The Political and Cultural Role of Ambassadresses

Carolina Blutrach works as Postdoctoral Researcher at the ERC Project CIRGEN (ERC AdG 787015). She received her Ph.D. in History and Civilization from the European University Institute in Florence (2009). She works on the social and cultural history of the European aristocracy from a gender perspective in the Early Modern period, with a particular interest in written culture, material culture, forms and uses of memory and the history of family.

carolina.blutrach@uv.es


Ambassadors and embassies, because of their transnational character, have been regarded as privileged agents and spaces for the analysis of cultural transfers and mediation. Travel, encounters with other cultures – some further-removed than others-, the ability to speak other languages- especially French -, the exchange of gifts, learning about each court’s particular ceremonies, participation in social and cultural events beyond the palace walls, and the need to adapt to local customs were elements intrinsic to the ambassador’s function. In fact, all of the above, according to the manuals for ambassadors, contributed to the success of the political mission, since the ambassador’s participation in the courtly and everyday sociability of the diplomatic destination was necessary in order to obtain information and thus gain the trust and friendship of other ministers and of men and women connected to the court. What about the role of women in diplomatic relations?

In recent decades, court studies have incorporated women into the study of courtly culture and politics: queens (regnants, consorts, regents, dowagers) and their entourage have been the object of considerable attention in numerous works that have underlined the political and cultural role of female households and of women. Within the conceptualisation of the political culture of early modern courts, it is clear that the masculine/feminine division does not tie in with the division between formal and informal power, except for the fact that women, apart from queens or regents, were not expected to sit on councils, a situation they shared with the vast majority of men in court. Although women were excluded from processes of formalised decision-making and official records thereof, the ruler and his advisors could choose to employ women (as well as men) in roles behind the scenes as intermediaries or agents in diplomacy and decision-making. Through trust and proximity, they influenced political decisions, benefitting, at the same time, their families, clients and friends. In early modern court culture, formal and informal, public and private dimensions, were inevitably intertwined, and they can only be studied if one addresses the constant interaction between men and women.

With regard to embassies, it is true that hardly any women were officially appointed as ambassadors in their own right. Exceptions included Catherine of Aragón, Renée du Bec-Crespin, the Countess of Armagnac and the Princess of Lillebonne, the first of these early in the sixteenth century and the other three during the seventeenth century. Women were not appointed as representatives of the monarch throughout the eighteenth century. However, there were numerous ambassadors’ wives. Many diplomatic missions lasted several years, and a high percentage of ambassadors travelled to their posts in the company of their spouses. According to the treatise The rights and duties of the female envoy (Moser, 1754) the origin of the designation “ambassadress” dates back to 1585, when the papal authorities assigned the title ambassadrice to the wife of the Count of Olivares, Spanish ambassador to Rome. From then onwards, ambassadresses, albeit without official status (women could not exercise public office), were gradually granted the same privileges, immunity and treatment as their husbands. Early modern diplomacy clearly depended upon the participation of women. Since the creation of the function of ambassadress in the sixteenth century, they have risen as a force within diplomatic culture and thus it has been possible to speak of a “diplomatic working couple”. Ambassadors’ wives, like their husbands, crossed geographical, linguistic and cultural frontiers, participated in court and society ceremonials – alone or in the company of their husbands – played an active role in political negotiation and communication in unofficial circles and exercised cultural mediation in highly diverse ways and spaces, depending on the context.

How can we learn about the diplomatic agency of ambassadors’ wives when their presence in official sources is so limited, beyond their participation in ceremonies or conflicts of precedence? Fortunately, some of these women left written evidence (letters, diaries, news articles) that make it possible to study their experiences as ambassadresses and their agency as political and cultural mediators. A well-known example is the Embassy Letters written by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu during her years in Turkey (1717-1718) as the wife of the English ambassador to Istanbul. In another format, we have the accounts of the journeys made by other female travellers, such as those of Lady Anne Fanshawe, wife of England’s ambassador to Spain (1664-1666), who wrote about her diplomatic travels in memoirs she dedicated to her children. There are also other shorter pieces, such as the “Extract from a letter” about Sweden written by María Agustina Romana de Siles y Cuenca, who accompanied her husband on his three diplomatic postings (Stockholm, The Hague and London), published in the Spanish press in 1797. However, in other cases, there are no hand-written documents, and reconstructions of the experience and agency of these women have to be via indirect and disperse references included in the diaries of their husbands and other ambassadors and in the correspondence of people – men and women of their circle during their diplomatic postings. What is evident is that ambassadresses played an important political and cultural role, making use of their family connections and friendships, of correspondence and of physical proximity (whether in the private apartments of royal domestic life or in the salons they attended and/or themselves hosted).[1] Their social, relational, economic and cultural capital enabled these aristocratic women to act alone, creating their own circles, and operate alongside their husbands as political and cultural mediators and newsgatherers across frontiers.

[1] See the blog entry by my colleague Laura Guinot: “The Assembly of the Spanish Ambassadress in London”


Bibliography

Akkerman, Nadine and Brigit Houben, (eds.). The Politics of Female Household. Ladies in-Waiting across Early Modern Europe. Leiden: Brill, 2014.

Allen, Gemma. “The Rise of the Ambassadress: English Ambassadorial Wives and Early Modern Diplomatic Culture”, The Historical Journal 62, no. 3 (2019): 617-638.

Anderson, Roberta, Laura Oliván Santaliestra and Suna Suner (eds.). Gender and Diplomacy: Women and Men in European and Ottoman Embassies from the 15th to the 18th Century. Vienna: Hollitzer Verlag, in press.

Bienassis, Loïc. “Ammbassadrice”. In Diccionaire des femmes des lumières, vol.1, edited by Huguette Krief and Valérie André. 51-57. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2015.

Borgognoni, Ezequiel, “Marie Gigault de Bellefonds, Ambassadress of France. Gender, Power and Diplomacy at the Court of Charles II of Spain, 1679-1681”, Librosdelacorte.es, no. 20, year 12 (Spring-Summer, 2020).

Kühnel, Florian. “‘Minister-like cleverness, understanding, and influence of affairs’: Ambassadresses in everyday business and courtly ceremonies at the turn of the eighteenth century”. In Practices of Diplomacy in Early Modern World, c. 1410-1800, edited by Tracey A. Sowerby and Jan Hennings, 130-142. London: Routledge, 2017.

Oliván Santaliestra, Laura. “Gender, Work and Diplomacy in Baroque Spain: The Ambassadorial Couples of the Holy Roman Empire as Arbeitspaare”. Gender & History 29, no. 2 (August 2017): 423-445.

Sluga, Glenda and Carolyn James (eds.). Women, Diplomacy and International Politics since 1500: New York: Routledge, 2016.

Watanabe-O’Kelley, Helen and Adam Morton (eds.). Queens Consort, Cultural Transfer and European Politics. London: Routledge, 2016.


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