Researching Early Modern History


The Sint-Niklaas Child Murder of 1700 and the Scope of Early Modern Forensic Medicine – K. Dekoster

On September 5, 1700, the Flemish town of Sint-Niklaas was startled by a particularly cruel instance of child murder. While Marie Van Stappen, the wife of Jan Smet, was busy drying her linen, her twelve-year-old son Jan ran to her, saying: “Mother, Jenne Mariken is screaming, please come inside quickly”. Upon entering the house, Marie found that her youngest daughter had a grave injury to her neck. Marie’s husband was only two steps away from the girl – knife in hand – with a similar wound. With the help of her servant, Marie was able wrest away his knife. And while Jan Smet initially managed to escape, he was captured by a group of neighbours.

The situation took an even more dramatic turn when Jan Smet informed his wife that “Drusken was already dead”. Marie immediately ran to the attic, where she discovered the body of her three-year-old son, Andriesken, lying in a pool of blood.

The case quickly came to the attention of the feudal court of the castellany of the Land van Waas (a rural region situated to the north-east of Ghent, of which Sint-Niklaas was one of the major localities). On September 6, the judges required two local surgeons, Jacques De Smet and Andries Du Pont, to examine the corpse of Andriesken Smet. The surgeons declared that

“the jugular vein and artery of the aforementioned child, being a boy of approximately three years old, were severed with a sharp cutting instrument, penetrating the articulations of the vertebrae, which caused the child’s death”.

Both surgeons were also asked to examine the wounded Jenne Mariken, whom they found “injured in a very perilous way, being cut with a sharp instrument in the throat, penetrating the cavity of the arteries” and that she was “not outside peril of death”. Finally, the surgeons were asked to depose on the mental state of the culprit. While Andries Du Pont stated that he could not tell the judges anything on this matter, Jacques De Smet found that Jan Smet had “a phrenesis or raving madness”.

In all of its cruelty, the Sint-Niklaas child murder of 1700 neatly sums up the different roles medical practitioners played in early modern criminal proceedings. From the Late Middle Ages onwards, judges on the European continent gradually abandoned the old accusatorial way of prosecuting criminality (meaning that the judges only acted following an accusation by an injured party) and irrational forms of proof such as trial by combat or cruentation (the belief that the corpse of a murder victim bled in the presence of the murderer). Instead, they adopted the tenets of the so-called inquisitorial procedure, which, next to its focus on the prosecution of crime by government officials acting ex officio, placed a strong emphasis on the rational investigation of the facts by the penal judge. The necessity of obtaining rational proof of the facts and circumstances surrounding a crime, prompted judges to consult experts in a growing number of trials. Among the different types of experts that appeared in early modern courts, medical practitioners certainly constituted the most frequently consulted category, primarily because of the very broad applicability of medical knowledge in different types of cases, as is aptly illustrated by the 1700 murder case.

First, medical practitioners were asked to perform post-mortems in order to establish causes of death. In Flanders, examinations of the bodies of homicide victims were made mandatory by an ordinance proclaimed in 1589. As the cause of death of Andriesken De Smet was relatively self-evident, the post-mortem remained quite summary. The examination did, for instance, not involve opening the body, as was common in more complex cases.

Second, the examination of the wounds of his sister, Jenne Mariken, points to another important role that medical practitioners played in criminal proceedings. In case of serious injuries, the judicial authorities required surgeons to examine the victim and to depose on the potential lethality of the wounds. If the victim was considered outside peril, the culprit could only be prosecuted for having inflicted an injury, and not for (attempted) manslaughter, even if the victim eventually died. In the case of Jenne Mariken, both surgeons considered her wounds sufficiently dangerous to warrant the court’s further attention.

Third, the role of medical practitioners was not limited to victims’ bodies. In Jan Smet’s case, they were also asked to attest to his mental state. For a long time, early modern judges did not consider insanity to be an exclusively medical problem, as friends, neighbours, and relatives were deemed equally (or even more) competent to testify regarding the mad behaviour of culprits. In two other instances of child murder, from 1750 (a father who drowned his two children) and 1773 (a mother who slit her daughter’s throat), the testimony of lay witnesses sufficed in establishing the lunacy of the culprits. In Jan Smet’s case, three neighbours and his manservant were also asked to depose on the culprit’s mental condition, one of whom remembered that Jan Smet had been a light-minded person since his childhood, a condition that had worsened since the past winter, and primarily manifested itself in the utterance of many “crazy discourses”. What is perhaps the most surprising aspect of this case, is not that medical practitioners were consulted regarding the culprit’s insanity, but that this task was entrusted to surgeons, who – in contrast to university-trained physicians – were expected to occupy themselves exclusively with external injuries.

The interest of the judges in the mental state of Jan Smet might to a large extent account for the peculiar outcome of the case, which remains shrouded in mystery. No record survives to indicate that Jan Smet was sentenced to death or other penal sanction, even though the criminal sentencing records of that particular court are in an excellent state of preservation. The most probable outcome is that Jan Smet was, in fact, never officially sanctioned. Similar to most modern codes of criminal law, early modern jurists acknowledged that a mad offender could not be held responsible for criminal acts committed in a state of lunacy, and could therefore not be punished. At best, lunatic offenders were confined to a madhouse or charitable institution. In Jan Smet’s case, whether he was confined, and the duration and place of confinement if so, remain unknown. The only clue we have is a deposition by his wife dating from December of 1700, three months after the dramatic events described above, in which she related how her husband was confined at home, bound by iron shackles attached to the wall. He was temporarily released at certain intervals so that he could work in order to support his seven surviving children.

In many respects, the 1700 Sint-Niklaas murder bears striking resemblances to a number of recent Flemish ‘family drama’s’, in which a parent, after having killed one or more of his/her children and attempting suicide, was confined to a psychiatric institution after being declared insane. Notwithstanding changed conceptualisations of criminal responsibility and the contribution of medico-legal expertise to the administration of criminal justice,  it is tempting to push the comparison even further. However, it may suffice here to note that both early modern and modern societies alike have grappled with atrocious acts of violence that might be explained by the forensic-psychiatric gaze, but which were and are extremely difficult to predict and prevent, and it is this that largely contributes to their shock value, and our fascination with them.

State Archives Ghent, Archives of the Feudal Court of the Land van Waas, no. 254: Register of Criminal Inquiries 1690-1701.

State Archives Ghent, Archives of the Council of Flanders, no. 31128: Documents regarding the murders committed by Jan Baptiste Van Goethem, who drowned his son and daughter (April 1750).

State Archives Ghent, Archives of the Council of Flanders, no. 31151: Documents concerning the murder committed by Marie Vervaek, who slit her daughter’s throat (March 1773).

Selected Readings
Eigen, Joel Peter. Witnessing Insanity. Madness and Mad-Doctors in the English Court. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

Ruggiero, Guido. ‘The Cooperation of Physicians and the State in the Control of Violence in Renaissance Venice.’ Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences 33, no. 2 (1978): 156-166.

Ruggiero, Guido. ‘Excusable murder. Insanity and Reason in Early Renaissance Venice.’ Journal of Social History 16, no. 1 (1982): 109-119.

Watson, Katherine. Forensic Medicine in Western Society: A History. New York: Routledge, 2011.

London Metropolitan Archives, RBE 27 – TD Jacobs

A back injury prevented me from going to Kew to finish photographing the French diplomatic correspondence, so I decided to do a prospecting trip to the London Metropolitan Archives instead. I was in search of sources relating to the Lord Mayor’s banquet and procession, and anything pertaining to ambassadors who attended these events, and were sometimes entertained at the expense of the city.

Sources for the London’s seventeenth-century central government are somewhat scarce prior to the Restoration. In fact, on the basis of my Master’s research, I would say that the city records for Antwerp are far more complete. Nevertheless, there are some for London, spread across three primary series, the Court of Common Council ‘Journals;’ the ‘Repertoires’ of the Aldermen; and the ‘Papers.’ The ‘Journals’ and ‘Repertoires’ are generally in annual volumes – although the Common Council’s decisions for 1649-1660 are in just one, indicating that less business was handled over the course of the Interregnum. The ‘Papers’ for the seventeenth century are spread across three files. Both the ‘Journals’ and ‘Repertoires’ for the period have been indexed by subject. The documents themselves, and the indices, are only available on microfilm.

The archive has both traditional microfilm readers, as well as two digital reader/print stations. I had never used a digital scanner before, but I found the software relatively easy to use – and a vast improvement over the old readers. The print function, however, was another matter entirely. The software was buggy and did not permit for enlargement of certain sections, nor would it print with contrast/brightness corrections. I did find a work around in that I could print entire pages if carefully framed, photograph them with my iPhone camera, and then manipulate the images on my computer. Time consuming, yes, but less so than attempting to make complete transcripts. With regard to the indices, I have not yet used them to find things in the ‘Journals’ or the ‘Repertoires’ but the entries are informative in of themselves. It seems that the kind of ceremonial/protocol information that I require is in the ‘Repertoires,’ while more general business decisions concerning the institution was covered in the ‘Journals.’

Bear in mind that if you visit these archives, the access system is comparable to that of the British Museum and the National Archives at Kew. You will be required to produce two pieces of ID. One with your photograph (a passport or national identity card) and one with your address (a utility bill of some kind – paper, not digital!) You should also be prepared to spend a great deal of money if you intend to print items: 20 pence per sheet. This is steep, especially in light of the problems with the software, and the fact that there is a digital copier built into the program. However, it has been disabled, which is unfortunate seeing as how it would greatly reduce the time and effort required to place the records online.


London Metropolitan Archives

LMA – online catalogue

‘Performance, Royalty and the Court, 1450-1800,’ RBE 26 – TD Jacobs

This year’s annual Society for Court Studies conference was hosted by the Paul Mellon Centre for the Studies in British Art in London, and was organized via Birkbeck College School of Arts and Department of History, Classics and Archaeology. The theme was ‘Performance, Royalty and the Court, 1450-1800.’ I presented a paper on the subject of the Oliver Fleming, the Master of Ceremonies during the English Civil Wars and Interregnum. Apart from some good natured teasing about bringing ‘Republican’ research to a venue packed with royalists, I feel it went rather well. People were interested in the topic, and no one said that it had either been done before, or wasn’t worth doing at all.

My research, however, is in the early stages. The results being reported by more senior historians were far more interesting. One of the best and most coherent panels was presented by three scholars from the Vatican Museum: Alessandra Rodolfo, Michela Gianfranceshi, and Camilla S. Fiore. The first covered receptions and ceremonies, while the latter two focused on the use of the city of Rome as an extension of pontifical diplomacy during the eighteenth century.  It turns out that John Finet was not exceptional in having kept notebooks regarding precedents and disputes – he was only exceptional in early Stuart England. The Vatican’s Masters of Ceremonies, meanwhile, had been doing so regularly. Far more detailed than Finet’s yearly summaries, these records are now being used in a wonderfully systematic way within an integrated research program to reconstruct the reception of ambassadors and princes in the Early Modern, as well as the interiors of the palaces they visited on the papal tours that were arranged for them.

Other particularly interesting papers were those of Elisabeth Natour, Siobhan Keenan, Anastazja Grudnicka, and Hannah Rodger. Natour examined the use of sound and music in staging Early Modern monarchy – an exceedingly difficult area of study considering the relative scarcity of sources, and thus one that is often overlooked. Keenan’s work will be of particular interest to people looking at Joyous Entries in the Low Countries, examining, as it did, the role of the city of Edinburgh in stating Charles I’s Royal Entry in 1633, and the messages conveyed therein. As an amateur food historian, Grudnicka’s investigations of dining culture at the Viennese Habsburg court of the 1590s was fascinating – particularly her findings regarding the variety of ‘public’ dining and the range of performance and observation. Rodger, in what was perhaps the best delivered presentation, covered her research on the English Chapel Royal and Laudianism. Her work greatly added to my scarce store of knowledge on that topic – from the basics (the Chapel Royal describes an institution, not a specific place) to the more in-depth (patronage networks and chains included poets, composers, andthe archbishop).

Lastly, Bram van Leuveren, M.A. Katritzky, and Aidan Norrie covered topics that were closer to my own area in New Diplomatic History. Van Leuveren covered the Franco-Spanish and Anglo-German marriage negotiations that took place between 1612-1615. The former was especially interesting to me – especially the somewhat disruptive receptions of successive Spanish ambassadors in Paris for these talks. Katrizky covered the incredibly transnational nature of ‘Jacobean’ masques – which often appear in my sources prior to the Interregnum. And finally, Norrie delivered a bit of a blow to anyone enchanted by the supposed first-hand account of James I’s reception of Christian IV of Denmark in which the two kings and the ‘masque’ participants got roaring drunk at Theobalds in July of 1606. Chances are, it never happened. Or if it did, it was not a formally arranged ‘masque’ with professional or experienced performers so much as hastily arranged entertainment employing whoever was near at hand. A presentation on the dangers of using single source descriptions of court events was a good way to end what was a fantastic conference.


The Society for Court Studies

‘Performance, Royalty and the Court, 1450-1800’ Program

“The Favourite” – Perverse Parody? RBE 25, TDJ

I recently had the opportunity to see “The Favourtite.” I did so with my normal degree of trepidation in viewing a period drama, and while it is by no means historically accurate, it hardly rises to the giddy levels of delightful parody found in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Most of the ‘errors’ are a simplification for narrative purposes. For example, Queen Anne’s husband, Prince George of Denmark, did not die until 1708, but you would not know it from his complete absence in the film. Other, more putative ‘mistakes’ derive from misconceptions with regard to the historical record. You would not be blamed from assuming from her portrayal that Anne was something of a temperamental dullard, unable to govern effectively on her own. Edward Gregg, however, has established that this view of Anne is not reflected in the sources. Rather, this misconception seems largely the legacy of the highly prejudicial writings of her sometime “favourite,” Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and it has been perpetuated via a certain degree of disinterest in her reign on the part of professional historians, who have been more interested in the start of the innovative Georgian dynasty, than the trailing end of the old Stewart regime.

At the same time, Anne’s undeniably close and tumultuous relationship with Churchill – and the latter’s cousin and rival Abigail Masham – has been the subject of considerable attention (and no small amount of speculation) by history buffs and historians alike. This is typical of the intense interest taken in the sex lives of early modern queens such as Elizabeth I and Christina of Sweden. And yet, the subject of Anne’s sexuality is atypical – and far from settled. I think this is at least in part because while Anne was undoubtedly an early modern ruler in the strictest sense, her reign took place in quite a different time than that of her female predecessors. Valerie Traub argues that the difference was in “public access to the Queen’s body in an era of growing explicitness” – a change in discourse. I think that is true.

However, I would argue that there is another difference that influences our current views as well, one which Traub touches upon but does not fully explicate.  Neither Elizabeth nor Christina generated the same degree of contemporary press with regard to their personal lives. The reach and interest of the press – and government relationships to it – simply did not allow for it. We have, as a result of developments in printing and the reading public, regulations and assertions of freedom, far more popular printed material relating to Anne and her ‘private’ life. Thus the modern debate regarding the veracity of the accusations made against her has rather more fuel.

Moreover, I think there has been a change in attitude among historians and the composition of the profession that has in turn resulted in the eager (and deserved) utilization of such sources. As a queer historian – but not a researcher of queer history – I am acutely aware of my own interest in the recovery from the past of the full range of expression of sexuality and gender expression, and I know that I am far from alone in this. As always, historical debate is reflective of contemporary concerns of the people engaging in it. I love the idea of Anne – or any historical female figure for that matter – refusing to give up a relationship for the sexually empowering reason expressed by Olivia Colman in the film: “I like it when she puts her tongue in me.”

That is definitely my bias, and I will readily acknowledge that the portrayal of Anne as a committed but closeted lesbian has little basis outside of the scurrilous publications spread by her detractors. Yet conservative critics of the movie who have decried it – for the nature of the dialogue and the sexual relationships depicted – as ahistorical ‘raunch’ and revisionism have overshot the mark. To begin with, explicit and even filthy (by our standards) language was not an anathema in early modern England. A simple word search on Early English Books Online will rapidly disabuse people of any notion to the contrary. Printed song and ballad sheets – which by their very nature were intended for widespread public consumption – about genitalia and sex abound. “The Female Auction,” a satirical ballad from 1700, contains bawdy lyrics about prostitutes living at the “Sign of the Dildo and Bell.” And if late seventeenth-century of residents of London didn’t know what a dildo was when lauded in song, they always had the opportunity to examine one in person. William Chaloner is remarkable in this regard because his contemporary infamy derived from his career as a counterfeiter, not his career as purveyor of *ahem* items of an intimate nature.


And yet perhaps the problem with the debates on Anne’s sexuality extends further than our ignorance of the past. Maybe they have been further complicated by our ignorance of the present. In our contemporary discourses on identity (both gender and sexual), its expression, and relationships, we continue to use either/or frameworks for analysis and description, even as we recognize that they are not reflective of actual human behavior in general, or the evolution of individuals across their own lifetimes. When applied to the past, these limited constructs may be compounding the problem. Indeed, one of the narrowest critiques of the fictional Anne in “The Favourite” is that the actual Anne had a devoted husband and numerous pregnancies, indicating that she was engaging regularly – if not enthusiastically – in heterosexual (presumably vanilla) sex. However, monogamy has never had the corner market on fulfilling, let alone physical, relationships, and human sexuality comes in a wide range of expressions. A present-day queer Queen Anne could enjoy having any number of things in her, up to and including a lover’s tongue – as could a historical one.


Anon. “The Female Auction,” in The cracks garland Furnish’d with three excellent new songs. London: Printed for E. Brooksby, 1700.

Ophelia Field, The Favourite: Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, 2002.

Edward Gregg, Queen Anne. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.

Thomas Levenson, Newton and the Counterfeiter. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2009.

Sarah Toulalan, Imagining sex: pornography and bodies in seventeenth-century England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

Valerie Traub, The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England.Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

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.

Ambassadors in the public eye. RBE 23, TD Jacobs

Last week, I attended the conference “Addressing the Public Abroad: Strategies of Cultural and Public Diplomacy in the Early Modern Habsburg World (1550-1750)” which took place across two days at the Royal Flemish Academy of Belgium for Science and the Arts. I presented a paper on “The Public Embassy of Alonso de Cárdenas” which in no way reflected the abstract in the program since I did not have the faintest idea as to what I was doing when I wrote it. No matter. I’m happy with how it turned out.

Of more interest were the other presenters. There was a wide variety of topics covered, but there were some definite highlights in my opinion. Ashleigh Dean presented a paper on the first Spanish embassy to China, and it turns out that the Spanish were a great deal more interested in establishing diplomatic ties than the Chinese, who brushed them off with a made-up bit of bureaucracy. Credentialing, it seems, did not work the same way at all in China – their uncontested position of dominance meant that it did not really matter in the least what petty little king-let you claimed to represent.

Veronika Hyden-Hanscho presented a paper on the dissemination of French fashion via diplomacy. This is a topic I’m particularly interested (I like clothing as a medium for messaging) but which I just don’t have enough information on the subject in my own source materials to do a great deal with. However, following the ascendancy of French styles and the increase in portraiture from the mid-seventeenth century onwards, it turns out you can figure out what diplomats wore. And who resisted changes to standard dress. The Austrian court was not, it turns out, keen embrace the new styles – at least not in public.

Rocío Martínez López’s paper on Maria Antonia of Austria was fascinating and tied in with my own research on the importance of titling, whether official or otherwise, and how status is signaled and claimed. She also enlightened me with regard to an episode in history of which I am vastly ignorant. The way that Charles II of Spain is often presented makes him appear entirely passive with regard to his choice of successor – not so.

I suppose, however, that the value of conferences is largely in the talk that takes place between talks. During the question and answers, Helmer Helmers made it clear that I should be careful not to merely say someone did something ‘for profit’ – as that does not really explain anything. Quite a just critique. Over coffee, Dorothea Nolde cleared up a complete mystery regarding my French ambassadorial correspondence. And over dinner, Enrique Corredera Nilsson forced me to consider the role of distance in relation to the network of ambassadors. When it takes three months to send a letter, and a further three to obtain a response, then micro-managing an embassy is simply not a realistic prospect. Something that he then confirmed during his presentation on Bernardino de Rebolledo’s defence of Catholicism in Denmark. It is reassuring to know – after a fashion – that if I do not find something in my correspondence with the Consejo de Estado, that does not mean that it did not happen. It may simply mean that the ambassador did not report it to them directly.

Many thanks are owed to Klaas Van Gelder for the organization of a conference that I (and my students) will reap the benefits of for many years to come.


Addressing the Public Abroad

The Grinch who stole Christmas? RBE 22, TD Jacobs


The English like to party – as anyone who has watched The Crown on Netflix knows. This was also the case in the mid-seventeenth century, during the English Interregnum, as noted by the Spanish Ambassador in London, Alonso de Cárdenas. In his Relacion de las Fiestas, que hizo en Londres, a 16 de Henero, 1653, held in the collection of Merton College library in Oxford, he describes a feast he held in honor of recent Spanish victories. In it, he writes about the throng of visitors that crowded into his house for celebration, and the dancing that lasted until midnight, causing the temperature to rise so much so that

“it caused fainting in some people, and whoever was able to, broke the windows, for the fresh air to enter. They didn’t notice the damage, because they valued the relief more.” 

Nor did they stint on the food,

“everyone liked, gave, and took, and with regard to these three everything without speed, nor limit […] progressing until the day. The English like to enjoy feasts, and festivities, and having such an occasion, it does not seem to him that they should lose it.”

As an American, I learned very few things about Oliver Cromwell in school. I was taught, in fact, three things – two of which are patently untrue, and one of which I am – after a fashion – researching. First, that he killed the king of England. Second, that he would have succeeded in establishing a Republic in England had he not decided to adopt the trappings of a king cum dictator. Third, that he was a mean old man and religious fanatic who abolished Christmas and turned England into a joyless country the likes of which Ebenezer Scrooge or Kazran Sardick would consider a veritable paradise. This last ‘fact’ is the subject of this research blog, which is dedicated to all of my furry, green, Seuss-like friends complaining that now that Halloween is just past, people are already banging on tong-tinglers, blowing their foo-flounders, and crashing their jang-jinglers.

Parliament began to regulate English holidays in the 1640s, and published its first act ‘banning’ Christmas in 1647:

Resolved by Parliament,
That the Markets be kept to Morrow, being the Five and twentieth day of December, And that the Lord Mayor, and Sheriffs of London and Middlesex, and the Justices of the Peace for the City of London and Westminster and Liberties thereof, do take care, That all such persons as shall open their Shops on that day, be protected from Wrong or Violence, and the offenders be punished.
Resolved by the Parliament,
That no Observations shall be had of the Five and twentieth day of December, commonly called Christmas-Day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in Churches upon that day in respect thereof.

This was well before Cromwell assumed the office of the ‘Lord Protector’ in 1653, or even before he had emerged as a strong man in the furor English politics during the Civil War. While he did ban the celebration during his invasion of Ireland, it was only after Parliament had done so in England. Moreover, it seems that people largely ignored the act of 1647 – even after Parliament had seen off the Stuarts. Writing on January 4, 1652, Lodewijck Huygens notes that it was Christmas of 1651 in London according to the Old Style calendar, and he went on to describe what members of the Dutch embassy did that day:

“we heard the sermon at home in the morning, although by order of this new government, the celebration of this holiday (which formerly was enormously popular) had been completely abolished. Nevertheless, we noticed that little heed was paid to this prohibition, for we saw that all the shops were closed and there were few people in the streets and scarcely any coaches. Parliament, the Council of State, and other similar bodies had assembled just as usual.”

Indeed, there are numerous indications that the English intended to go on celebrating Christmas whether Puritan zealots wished it or not. For one thing, the government had to keep reminding people that it had been banned. The act of 1647 was reiterated in 1652, and then Parliament had to rapidly order its enforcement. The editor of the Weekly Intelligencer reported that on December 29, 1652   

“concerning the suppressing of the solemn meetings, on the Day commonly called Christmas Day. It was this Day ordered, that the Lord Mayor be desired to take all especiall care that the Ordinance for the observation of other Holy-dayes be duly, and effectually put in execution, within the liberties of the City, and London, and to give protection unto all Persons that shall follow their lawfull callings in their shops, as well in these dayes commonly called Christmas Holy-dayes, as all other Festivals abolished by Act of Parliament, and to prevent, and to restrain all violent opposition that shall be made by any Persons whatsoever”

Huygens noted in his above journal entry that while going about the city, they had found a booklet entitled Reasons why Christmas ought to be celebrated. In fact, the subject of the Christmas ban seems to have been a popular one among London pamphleteers. And the defense of the holiday could also provide opportunities to criticize the government and the Civil War in general, as was the case with another such pamphlet, published in 1652, and titled “The Vindication of Christmas, Or, His Twelve Years Observations upon the Times.” In it, Father Christmas describes his travels through London and the countryside and the people he encountered, claiming that

“my best and freest welcome with some kinde of countrey Farmers, was in Devonshire, where though both Armies had been with them, and given them several visits, insomuch that if the Cavaliers had taken their horses, the other party made bold with their Oxens; so that (according to the country phrase) great crock and little crock, all was ago; yet as soon as they spied me, they saluted me with much love and reverend courtesie.”

Clearly, people were still celebrating the holiday, and there was even a concern that those who did not want to celebrate would face violence. But perhaps the best indicator of the true attitude among the general public towards the ban, was that even the rabidly anti-Royalist editor of the Mercurius Politicus took no small joy in reporting that in 1652, the impoverished Charles II, living in exile in France, “hath kept but a cold melancholy Christmass, without any sports save a Game at Cards, and a dinner that he had on Thursday.”

Whether there were actual prosecutions or persecutions of those celebrating or not celebrating before the Restoration, I do not know. But the ban remained the ongoing subject of some mirth in the press. The Grand Politique Post in January of 1654 reprinted a cheeky letter sent from Hereford stating that

“I am to inform you, that those in authority in this city, on Christmas Eve last, sent to all the Bakers in and about the city, to charge and prohibit them that they should bake no Pies on Christmas day; but whether for fear of burning or baking them too hard, I know not.”


Anon. “The Vindication of Christmas.” London: G. Horton, 1652.

Huygens, Lodewijck. The English Journal, 1651-1652. A.G.H. Bachrach and R.G. Collmer, eds. trans. Leiden: Brill and Leiden University Press, 1982, p. 45.

Manganiello, Stephen C. Entries “Act Banning Christmas” and “Christmas, The Banning Of” in The concise encyclopedia of the revolutions and wars of England, Scotland, and Ireland, 1639-1660. Lanham: The Scarecrow Press, 2004, p. 5 and p. 133.

Mercurius Politicus, 6 January – 13 January, 1653, no. 136, p. 2148.

The Grand Politique Post, 17 January – 24 January, 1653, no. 127, p. 1253. (Old Style – although this particular issue at least is given to numerous dating inconsistencies).

The Weekly Intelligencer of the Commonwealth, 28 December – 4 January, 1652, no. 104, p. 730. (Old Style).