Researching Early Modern History

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Progress Report – RBE 24, TDJ

So I’m now two years in on a six-year doctoral research project, and I wanted to reflect on where I’m at, as opposed to when I started. When I initially considered the project, I thought that my work would be more obviously political in nature in terms of the focus in that I would look at the contentsof negotiations. My initial plan, in fact, was to zero in on the relationship between Spain and England in the period, and track how this evolved over the course of the 1640s and 1650s. Two years on, and my work is still political, but not in the more traditional form of political history. Rather than studying the contents of negotiations, I’m looking at the institutional and symbolic frameworks in which relationships were conducted, how these evolved, and how the parties concerned were constrained by them, or whether they were able to manipulate them to their own advantage.  

This evolution in my research was the result of several things. Firstly, it turned out that there were historians in the process of examining Anglo-Hispanic relations, so I had to set that aside. But I had already started to collect sources for the period, and I was struck by a very practical matter that had arisen: the reception and security of diplomats. This then led me to the office of the ‘master of ceremonies,’ and what that entailed. And this appeared to be a hole in the literature, certainly for the period I was interested in. So I redirected myself to identifying what this office consisted of in the period prior to the English Civil Wars, and moving forward from there. Of course, a problem immediately appeared – the state of the English government’s records at the time – particularly during the 1650s. It rapidly became apparent that I would also have to use the accounts of diplomats themselves to determine what was happening, and – where possible – what they thought shouldbe happening.

My selection of these sources depended upon access and the weight of the players involved. I chose to use the Calendar of State Papers Venetian because it is easily accessed online, and the Venetian records are known to contain the kinds of details I was searching for. This meant that I could possibly use it to construct a basic timeline of events, that I would then use to locate what I wanted in the other sources. I ruled out sources from the Holy Roman Empire on the grounds that they would be much harder for me to access, and to process, considering my limited understanding of German. The same for the Swedish, Danish, and Russian. I selected the Dutch, French, and Spanish diplomatic correspondence because they appear to have been the key players in the international political struggles most relevant to England in the period. And – by happy coincidence- I can read these languages. I have decided not to include the Portuguese simply because of time limitations. Lastly, upon discovering that the British Library has copies of the Tuscan correspondence, and the extent of it, I decided to include this as well. The ambassador concerned was the longest serving member of the foreign diplomatic corps, and I hope that his letters will provide me an additional perspective.

Now, at the two-year mark, I have located my selected sources, and obtained copies or photographs of most of them. I need to make one more trip to Kew to finish photographing their copies of the French diplomatic correspondence, and I need to return to Den Haag one more time to finish collecting the Dutch correspondence. My plan for the next two years is to finish collection within two months, produce a draft analysis of the role of the Master of Ceremonies (from the Early Stuarts through to the end of the late Protectorate) and to spend the bulk of the remaining time systematically extracting the data I need from the sources I have gathered – a process that I have already begun in the last few months. I feel that this achievable, and would set me up to begin analyzing my data and writing my thesis over the last two years of my contract.

One of my biggest worries – that my preoccupation with protocol and ceremony was either irrelevant or anachronistic – has been laid to rest. Irrelevant it is not. Following the regime change in the United States, events over the last two years have directed media attention to the importance of protocol and ceremony in conducting international relationships: from the setting of stages with flags, to handshakes, to participation in ceremonies, to clothing, to timing, to claims of diplomatic immunity and embassy privilege. People take notice of these interactions. They assign meaning to them, particularly when they do not accord with what is considered established practice.

I am now convinced that this was true of the past as well. And – moreover – that diplomats manipulated these practices to their advantage where possible. My certainty that I am on the right track only arrived recently, when I discovered a letter from the English Ambassador in Paris concerning his dealings with the ambassador of the King of Portugal, whose claims to that throne were being disputed. In March of 1641, the English ambassador was visited by a representative of the Portuguese ambassador, who asked him to extend the Portuguese ambassador “such courtesies and favours” customarily given to such men. In essence, his request was that the English ambassador would participate in the Portuguese ambassador’s formal entry into the city. The English ambassador fudged, claiming

“that upon such occasions as this of ceremony, things were not so well regulated in France, but that there happened many disorders, and that therefore I had abstained sometimes from sending my coach, to avoid such inconveniences as might happen, by contending for the rank, there being Cardinals and others here in France who did not give place to any Ambassador: neither would the Ambassador of the King of Great Britain give place to them; that therefore I had excused myself to some Ambassadors upon the like occasion, and I hoped that this Ambassador would also excuse me”

He went on to tell the Secretary of State “The truth is that I was glad to make that excuse” in order to avoid interacting with the Portuguese until he had received instructions on how to conduct himself towards them.

Clearly, diplomats could – and did – consciously manipulate the symbolic framework in which such interactions took place. And, most interestingly, they would cite a lack of clarity and order in doing so. This is highly significant considering that I already have evidence that clarity and order were often in short supply throughout the 1640s and 1650s in London. So the questions remain: what changes were made, how did diplomats move within a fluctuating symbolic framework, and was the ‘confusion’ ever intentional, and to the advantage of the government itself?


Robert Sidney, 2nd Earl of Leicester, to the Secretary of State, Henry Vane, March 29/19, 1641/0. Kew National Archives, SP 78/111.

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