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Intrigue and Diplomacy in Henry VIII’s Europe

Susan Brigden delivered the St. Robert Southwell, S.J  Lecture at the Walsh Library.
Photo by Tom Stoelker

Political intrigue plays out in lush bedrooms. Secrets get told in hidden passageways. There’s betrayal, even murder. Who to trust? Who not to trust?

Diplomatic relations in the age of Henry VIII often sound like scenes ripped from a contemporary television drama. As told by Oxford professor Susan Brigden, Ph.D., on April 10 at the Fordham Rose Hill campus, the intricacies of 16th-century diplomacy are just as gripping.

In “Reformation Diplomacy: The Tudor Kings and Their Ambassadors,” Brigden described the tumultuous time when Henry VIII broke with Rome and Paliament made him head of the Church of England.

In doing so, he created rather difficult situation for his ambassadors, who were in constant fear of becoming scapegoats.

Bridgen said that the king, and European princes in general, kept their power play designs to themselves. Even their most intimate kin were often left guessing what their leader was up to. Therefore, in order to advance the cause of their prince, ambassadors had to strike a balance between what their lord wanted them to convey and what their hosts abroad wanted to hear. Skill with rhetoric was paramount—and flair for the stagecraft didn’t hurt either, she said.

“The ambassador’s memory is the record of prince’s promises; he was primarily an orator—not only to act for him, but to act [as]him,” she said.

Brigden compared diplomacy in the age of Martin Luther to diplomacy in the age of Machiavelli. In Machiavelli’s time, ambassadors had to seem to be religious but were actually prepared to do the opposite.

But following the Reformation, new state theory compromised religious ideals. King Henry’s break with the Church only added to the pan-European chaos—and all of this took place while Christendom was at war with Turks.  Much of Catholic Europe didn’t know whether to fear the danger from within or the danger from outside: the heretic or the Turk.

Not all of the Kings’ ambassadors knew how to handle the new normal. Brigden said that some of the ambassadors attended Mass in their host countries, while others chose not to, even though they risked being labeled a heretic as a result. Regardless, diplomacy had to be carried out even when factions were at war.

Much of Brigden’s talk focused on the period immediately after Henry broke with Rome, before ecclesiastical differences were established. She described the ambassador’s task of sifting through “known unknown knowns.” Henry’s challenge to Rome was a challenge for all his subjects, but especially for his ambassadors.

“They found themselves in a hall of mirrors,” she said.

Ambassadors were forced to engage in lies constantly, making their job as “the readers of friendship” extremely complicated. They had to answer the questions of Henry’s fellow princes: How do you love your fellow prince but not his heresy? Could you marry your child into a heretic family?

“An answer to all these questions was needed–and fast,” she said.

At the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V of Spain, Henry’s ambassador Sir Thomas Wyatt attempted to answer the tough questions. Wyatt denounced so-called “confessional diplomacy” and the “dark art of flattery” all while taking part in it— partly to save his own head.

“He was exquisitely trained to say one thing and mean another,” she said.

In all, Wyatt was one of Henry’s more successful ambassadors. Though his risk-taking won him more than one trip to the Tower of London, he eventually lived to welcome Charles V in England during an interval of peacetime. Still, Brigden said he viewed the diplomatic trade as a “kind of exile.”

“I had been at the plough,” Brigden said quoting Wyatt. “I’d rather be in prison.”

Brigden’s talk was part of the St. Robert Southwell, S.J. Lecture series offered once each semester.Wa


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