Never trust a man called Smith. Or rather, don’t trust him if he has a fake beard and is travelling with another man called Smith who also has a fake beard. This is one of the profound moral lessons which emerge from one of the most extraordinary incidents in 17th-century English history.
On 17 February 1623, the future Charles I and the royal favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, set off for Madrid incognito. They wore false beards, and they called themselves John and Thomas Smith. Their mission was to win the hand of the sister of the king of Spain, the Infanta María. The courtly duo were not well suited to a life in mufti. The only coins they carried were of a suspiciously large denomination. A ferryman to whom they gave a silver 20-shilling piece decided they must be noblemen who were going to fight a duel abroad, and reported them to the authorities. At Rochester they spotted an ambassador and his escort, and fled over the fields to Canterbury. There the mayor attempted to arrest them, and Buckingham had to pull off his beard, confess his identity, and claim that as admiral of the fleet he was off to arrange an impromptu inspection at Dover. The prince and the favourite then joined up with two courtiers, Endymion Porter (who had been born in Spain) and Sir Francis Cottington, and set sail for France on 19 February. They were thoroughly sick on the voyage. The small party was conspicuous enough to be identified by a group of German tourists outside Paris, so they took the precaution of buying periwigs to thicken their disguises. These were effective enough to enable them to see the sights of the French court without being identified. They then trekked down the Iberian peninsula, where they behaved like the very best kind of Englishmen abroad, rustling goats and provoking fights by making tactless remarks about people’s mothers.
On 7 March they arrived at the home of the most frigidly formal court in Europe. The English ambassador, the Earl of Bristol, was, as a contemporary source had it, ‘in a kind of astonishment’ (early modern English for ‘gobsmacked’) when a stranger pulled off his false beard to reveal that he was the heir to the English throne. The Spanish court had to pretend that Charles was invisible until an official reception could be organised for him on 16 March. To celebrate this occasion, more than three hundred prisoners were released, including all Englishmen serving in the galleys, and candles were ordered to be lit in every window in Madrid. ‘The voyage of the Knights of adventure’, as the secretary of state Edward Conway called it, finally seemed to be taking off. Buckingham recorded that Charles was in love: ‘Baby Charles is so touched by the heart that he confessed that all he ever saw is nothing to her.’
Poor Charles was not to get the girl. The infanta declared that she would rather take to a nunnery or die a martyr than marry a heretic. James I obligingly sent out a brace of high Anglican churchmen to convince the Spanish that England could do things with smells and bells too, but this was not enough to persuade them. One of these unfortunate clerics never arrived, having been jolted off his mule en route to Madrid. It rather sums the whole venture up. Also among the larger entourage sent out to reinforce Charles in making his suit was the king’s fool, Archie Armstrong. He had been kitted out with a wildly expensive new suit for the trip, and the climate clearly agreed with his sense of humour, which was always dry and sharp. He saw more of the infanta than Prince Charles ever did, and seems to have charmed her. When she remarked how extraordinary it was that the Duke of Bavaria’s tiny Catholic army should have ousted the Protestant forces from Prague, Archie merrily reminded her that it was equally extraordinary that only ten ships had made it home from the Spanish Armada. History does not relate how loudly she laughed.
The prince’s negotiations were impeded by his being caught up in a hideously complex network of international negotiations and misunderstandings which he only ever partially grasped. The Spanish assumed that his sudden arrival could only mean that he intended to convert to Catholicism, but were rapidly disabused of this misapprehension. Charles himself had been led to believe that a marriage, which had been the subject of negotiations between the two countries since at least 1604 (when his elder brother was the prospective groom), was more or less signed and sealed. The Spanish ambassador to London, old Aesop Gondomar (as Jonson called him – he was fond of telling animal tales), very much wanted to be in with James I, and as a result persistently exaggerated the extent of his influence over and knowledge of the inner workings of Spanish government. He encouraged Charles to believe that the marriage would go ahead, and in a letter of September 1622 which Glyn Redworth has unearthed in the British Library, he urged Buckingham that it was time for the prince to ‘mount’ Spain. In fact, Gondomar was seriously out of touch with opinion at home, and was more respected by James I than by his own king. He never appreciated that the marriage would be impossible without Charles’s conversion, or that the Spanish would demand toleration of Catholicism in England to an extent to which Stuart Parliaments would never have assented. Gondomar remained convinced that the religious issue did not matter much because he believed the English people were all eager to return to Catholicism.
Once Charles and his ever growing entourage were established in Madrid, the Spanish faced a serious problem: how to get rid of them without falling out irretrievably with England. Felipe IV’s favourite, the Count of Olivares (whose memorable mutton-chop whiskers and multiple chins were recorded in loving detail by Velásquez), engaged in some exceptional skulduggery to make sure that the match did not come off. He later boasted that he had single-handedly scuppered the whole plan. The diplomatic way of saying no to Charles was to make the pope say no to him instead. A papal dispensation was needed for the Catholic infanta to marry the Protestant Charles, and the terms of this dispensation were critical. At first, the pope had been happy to insist on greater toleration for British Catholics as the price of the match; after Olivares got to him in April 1623, the condition was that ‘free and public’ exercise of the Roman Catholic religion be approved by the English council and Parliament. Olivares had Charles cornered, and effectively imprisoned in Spain until he was prepared to offer more concessions than he could ever in practice deliver. Then the pope died, and the dispensation had to be sought again. Meanwhile, the Spanish insisted that the infanta stay in Spain until it was clear that James was actually improving the conditions of English Catholics. And meanwhile, too, a large junta of Spanish clerics sat to determine, with endless scholastic distinctions, the conditions that should be attached to the marriage. The summer got hotter, and people on both sides began snarling at each other.
Charles’s response to these nasty tactics was entirely straightforward: he set about lying and scheming in return. As a result of his lies, as John Elliot wryly puts it, ‘the dishonours were ultimately even.’ He no doubt still wanted the infanta, but through the later summer of 1623, as messages and counter-messages shuttled between England and Spain, he adopted a sublimely duplicitous negotiating strategy. He agreed to all the demands which Olivares had been quite sure were impossible for him to agree to. He accepted that there should be no further persecution of Catholics and no further laws against them in the three kingdoms. He even persuaded his father (who never had any difficulty remembering 5 November, when English Catholics had apparently tried to blow him up) to go along with him. Everything was signed and sealed in a most royal fashion: Charles left Madrid on 30 August 1623, having told the Earl of Bristol that he should give his consent to marriage by proxy within ten days of the arrival of the dispensation from the new pope. A stately pillar was erected on the site of his departure from his future brother-in-law Felipe IV to mark the solemn occasion. It’s an indication that Felipe at least may have believed the marriage would happen. But Charles had learned a trick or two in Spain. Once he was safely on his way, he coolly countermanded the orders for his proxy marriage, telling Bristol not to go ahead until he was assured that the infanta would not take herself to a nunnery after the match in order to avoid its consummation. With that, the noble prince did a bunk back to England.
There were many reasons why the whole courtship failed. Neither party ever understood the other, and it was not clear that anyone apart from Charles really wanted the match. But the ultimate significance of the affair derives from its complex relationship to a larger setting of international politics. In 1623, English foreign policy was dominated by one issue: the Palatinate. James I’s daughter Elizabeth had in 1613 married the Protestant Frederick, the elector palatine. In 1619 the Bohemian estates chose Frederick as king of Bohemia, and in the process ousted Archduke Ferdinand, who was a particularly devout and intolerant Catholic. Unfortunately for Frederick, Archduke Ferdinand was elected Holy Roman Emperor immediately after he was denied the throne of Bohemia. Spanish and imperial troops ejected Frederick and the ‘Winter Queen’ Elizabeth from Prague (so called because she entered her kingdom in triumph in October 1619 and fled in November 1620), and seized much of the Palatinate. Over the next few months the hotter sort of Protestants in England called on James I to support European Protestantism in the form of his daughter.
The major historiographical debate about the Spanish match is concerned with what, if anything, it had to do with a desire to help Elizabeth of Bohemia. Old school historians had it that the Stuarts were already autocratically detached from the interests of their people by the 1620s. As a result, they tended to see the Spanish match as a frivolous flirtation with Catholicism by an irresponsible prince who failed to understand the level of popular hostility to a Catholic match. Revisionist historians, who wish to see the Civil War as a consequence of short-term miscalculations rather than of a long-standing and growing alienation of subjects from Stuart tyranny, claim instead that James was using the Spanish match as the majority of his countrymen would have wished, to help ease the situation in central Europe and diminish the Catholic threat. Certainly, it would have made some sense for James to have reasoned that if the sister of the Spanish king married the heir to the English throne, then the Spanish king would be unwilling to help the Holy Roman Emperor drive the daughter of the king of England from her realm. By the end of the affair, this is the outcome that James I seemed to want: the final condition which he imposed on the match, after Charles had left Spain and the agreement was in tatters anyway, was that Felipe should help return the Palatinate to his daughter.
For Glyn Redworth, though, the story is rather more complex. James believed that a strategic set of unions between Protestant and Catholic dynasties might end discord in Europe. James also urgently needed money to pay for troops to defend his daughter’s interests in the Palatinate, which might be more readily obtained from a hefty Spanish dowry than from a refractory House of Commons. For Redworth, it was only after the event that Charles and Buckingham made the association between the Spanish match and the fate of Elizabeth of Bohemia. The Spanish match was primarily a hare-brained scheme cooked up by a foolish prince, who was goaded on by an ill-informed Spanish ambassador, and which foundered because two cultures failed to understand each others’ motives and priorities. This view is in many respects extremely convincing. In retrospect, it does seem very hard to believe that the Habsburg Catholic ruler of Spain would in a month of (heavily ceremonial) Sundays do anything which ran counter to the interests of his uncle the Habsburg Catholic Holy Roman Emperor. If James, Buckingham or Charles thought that marrying Charles to a Catholic princess would help the cause of Protestant Europe, then they must have had their heads in the clouds.
But there is a problem with, or at least a consequence of, Redworth’s thesis. In order to sustain his argument that the Spanish match really had little or nothing to do with Bohemia, he has to be deeply unsympathetic to Charles, whom he sees as a hot-headed fool ‘puffed up with an almost adolescent recklessness’. Redworth’s Charles only belatedly realised that he could pretend his mission was motivated by a desire to help his sister. This is a beguilingly simple account of his motives early in the courtship, but it is also curiously flat. Charles was not just a hothead in love. He read the wrong kinds of book (for an heir to the throne, anyway), and thought you could behave as though you were in them. Early 17th-century autobiographies do sometimes present their heroes as knights errant in allegorical romances. Sir Kenelm Digby, who wrote one such autobiography, was in Spain throughout the marriage negotiations (he was a relative of the English ambassador), and returned to England with Charles. Prose romance enjoyed a growing association with political troubleshooting throughout the late 16th and early 17th centuries: in Sidney’s New Arcadia the princes Musidorus and Pyrocles range around Europe in disguise, acting as European constitutional troubleshooters and wooing princesses with tales of their political adventures. John Barclay’s Argenis, a neo-Latin romance, was a European hit from its first publication in 1621, and its tales of knights and swooning lovers were frequently decoded as covert tales about political machinations in Europe.
It is no accident that James I referred to Buckingham and Charles as ‘sweet boys, and dear venturous knights, worthy to be put in a new romanso’. Loving romances, and living them, too, ran in the family: Elizabeth of Bohemia, according to her granddaughter, ‘thought of nothing but plays, masquerades, and the reading of romances’. Charles was being fashionable, even slightly ahead of his times, in dashing across Europe in a false beard: his culture made him think he knew that gallant acts of social transgression were the way to a princess’s heart and to the liberation of beleaguered states. Redworth aptly notes at one point that Charles could be motivated by literary example: one of his more ridiculous attempts to make contact with the infanta, who was in the flesh rather less animated even than her portrait by Velásquez, was to climb over a wall and leap down before her. This was probably an imitation of one of the principal actions in Rojas’s bestselling La Celestina, of which Charles bought a copy in Spain. But Redworth is too keen to see Charles as just a silly young wag who was carried away by the hope of some exotic totty – or, as he puts it, ‘As for Charles, his wish to be united with her whose "idea is graven in my heart” needs no explanation.’ Love always needs cultural explanation. And Charles partly shaped his actions after books.
The wider cultural dimension of the Spanish match may also have exerted a greater influence over the ways in which the participants represented their actions than Redworth allows. The voyage to Spain created just the kinds of great unfocused expectation about European peace and erotic happiness that sets poets in a frenzy, and the literary evidence strongly suggests that, throughout the summer of 1623, English writers with links to the court were seeing a connection between the Spanish marriage and the fate of Bohemia. Ben Jonson set the two affairs side by side, as though keen to keep them together but anxious not to press for a direct causal link, in poems written in the very delicate period around June-July 1623 (at about the same time he was probably translating Barclay’s Argenis). His ‘Epistle Answering to One That Asked to be Sealed of the Tribe of Ben’ makes the conjunction, as does one of his worst poems, ‘On the dedication of the King’s new Cellar to Bacchus’. In the new ‘cellar’ (which was more like a grotto or private drinking-space), Jonson imagines that King James
gratulates the passage
Of some well-wrought embassage,
Whereby he may knit sure up
The wishèd peace of Europe,
Or else a health advances,
To put his court in dances,
And set us all on skipping,
When with his royal shipping
The narrow seas are shady,
And Charles brings home the lady.
‘Sure up’/‘Europe’ is a hiccuping drunken rhyme so bad as to acknowledge that the reality is likely to be harder to achieve than it sounds. Jonson is careful to separate slightly events in the Palatinate from those in Spain: skipping (prompted no doubt by a bit of sipping) comes between the ‘embassage’ and Charles bringing home the lady. But there is no doubt that for James’s subjects and panegyrists, the Spanish match was being cautiously linked with the ‘wishèd peace of Europe’ in the summer of 1623.
It’s a bit hard to believe that the linkage was not there in the minds of Charles and Buckingham as they set off. Certainly, the main Spanish witness to the negotiations, Fray Franciso, felt that the English had all along concealed that their prime concern was with the fate of the Palatinate. Thomas Howell (who was another witness on the spot) records Gondomar as saying that ‘there is no other way to regain the Palatinate, but by this match.’ But if Redworth is right, and Charles when he set off really just wanted to ‘mount’ Spain, then what may have happened is that the motives of the chief actors in the debacle gradually caught up with the representations of those motives that were circulating at home. Although Jonson’s poem on the King’s cellar looked crashingly tactless by the time Charles returned without the lady on 5 October 1623, it was sketching out motives which Charles and Buckingham eventually claimed as their own.
Prince Charles’s reception when he returned to England empty-handed was far more enthusiastic than it would have been if he had indeed brought home the lady. A real danger that there might be a Catholic heir to the throne had been averted. As a result Charles was greeted as warmly by the English on his return as he had been by the Spanish on his arrival. There were more fireworks, much ringing of bells, and more prisoners were set free. The released prisoners and manufacturers of fireworks were among the very few winners in the affair. Archie the fool was another: he claimed to have received a state pension from Felipe IV which eventually amounted to £1500. But all that Prince Charles had to show for his months in Spain was a desire for revenge, along with a few jewels and gloves bestowed on him by the infanta. He also had four camels and an elephant, which had been given to him by the Spanish king. The elephant, which cost its royal owner £275 a year to feed, plus a gallon of wine a day to warm its blood in winter, must surely have been a white one.