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The ambassador’s brother, and the diplomat’s wife, RBE 31 – TD Jacobs

On August 27, 2019, Anne Sacoolas, the wife of a US diplomat stationed in the UK, ran over and killed the nineteen-year-old Harry Dunn. Sacoolas, only in the UK for three weeks by that point, was apparently driving on the wrong side of the road. While initially indicating that she intended to remain in the country, she later fled the UK and claimed diplomatic immunity, which had been extended to all Americans working at the RAF Croughton communications base – and their families – in 1994.  The tragedy has the makings of an international incident. The Dunn family’s initial request for a waiver of her immunity was denied. Nevertheless, they are yet again asking for a waiver, and for her to be extradited. In addition to which, they have made a public appeal for her to return to the UK and face the consequences of her actions. And finally, Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed today that he would ask Donald Trump to intervene.

Unfortunately, modern day US practice with regard to diplomatic immunity does not appear to be on the side of the Dunn family. The 1961 Vienna Convention, article 31, states quite clearly that a diplomatic agent shall enjoy immunity from the criminal jurisdiction of the receiving State – unless the agent or their government consents that they shall be subject to the jurisdiction concerned. In which case, a waiver of immunity will be granted. However, this is rarely done by the United States. The US State Department’s policy in this area is encapsulated in a memorandum from 1986, which outlines two main principals. First, that the State Department will usually only grant waivers in “benign circumstances” (such as to allow someone to give testimony in a court case) and that moreover, it is up the State Department alone to waive such immunity. That right does not reside with the individual in question. As such the US State Department is unlikely to grant such a waver – and indeed, have refused to so even when allegations of rape have been made against a diplomat’s spouse. And direct appeals to the driver, serve no legal purpose.

Finally, the current international state of affairs also does not bode well for such a waiver. Trump – he of the “America First” slogan – could face a significant degree of backlash were he to order the extradition of a US citizen – the wife of a service member no less. Plus, he is under an impeachment investigation for impropriety in his dealings with foreign governments, and he may not wish to be seen doing favors for people who he was recently seeking favoors from. Lastly, Johnson’s increasingly desperate position amid the ongoing saga of Brexit gives him little leverage with the current occupant of the White House. At least for the time being, it seems that Mrs Sacoolas will not have to face any consequences for her actions.

You will no doubt be unsurprised to hear that this is not how things used to be. In the seventeenth-century, diplomatic immunity (what it covered and to whom it applied) was far from settled. Linda and Marsha Frey’s 1990 discussion of the famous Sá incident demonstrates just how unsettled the matter was. In late November of 1653, the brother of the Portuguese ambassador in London became embroiled in a fight in the fashionable New Exchange in the Strand.

What follows is the account given of the affair by Lorenzo Paulucci, the Venetian Secretary in London:

“Last Monday at the new Exchange, a public place at present much frequented by ladies and gentlemen of condition during the tedious hours of the night an accident occurred of sufficient importance to warrant a detailed account. That evening the brother of the Portuguese ambassador was accidentally jostled there by an English gentleman. For this or, some say, because of insulting language, the Portuguese in a great rage, drew his sword and mortally wounded the Englishman, who even in that state used his adversary roughly. The Don’s attendants intervened at once and the affray was stopped for the moment. But it left so much irritation that on the following morning early the Portuguese returned to the spot, some 50 in number, armed with every sort of weapon, with the determination to avenge themselves on the first Englishman who might appear, and barred the way. Two English gentlemen, each with a lady at his side, then appeared on the scene and attempted to pass, utterly unconscious of all that had taken place and only desiring to purchase fashionable articles for their approaching marriage. Without more ado the Portuguese drew upon them. The English gentleman was killed by a pistol shot, his betrothed swooning away, thus experiencing the extremes of joy and grief. Another Englishman was also killed and several wounded, whereas the aggressors, being armed for defense and offence received no injury whatever. The affrighted tradesmen all took refuge in their shops and the Portuguese remained masters of the whole of Britain’s Bourse, until the news reached the horse guards, always on duty near the palace. These restored order by capturing five of the Portuguese and putting the rest to flight. Unless the prisoners inform against the murderer all five of them, according to a fundamental law of the land, are liable to death, and above all the ambassador’s brother himself, if it is proved that he committed the homicide. A number of other troops surrounded the ambassador’s dwelling and demanded his brother who was handed over to them accordingly. The ambassador’s earnest entreaties to General Cromwell for his brother’s release availed nothing for yesterday he was removed to the Tower. It is firmly believed that the government will inflict the extreme penalty on him and his five accomplices as the crime was premeditated and treacherous. By infringing the prerogative of the state and the liberty of the subject it may be said to affect the whole nation at one and the same time. It was further aggravated by very foul suspicions by the discovery in the Portuguese coaches of a quantity of gunpowder and some grenades and other explosives. This incident is calculated to upset entirely the adjustment between the two countries, as no peace has yet been proclaimed.”

As Paulucci indicates, the incident could hardly have come at a worse time. Cromwell was in the midst of negotiating a peace treaty with Portugal. A treaty that King John IV desperately needed in light of the ongoing struggle against Spain, which claimed sovereignty over the country. And, having initially backed the Royalists in the English Civil War, the Portuguese were not starting the talks on a firm footing. But few other allies were available. France did not wish to bring Spain to their doorstep, and the Dutch were certainly going to take the opportunity to prey on the Portuguese’s overseas empire in its weakened state. John needed Cromwell. And Cromwell – in turn – needed international recognition for his regime, founded as it was upon the execution of Charles I.

Against these odds, the Portuguese ambassador tried to save the life his brother, arguing that such a trial could not take place because it would violate the law of nations. The legal matters were referred to a number of experts, but all that they could agree on was that murder violated the laws of nature – as opposed to local, “municipal” laws of individual states – and the law of God. But who had the right to try an ambassador? Did an ambassador give up his privileges if he broke the law of nations? Eventually it was concluded that an ambassador could be tried for a crime such as murder. But did this answer apply to Sá?

Sá’s defense, as he outlined in a pamphlet about the affair, called A Narration of the late Accident in the New Exchange, was not well calculated to inspire sympathy. He complained that the prison was awful, English justice bad, and that he – far from home – was hated unfairly by all. And that this “unhappy accident” was not his fault. He’d had no idea that his servants would follow him back to the New Exchange, and that blood was shed on both sides in the rumble. Moreover, Sá asserted that that he was immune from any such proceedings as both the brother of the ambassador, and because he was credentialed to act in his brother’s stead when he was absent.

And even though the letters he presented confirmed that John IV intended to make him ambassador after his brother departed, the judges appointed to the court set to hear the case ruled that he had no actual appointment now. Nor was his relationship such that the ambassador’s immunity extended to him, being but a brother and not a spouse or child. And therefore, he had no claim to immunity. Moreover it was argued by the judges that the extension of diplomatic immunity to any and all in an ambassador’s employ or entourage was not to the public’s benefit. At his trial – during which he had no counsel as that was not standard in English jurisprudence at the time – Sá plead not guilty. Nevertheless he was convicted. Only Oliver Cromwell could save him. But Cromwell remained unmoved, and following a few desperate escape attempts, Sá was beheaded, at the age of 19, on July 10.

Paulucci once again wrote to the Doge and Senate with the details:

“he was beheaded in public, his fate exciting universal compassion. An English servant was hanged as an accomplice acquainted with the law of the land and two other Portuguese have had their punishment commuted to imprisonment, as subject to their master’s orders. He displayed exemplary firmness in his last moments with every mark of devotion and resignation to the will of God, without the least tremor, and to the confusion of the heretics, holding the rosary in one hand and a crucifix in the other, his intrepidity drawing tears from many and the compassion of all. Had Cromwell pleased he might have granted him a pardon or at least a reprieve until the meeting of parliament. Instead the Portuguese and the other ambassadors were deceived in their expectations and he let the law take its course, possibly thinking that the unpopularity of commuting sentence on a murderer might injure him, and so he agreed to the execution from self interest. On the eve of it the ambassador, without waiting to hear from Portugal signed and fully ratified the treaty of peace, in the belief that he might thus promote his brother’s safety.”

General opinion at the time seems to indicate that the execution was politically motivated, and while ‘just’ by the standards of the day, was not carried out entirely in the interests of justice. Politics played a part as well. The case was later cited by legal theorists of the seventeenth century while they struggled with the questions surrounding diplomatic immunity – who did it apply to, and could it always be drawn upon? But while the law is somewhat more settled now and enshrined in documents such as the Vienna Conventions, the politics are not. And the potential denial of justice to the Dunn family seems every bit as inhumane as the events that took place nearly four hundred years ago.


Frey, Linda and Marsha Frey. “The bounds of immunity: the Sá case. Politics, law, and diplomacy in Commonwealth England.” In The Canadian Journal of History 25, no. 1 (1990): 41-60.

Israel, Simon. “Boris John plea to Trump to waive diplomatic immunity after teenager’s death. Channel 4. 7.10.2019.

Manji, Fatima. “Mother of crash victim urges American diplomat’s wife to return to UK.” Channel 4, 6.10.2019.

McClanahan, Grant V. Diplomatic immunity. Principles, Practices, Problems. London: Hurst & Company,  1989.

Paulucci, Lorenzo to Giovanni Sagredo, 5.12.1653. In Calendar of State Papers, Venetian.

Paulucci, Lorenzo to Giovanni Sagredo, 25.7.1654. In Calendar of State Papers, Venetian.

The billionaire and the horse thief. Suicide, medical expertise and forensic controversies in early modern Flanders – K. Dekoster

On 10 August 2019, the sex trafficking case against Jeffrey Epstein took a dramatic turn when the corpse of the sixty-six-year-old billionaire was discovered in his New York prison cell. The cause of death immediately became a matter of fierce debate. Suicide according to most observers, murder according to some adepts of conspiracy theories. Although the autopsy finally pointed to suicide by hanging, it is likely that the publication of the medical examiner’s conclusions will probably not convince those who stubbornly maintain that Epstein was killed on behalf of one of his rich and powerful ‘partners in crime’.

Scepticism regarding the cause of death of alleged suicides is certainly not a modern phenomenon, and one might expect that it was even more of a concern in the early modern period, when ‘self-murder’ was still considered a felony, with punishments including desecration of the suicide’s corpse together with the confiscation of his or her goods. Thus relatives had a clear interest in hiding suicides from the legal authorities. Two questions therefore arose:  Was an alleged suicide by hanging a real suicide, or a camouflaged homicide? And were all accidental deaths really accidental? The early modern period witnessed an important medico-legal debate on the question of how to distinguish suicidal deaths, especially hangings, from homicidal deaths staged as suicides. Starting with the Traité de Rapports (1575) of the French surgeon Ambroise Paré (ca. 1510-1590), the first vernacular treatise on legal medicine, medico-legal theorists went to a lot of effort to establish the signs by which one  could determine whether a person had hanged himself, or whether his corpse was hanged after death in order to simulate a suicide.

In 1763, the French professor of surgery Antoine Louis (1723-1792) published a treatise devoted exclusively to how to “distinguish, when a corpse is found hanged, the signs of suicide from those of murder”. The immediate impetus for writing this work was the notorious affaire Calas, involving the wealthy Huguenot merchant Jean Calas, who was executed on behalf of the Parliament of Toulouse in 1762 for having strangled his son Marc-Antoine, who was supposedly wanting to convert to Catholicism.  The case was strongly influenced by religious hatred towards the local Protestant community, and supported by a dubious autopsy report written by local medical practitioners. After a polemical campaign spearhead by Voltaire, Jean Calas was posthumously rehabilitated in 1765. In order to avoid similar unjust charges in the future, Louis deemed it necessary to clearly lay out the signs distinguishing a genuine suicidal hanging (which Louis considered to be the real cause of Marc-Antoine’s death) from a camouflaged homicide. According to Louis, an examination for external signs of hanging (such as the imprint of a rope, the presence of mucus and saliva in nose and mouth, and a blackened, swollen tongue) always had to be supplemented by a thorough dissection of the neck in order to discover injuries that might point to external violence.

Nonetheless, in eighteenth-century Flanders, the region I study for my own doctoral research, Louis’ advice was only partially followed. Dissections of hanged bodies were extremely rare, and the physicians and surgeons consulted by the authorities usually limited themselves to observations regarding the presence of a clear imprint of a rope or cord around the neck, and the absence of other external injuries.

However, the term ‘suicide’ almost never appears in the expert’s reports. Early modern medical practitioners were very careful to limit themselves exclusively to the medical cause of death (strangulation by a cord or rope), leaving the legal qualification – suicide – to the judicial authorities. The absence of similar qualifications in the majority of reports was eagerly exploited by the lawyers who were required to defend the corpses of suicides at trial. The fact that such a report did not explicitly state that the victim killed him- or herself was used  to cast doubt on the actual cause of death. In 1715, for instance, the body of the horse thief Francies Vande Kerckhove was discovered in his cell in the town prison of Aalst. According to the medical practitioners who examined the body, a hole had been stabbed in Vande Kerckhove’s head with a nail. Inside the wound, the examiners discovered a straw, the presence of which had caused an ulceration in the brain, and which had finally resulted in the prisoner’s death. While the legal authorities concluded that Vande Kerckhove had stabbed himself in the head with a nail and inserted a straw in the wound, the lawyer designated to defend the corpse maintained that nothing in the report demonstrated that the wound in question had been self-inflicted.

While this argumentation did not convince the judges, and Vande Kerckhove’s body was posthumously punished, allegations of this kind routinely appeared in eighteenth-century suicide trials, although the defendants gradually discovered a much more effective way to obtain the ‘acquittal’ of suicides: the so-called ‘insanity defence’. As suicides were only punished when committed intentionally, the bodies of those who killed themselves in a state of permanent or temporary insanity were mostly left unharmed and permitted burial in consecrated ground. Over the course of the eighteenth century, suicidal acts gradually became ‘medicalised’, meaning that more and more self-killings were considered the consequence of mental pathologies rather than rational intent or diabolical temptation. In turn, this process of medicalisation – in which medical practitioners in fact only played a marginal role – resulted in an increase in acquittals and a de facto decriminalisation of suicide. Finally, in 1782, Emperor Joseph II officially decriminalised suicide within the Habsburg Netherlands. While this definitively put an end to actual suicide trials, public controversies regarding the actual causes of death of alleged suicides have proven much more resilient.


State Archives Ghent, Archives of the Council of Flanders, no. 169, fol. 148v-154v: Trial against the corpse of Francies Vande Kerckhove (February 1715).

Louis, Antoine. Verhandeling over een ontleedkundig geschil, tot de rechtsgeleerdheid betrekkelyk, waar in de grondregelen om, op het aanschouwen van een hangend gevonden dood lichaam, de kenmerken van Zelfsmoord, van die van Manslag te onderscheiden, translated by Isaac Le Roy. Amsterdam: Petrus Conradi, 1775.

Selected Readings

Bosman, Machiel. “The Judicial Treatment of Suicide in Amsterdam.” In From Sin to Insanity. Suicide in Early Modern Europe, ed. Jeffrey R. Watt: 9-24. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.

Deschrijver, Sonja. “From Sin to Insanity? Suicide Trials in the Spanish Netherlands, Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.” Sixteenth Century Journal 42, no. 4 (2011): 981-1002.

Macdonald, Michael. “The Medicalization of Suicide in England. Laymen, Physicians and Cultural Change, 1500-1870.” In Framing Disease. Studies in Cultural History, eds. Charles E. Rosenberg and Janet Golden: 85-103. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992.

Watt, Jeffrey R. Choosing Death. Suicide and Calvinism in Early Modern Geneva. Kirksville: Truman State University Press, 2001.

Embassy extraterritoriality, RBE 30 – TD Jacobs

The legalities of what occurs inside embassies, and the actions of embassy personnel, have been in the news often of late. I think largely as the result of the death of the Saudi Arabian journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, in the Saudi embassy in Turkey, likely at the hands of Saudi agents. Diplomatic immunity was also subject to discussion in the seventeenth-century English press, as illustrated by the Sàcase. The incident concerned the brother of the Portuguese ambassador to Cromwell, who killed a man in a brawl and thus sparked an international argument regarding the extraterritorial rights of diplomats.

Rather more recently, a human rights protester climbed onto the roof of the Bahrain Embassy in London. After he began to demonstrate against the executions of two torture victims in Bahrain, he was (according to video footage and his own testimony) attacked by what seem to be embassy personnel. On the ground, UK police shouted at these persons to return inside. When they continued to beat the protestor, the police actually forced their way into the embassy in the belief that the man’s life was threatened. Bahrain has since complained about the violation of international conventions forbidding a host country from entering an embassy without invitation. This concept – embassy extraterritoriality or inviolability – is not modern. Far from it. To what it applies, on the other hand, is.  

In 1635, a Catholic priest seeking sanctuary was forcibly removed from the residence of the French ambassador extraordinary, causing an uproar. The diplomat complained to John Finet, the Master of Ceremonies, that the house “the king his masters more than his” had been violated by the English authorities, and he demanded the return of the priest. What is worth noting, is that the residence in question actually belonged to Abraham Williams. By this point in the reign of Charles I, it had become the house that the English government usually accorded such a diplomat for a short stay.

It was certainly notan ’embassy’ as we think of it now – a particular building actually owned or leased by a foreign entity, through which their business abroad is conducted, but where the ambassador may not necessarily reside. And yet the ambassador in this instance considered the residence lent to him to be the property of the French king, and thus not subject to local jurisdiction. This was not contested by the English government, and the priest was returned to his custody following some administrative legwork. It was understood that extraterritoriality was tied to the person of the ambassador – not a specific locale.  

This has long been demonstrated by historians, with the seminal work on the subject published in 1929 by Edward Adair. The nuances, and possible effects of other Early Modern developments on the concept – such as the evolution of capitalism over the same period – are only now coming to light. And our modern notion of extraterritoriality, was not in fact codified until the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which laid out the privileges granted to diplomatic missions – including the provision that a host country cannot enter the premises of a diplomatic mission. And even this treaty has not been uniformly signed and ratified.  


Adair, Edward Rober. The extraterritoriality of ambassadors in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. London: Longmans & Co, 1929.

Finet, John and Albert J. Loomie, ed. The Note Books of John Fine, Master of Ceremonies, 1628-1641. New York: Fordham University Press, 1987: pp. 182-84.

Frey, Linda and Marsha Frey. “The bounds of immunity: the Sàcase. Politics, law, and diplomacy in Commonwealth England.” In TheCanadian Journal of History25, no. 1 (1990): 41-60.

Pal, Maïa. “Early modern extraterritoriality, diplomacy, and the transition to capitalism.” In The extraterritoriality of law. History, theory, politics. Edited by Daniel S. Margolies, Umut Özsu, Maïa Pal and Ntina Tzouvala. New York: Routledge, 2019 (e-book edition).

“Police break down door of Bahrain Embassy in UK after roof protester ‘threatened’.” August 7, 2019. Channel 4 News.

The ambassador’s mail, RBE 29 – TD Jacobs

My last blog covered a recent event, as does this one. On July 3, The Mail on Sunday published excerpts from confidential cables that the British Ambassador to the United States, Sir Nigel Kinm Darroch, had sent to the Foreign Office. His missives described the Trump regime as – among other things – “inept” and “uniquely dysfunctional.”  Of far more interest to me than the (accurate) contents of the dispatches is how they have been covered in the British Press.

Prior to Darroch’s resignation on July 10, Richard Tice, Chairman of the Brexit Party, argued in an interview on Channel 4 that it was not appropriate for diplomats to include such information in their dispatches. As the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Tom Tugendhat, pointed out, these were not emails meant for a broad audience within the British government. Moreover, he stated that it is the job of diplomats to assess the administrations of their host countries, and to accurately report on what is being said in those countries.

From a historical perspective, Tugendhat is correct. The Early Modern diplomatic source materials that I handle often contain blunt language concerning both heads of state and their governments. For example, the Venetian Secretary in London, Lorenzo Paulucci described for his superior in France, Giovanni Sagredo, how Oliver Cromwell dealt with a recent attempt to overthrow his Protectorate government thusly:

“The Protector is constantly engaged in unearthing plots against his present quiet, and arbitrarily throws into prison now one and now another suspected person. To encourage others to serve him he has recently knighted some who resisted the late conspiracy, so that they may wear this decoration in their districts as a sign that they have served his Highness well, and also as a sign of his present authority which he exercises on all occasions exactly like a king and despotically.”

For his part, Sagredo was equally unimpressed by the regime’s tyrannical hold on the country. Shortly after his arrival in London as Ambassador Extraordinary, he informed the Doge and Senate that

“So far as I can judge from my brief stay here the present government is more feared than loved, supported by the power of 50,000 armed men rather than by the affection of the unarmed people.”

The Venetians, suffice to say, were far from alone in their unequivocally negative assessments of the assorted Interregnum governments. And as a result of ‘Cablegate’ there is an abundance of evidence demonstrating that modern day diplomats are no less given to unflattering descriptions in their own reporting. Among my favourites in the cache of classified diplomatic documents published by WikiLeaks is a July 6, 2009 cable to President Barack Obama in which the US friendly Dutch Prime Minister was described as a “‘Harry Potter’ look-alike,” and the “golden-pompadoured” nationalist Geert Wilders as an isolationist that stokes “fear and hatred of immigrants.”

Tice’s outrage over Darroch’s phrasing and reporting appear naïve at best. However, I think he is correct in his argument that these leaks could damage the UK’s trading relationship with the US on the eve of Britain’s planned departure from the European Union. Particularly given the current dysfunctionality of the US’s State Department and the more personal form of transactional diplomacy favoured by the notoriously thin-skinned Trump. This concern seems to be shared by Boris Johnson, who is tipped to become the next Prime Minister.  Despite having called Darroch a “superb diplomat,” Johnson has since admitted to making mistakes in his public handling of the scandal that contributed to the ambassador’s resignation on July 10.

At least Darroch can leave his post with his head held high, having done his job properly. I am not sure the same will be said in the future of the UK’s International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, who has himself caused a stir by offering the government’s apologies to Ivanka Trump, who seems to be edging into the role of Secretary of State at this point. I guess public perception and historical assessment will depend upon whatever post-Brexit deal Fox eventually manages to wring from the regime, which is known to be a bad-faith negotiator.


Mahdawi, Arwa. “Sorry, but why is Liam Fox apologising to Ivanka Trump?” The Guardian. July 10, 2019.

“May has ‘full faith’ in UK ambassador who called Trump administration ‘inept.’ Channel 4 News. July 8, 2019.

Oakeshott, Isabel. “Britain’s man in the US says Trump is ‘inept’: Leaked secret cables from ambassador say the President is ‘uniquely dysfunctional and his career could end in disgrace.” Mail Online. 6.8.2019. (Originally for the Mail on Sunday).

Paulucci, Lorenzo to Giovanni Sagredo, June 22, 1655. Calendar of State Papers, Venetian.

“US embassy cables: Barack Obama’s briefing on Dutch politics.” The Guardian. December 15, 2010.

Sagredo, Giovanni to the Doge and Senate, September 24, 1655. Calendar of State Papers Venetian.

Stewart, Heather and Kevin Rawlinson. “Borish Johnson admits to mistakes in handling of Kim Darrroch affair.” The Guardian. July 12, 2019.

Modern interest and early modern strategies concerning royal protocol, RBE 28 – TD Jacobs

In this, the era of modern air travel and mass media, heads of state are likely to draw more attention with regard to protocol faux pas than did early modern diplomats. And this is certainly truer of some than others. I followed the most recent visit to the United Kingdom by Donald Trump and his family with great interest – particularly in light of the protocol controversies surrounding his last trip.

In July of 2018, it was reported that Trump had not only kept Queen Elizabeth II waiting on him for tea at Windsor Castle, but that he did not bow to her, and then proceeded to walk in front of her while inspecting the guard. The first gaffe has been the subject of some dispute. Trump, while speaking at a rally in August of 2018 and expounding on his “fake” news” theme, claimed that the Queen had been the one to keep him waiting. This assertion in turn generated a great deal of press, with ‘royal’ sources being cited and people present tweeting about what happened. Between the eye witness accounts and the news footage, I think that there may indeed have been some kind of scheduling gaffe that resulted in bothparties being kept waiting. Regarding the second incident, Trump, as a head of state, is not required to bow to the Queen. The last incident, however, is less ambiguous in its interpretation – he clearly stepped out in front of her.

What’s fascinating here is not so much what did or did not happen, but the ongoing interest shown in it, and what the effect of that interest may have been. In the month proceeding this second UK visit, the footage of the Queen checking her watch, as well as that of Trump turning his back of her, repeatedly aired. And both were brought up again in the nightly US news recaps during the trip, which I watched on several different networks. While Trump caused some anxiety by renewing his childish Twitter tirades against London Mayor Sadiq Khan on his way across the Atlantic, he does seem to have been on his best behaviour with regard to the monarch, albeit with one exception. Trump did touch the Queen’s back. Michelle Obama did this on an earlier visit with President Barak Obama, and it seems that Elizabeth II did not take offense. Quite the contrary. However, it must be noted that the former First Lady – unlike Trump – has never been accused of physically assaulting a woman, let alone more than twenty of them. Perhaps the Queen feels differently when touched by a self-confessed sexual predator.

On the whole, I am inclined to think that the British had a hand in arranging affairs to avoid any possible gaffes this time around. I began to suspect as much when viewing the footage of the reception at Buckingham Palace. Once again, the guard was inspected – but with a difference: Charles accompanied Trump onto the lawn, and not the Queen. It is not a breach of protocol for someone to walk ahead of the Prince of Wales. Would the royal household arrange to stage manage events so as to cover for such lapses on the part of a foreign dignitary? It is entirely possible. Certainly, this has been done in the past.

In 1632, a Dutch envoy caused a scandal at his first two audiences before Charles I by putting on his hat when the Republic’s credentialed ambassador did so. This breach of protocol was noted by those present, and the king complained to his secretary, who then spoke to the ambassador. At later audiences, the issue of the envoy’s behavior was dealt with by the simple expediency of the ambassador choosing not to cover when the king invited him to, and so preventing his colleague from embarrassing both the Republic and the Stuart court by following suit.

A more diplomatic explanation for the difference in the reception arrangements for Trump’s visits is that the Charles escorted the famous host of The Apprentice in order to further the Prince of Wale’s environmental agenda by establishing a rapport. Considering Trump’s apparent inability to spell the prince’s title, let alone understand his concern for future generations, I doubt whether this strategy – if such it was – was successful.

As to Trump’s own behaviour, I cannot say whether the negative coverage from the last trip – which he was obviously aware of – had any impact on his behaviour during this trip. Certainly, it is unclear whether his staff has ever been in any position to influence him. His Chief of Protocol, and the man responsible for keeping him informed regarding proper etiquette, Sean Lawler, was suspended June 24, pending a State Department investigation into his own abusive behavior. Nor can I clarify Trump’s protocol errors. Much like one of my seventeenth-century Masters of Ceremonies when trying to explain the Dutch envoy’s “over forwardness and cheap carriage,” I cannot distinguish between pretension and ignorance in this matter.


“Donald Trump: US president in ‘Prince of Whales’ Twitter error.” BBC News. June 14, 2019.

Finet, John and Albert J. Loomie, ed. The Note Books of John Fine, Master of Ceremonies, 1628-1641. New York: Fordham University Press, 1987: pp. 123-24, and 129.

Gabbatt, Adam. “Trump claims he was early to meet the ‘fantastic’ Queen, not late.” The Guardian, August 3, 2018. 

Kosinski, Michelle. “Trump’s suspended protocol chief would ‘scream,’ use profanity and berate employees, sources say.” CNN. June 26, 2019.  

Locker, Melissa. “Michelle Obama explains that she hugged the Queen for this very relatable reason.” Time. November 14, 2018.  

Obama, Michelle. Becoming. New York: Crown, 2018. pp. 403-04.

Riley-Smith, Ben. “Donald Trump rejects claims he was 15 minutes late meet Queen – and says she made him wait.” The Telegraph. August 3, 2018.  

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