The Art of Diplomacy

Kevin Sharpe revisits an article by C.V. Wedgwood, first published in History Today in 1960, that looks at the diplomatic mission made by the artist Peter Paul Rubens to the court of Charles I. Read the original article here.

In her article of 50 years ago, Veronica Wedgwood focused on a moment in 1629 when one of the greatest artists of Europe, the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, was sent by Philip IV of Spain on a diplomatic mission to Charles I. Rubens prepared the ground for England’s treaty with Spain, which was signed in November 1630. Wedgwood had no doubt that the artist was chosen skilfully to secure accord from the connoisseur king. Charles I, she observed, was (after breaking with his Parliament) desperately in need of peace and ready to secure it by any means that even half salved his honour, despite his earlier insistence on the restoration of his brother-in-law, Frederick, to the Rhenish Palatinate.

Wedgwood dismissed Charles I’s foreign policy as ‘weak and egotistical’. While I endeavoured nearly 20 years ago, in The Personal Rule of Charles I, to at least qualify that verdict, the consensus has not moved far from Wedgwood,who underestimates Charles’ commitment to his brother-in-law and England’s potential to cause problems for other powers. In other respects, however, Wedgwood reads – perhaps surprisingly – freshly. Anticipating the revisionist scholarship of the 1970s, she laid much of the blame for the failures of English campaigns in the 1620s on ‘a restive and critical Parliament refusing the necessary grants of money to wage’ them. Like Charles I and Archbishop Laud, but against recent historiographical trends, she regarded the Puritans as a fundamental danger to the crown. And contrary to Whig historians, who seemed surprised that England did not erupt into violence in 1629, she quotes Rubens reporting ‘a people rich and happy in the lap of peace’.

Most importantly, Wedgwood rightly connected scholarship and aesthetics to the business of diplomacy and politics. Rubens had a high opinion of scholars like John Selden and Sir Robert Cotton,who had been confined for their political involvements at the time of the Petition of Right in 1628, and greatly admired the taste of the king and his courtiers.

Since Wedgwood’s time, the histories of scholarship, connoisseurship and politics have regrettably become more detached.Yet in early 17thcentury England, historians, poets and painters were at the centre of power: kings wrote poetry, appraised paintings and drew; canvases were exchanged as the currency of political alliances; and plays, squibs and engravings could mock as well as flatter rulers and their ministers. Favourites and courtiers such as George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham and the Marquis of Hamilton vied to build great art collections because they bequeathed prestige and authority and earned the favour of the king.

These relations of scholarship, aesthetics and politics – the interests of scholars such as Roy Strong, as well as Wedgwood – were a casualty of revisionist historians’ focus on the details of high politics and of their attenuated notion of the political. For decades the study of literature and art was left to critics in other disciplines and the history of scholarship became a subfield, seldom studied as a central part of the constitutional and political struggles of the Stuart age.

Recently a more interdisciplinary turn and a greater interest in cultural history has demonstrated that authority and legitimacy were not merely vested in institutions, but were inseparable from cultural pursuits and practices.We see that the struggles for authority involved an appropriating and contesting of symbols and a variety of discourses, scholarly as well as political. Moreover, as monarchs and their critics struggled to win popular support, all cultural forms were brought to serve rival representations of rule.

While in England, Rubens accepted the commission to paint the canvases for the Banqueting House ceiling and painted allegorical pictures for Charles and his queen, Henrietta Maria.Neither Rubens nor his Habsburg masters needed to be told that the arts were embroiled in international as well as national power struggles.Wedgwood reminds us that scholars of the 17th century would do well to study them further.