Laura Guinot Ferri is a postdoctoral researcher at the ERC Project CIRGEN (ERC AdG 787015). She received her PhD at the University of Valencia in 2019. Her current research is focused on the representation of the female reader during the 18th century from a transnational perspective. She is interested in the circulation of books “for women”, as well as in the role of women as cultural mediators.
In 1779 Frederik Robinson wrote a letter to his brother Thomas Robinson, 2nd baron of Grantham and the British ambassador in Spain, describing the delightful assembly he had attended the night before at the Spanish ambassadors’ house in London: “Company began to come at nine and the Assembly was really very numerous; people seem much pleased with the unaffected manner of the ambassadress and the real desire she showed of making her house agreeable. […] there were many card tables and many people were coming in”. At that time, the ambassadors were the marquises of Almodóvar: Pedro Francisco de Suárez de Góngora y Luján and María Joaquina Monserrat y Acuña, Spanish diplomatic representatives in London from 1778 to 1779.
The Amodóvars and the Robinsons developed a strong friendship during those years. Thomas had met the marquises in Madrid before the couple travelled to Britain, and he thought highly of María Joaquina, as he revealed in a letter: “I really believe the new ambassadress will do very well. She is improved since I first knew her. She has travelled a great deal for besides her residence in Portugal, she has been at Mexico, of which her father was vice Roy”. Her improvement, according to Thomas, was based on her transnational experience. María Joaquina spent part of her childhood in New Spain, and a few years later she came back to Spain. In 1773 she married the marquis of Almodóvar, and she moved to Lisbon, since her husband was the Spanish ambassador in Portugal. This way the marchioness had acquired some experience in diplomacy before traveling to London.
The study of ambassadorial practices and spaces offers a great opportunity to assess the relationship between women and agency. The public servant was the ambassador, who had an official mission and specific political and diplomatic tasks on behalf of the monarch he represented. The wife of the ambassador, however, did not usually have an official agenda. Despite this, she performed relevant activities that had a political meaning, such as the creation of social networks or the organisation of (and attendance of) social events. The role of the ambassadress, therefore, contributed to the consolidation of good relations between countries. In a sense, her role was similar to the queen consorts’ role, who became active political actors and cultural mediators during the Early Modern period.
Ambassadorial practices, thus, may be analysed with a gendered perspective that highlights the different social and political activities attributed to men and women in this context. These activities, when successful, affected the consolidation of strong ties in a foreign country and contributed to reinforce the image not only of the ambassadress, but also of the ambassador and of both of them as a couple. Traditionally, diplomatic male agents have received much more attention than their female partners, whose place in history and in historical sources is difficult to find. Furthermore, women’s roles during these embassies were considered less important than their husband’s missions. However, in recent years, the analysis of the relationship between gender and diplomacy has become a growing field of research, a situation described here by Carolina Blutrach. This perspective, that challenges the “peripheral” position of the ambassadress, offers the possibility to approach the case of the Almodóvars under a point of view that emphasizes not only the political role of the marquis but also the public and political position of the marchioness. We consider that social encounters, such as the assembly that took place every Wednesday at their house in London during their stay, are a good example to understand the relationship between women, agency, the public sphere and gendered diplomatic practices.
Assemblies, drawing-rooms and other social gatherings were fundamental to enlightened sociability. Many of these meetings were organised by noblewomen in their houses, who selected guests adequately in order to stimulate conversation and establish social ties. Ambassadresses also participated in these practices, as was the case for María Joaquina. The marchioness of Almodóvar gave a very good impression within the London enlightened society according to Frederik Robinson, who assisted the couple during their stay in the city. They arrived in London in July 1778, but it was not until February 1779 that the marchioness started organising assemblies. They first had to settle and make good contacts. One of these contacts was, indeed, Frederik, who used to write to his brother to inform him about social and political events. By the end of January, thus, Frederik informed Thomas about the first gathering, and explained that María Joaquina would have it, her assembly, on the following Wednesday. Here, we want to highlight the use of this possessive pronoun, that leads us to consider that this activity was hers, and not part of Almodóvar’s functions as ambassador.
This first reunion was a success, as we have described above, and it consolidated the position of Maria Joaquina as a good hostess and member of London’s enlightened society. It also strengthened the role of Almodóvar as ambassador, and of both of them as the diplomatic representatives of the Spanish monarchy. Furthermore, they complemented this positive image by participating together in other relevant social events, such as masquerades, balls, the opera or being present at the Court. To conclude, the construction of sociability networks was a crucial part of the “unofficial” agenda of the ambassadress; it exemplifies women’s agency in the consolidation of meaningful diplomatic ties between countries.
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