though many seventeenth-century theorists continued to stress that social status conferred an additional authority and dignity to the office of the ambassador, the emphasis now lay in expertise, merit and talent. As elsewhere in Europe, the gradual professionalization of the diplomatic corps initiated during the Elizabethan and Jacobean years opened the door to the recruitment of well-educated members of the civic and professional classes, who found in diplomatic service an interesting path for social mobility.
The development of a professional English diplomatic service coincided with the regular presence of English diplomats in remote places such as Mughal India, the Ottoman Empire, or the Barbary Coast. Richard Hakluyt considered the English diplomatic activities outside Europe to be a remarkable achievement, and celebrated in the ‘Epistle’ of his The Principal Navigations the presence of ‘an English Ligier’, a synonymous of ambassador, ‘in the stately porch of the Grand Signor at Constantinople’. Ambassadors sent to the Levant or South Asia, however, faced practical problems regarding their status and functions. While English diplomats in Europe contributed to the development of a corporate identity that mixed courtly and bureaucratic elements which granted them a specific political agency and reputation, diplomatic agents of the English trading companies in the Levant and Asia had an ambiguous status that limited their functions as representatives of sovereignty. Appointed by the joint decision of the companies and the English Crown, the essential function of these diplomats was to protect and expand English trading activities, rather than projecting the authority and power of the English monarch. The instructions given to English ambassadors and envoys to the Ottoman Empire, for example, stated that ‘the principal part of your employment is to protect our merchants in their lawful trade & to assist them in the orderly government thereof’. Such ambassadors often found themselves caught not only between their own nation and their hosts, but also between factions at home. The activities of the ambassadors and other diplomatic representatives of the Levant and East India companies (EIC), for instance, had to balance the aims of the corporations and their members alongside those of the English Crown, and the two were not always the same.
The factors of the EIC frequently warned the company’s administrators that ‘whosoever should go up to the [Mughal] king under the title of a merchant should not be respected’. There was a clear preference to appoint individuals who had an ‘extraordinary countenance and respect’, courtiers like Sir Thomas Roe, the first English ambassador to the Mughal court (1615 and 1619), who was presented by the EIC as ‘a gentleman of pregnant understanding, well spoken, learned, industrious, [and] of a comely personage’. This somewhat complicates the picture of a progression from one ‘type’ of courtly ambassador to a more bureaucratic one in this period, suggesting that company members recognised the courtly attributes that would enhance the prestige of their economic aims. However, such attempts to surround the ambassadors sent to Constantinople or Agra with the dignity and authority demanded by the office of the ambassador often had mixed results.
Besides their ambiguous role as representatives of both company and crown, corporate ambassadors were also responsible for maintaining social harmony amongst the English commercial communities abroad. This was often a complicated mission, since ambassadors often intervened against the interests of merchants and other commercial agents. During the First English Civil War (1642-1646) the Levant Company was embroiled in a communal dispute as their royalist Ambassador between 1633 and 1647, Sir Sackville Crowe attempted to assert the authority of the crown over the English community in the Levant. The ambassador’s regular interferences in the daily life of the company, and his attempt to raise funds to the Royalist cause by seizing the property of merchants and members of the company led the General Court of the Levant Company to demand the his immediate removal in 1646. The crown’s refusal to recall Crowe forced the company to present a petition to Parliament requesting its intervention. Following the defeat of the Royalist forces in 1646, Parliament finally forced Crowe’s removal in January 1647, and the ambassador would remain imprisoned at the Tower of London between 1648 and 1652. The incidents involving Crowe are a good illustration of how, whenever the interests of the companies and the Crown collided, ambassadors could be caught in an uneasy position which weakened their diplomatic status and threatened their career prospects both overseas and at home.
The problems faced by the diplomatic activities of the Levant and East India companies reflected in many ways how the discussions on the figure of the ambassador and its functions of negotiation, mediation and representation led to the emergence of a new diplomat whose political agency and identity was not based on his proximity to the prince, as advocated by Renaissance authors, but increasingly on the intellectual, transcultural and bureaucratic dimensions related to the job. As the seventeenth century closed, diplomacy was increasingly becoming a sphere of formalised actions sustained by a bureaucratic and juridical machinery that favoured the development of a cadre of specialists that would shape the so-called ‘state systems’ until the late nineteenth century.