'Losing My Best Days': Charles Whitworth, First British Ambassador to Russia

Janet Hartley describes the trials and tribulations of life for ‘our man’ in Peter the Great’s Moscow.

A diplomatic career in the early eighteenth century brought neither great material reward nor prestige. Postings at the heart of diplomatic activity – particularly in Paris or The Hague – could be a useful stepping stone for a ministerial career at home; postings to Italian cities such as Venice or Florence could at least bring the benefits of a pleasant climate and the prospects of the congenial company of aristocrats who were making the grand tour. But the more remote and inhospitable cities of Europe were of little attraction. Charles Whitworth (1675-1725), who was offered the post of envoy to Russia in 1704, lacked the patronage to secure a more prestigious post elsewhere and lacked the wealth (he was the eldest of six sons of Richard Whitworth of Staffordshire) to turn the offer down.

Whitworth’s started out as a clerk in the Board of Trade, probably in 1696. His diplomatic career began as English Resident at the Diet of Ratisbon in 1702. This proved a less than gentle introduction to diplomatic life as the town was occupied by Bavarian troops in 1703 and the foreign representatives were held almost as prisoners. After eventually leaving Ratisbon, Whitworth tentatively enquired about an attractive vacancy which had arisen at Venice. Instead, he found himself taking a hazardous journey through war-torn northern Europe to a country that was little known but generally regarded as strange, ‘oriental’ and uncivilised. Whitworth had few illusions; ‘I ... beg the continuance of your favourable protection in that barbarous Country’, he wrote to the Duke of Marlborough shortly before his departure.

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