Count Gondomar’s brilliant failure

Renaissance Diplomacy, the Penguin Books cover from 1964

Don Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, the Spanish Count of Gondomar, was Phillip II’s ambassador to James I of England from 1613-18 and again from 1619-22. Garrett Mattingly reached this penultimate conclusion of Gondomar’s brilliant tenure, in his 1955 book, Renaissance Diplomacy:

“That year, 1621, the ambassador who had begun his embassy by his defiance in Portsmouth harbor was at once the dictator of England’s foreign policy, the chosen companion of the king’s leisure hours, and his closest friend. It would be hard to name an ambassador before or since who had attained such a position, or exerted by sheer personal force such influence upon the affairs of Europe. Only years of daily contacts, of careful study and preparation could have achieved so much. Gondomar’s success illustrates the potential of the resident ambassador at its highest.”

Don Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, Count of Gondomar

In all my reading, I remember no episode that reveals so clearly the schemes of monarchs, the vagaries of diplomacy, or the failures of both.

Gondomar was a brilliant, wealthy man, appointed to his post when Spain’s power was “little more than a husk” and her prestige “scarcely diminished.” Deliveries of silver bullion from South America were declining, but the crown couldn’t stop spending and the bureaucracy kept growing. The vaunted Spanish Fleet “existed largely on paper” after being defeated by the Dutch at Gibraltar.

“But the king of Spain was still lord of the Americas and of the navigation and commerce of Africa and Asia where, so far, the Dutch and the English had no more than a toe hold. In Europe, he still ruled Belgium and Franche-Comte, Milan, Naples, Sicily, all the islands of the western Mediterranean and the whole Iberian peninsula, and was still, not just in the eyes of James I but of most European statesmen, the most powerful of kings. It was the chance for diplomacy to regain the initiative, and reassert the domination which arms had lost since the defeat of the Invincible Armada.”

The Thirty Years War loomed on the horizon. Polyxena Lobkovic, a Bohemian noblewoman in Prague, observed that, “Things are now swiftly coming to the pass where either the Papists will settle their score with the Protestants, or the Protestants with the Papists.” And so it came to pass.

But it might have been different, without the brilliant Gondomar pulling strings in London.

“Everybody knew that the coming war, though it might announce itself as between Catholics and Protestants … the worst threat to Spain was England. A combined Anglo-Dutch fleet could sweep the Spanish from the seas, English money and the prestige of the greatest Protestant monarchy could weld the north into a formidable coalition, and the assurance of English hostility to Spain would be an almost irresistible temptation to France and Savoy and perhaps Venice, as well, to fall upon the stricken giant. The southern Netherlands would certainly be lost and how much more besides no man could tell. In London, Gondomar talked big about the power of his master, but he had no illusions about the inner rottenness of the Spanish monarchy. A coalition war could mean the end of Spanish greatness. …

“His timing was masterly. Just at the moment that James’s son-in-law, Frederick of the Palatinate, was summoned to Bohemia, James took the bait which Gondomar had been dangling: the marriage of Prince Charles to a Spanish princess.”

And now the denouement. Gondomar succeeds in keeping England out of the war. Spain invades Bohemia, snubs the Prince’s marital ambitions, widens its war against the Dutch, and encourages Ferdinand in Germany. War explodes across the continent.

Mattingly sums it up:

“The result of Gondomar’s skill, therefore, was not to save his country from war, but to help entangle it in a continuous series of wars which sapped its energies for the next forty years and removed it thereafter from the ranks of the major powers. Gondomar could not see so far ahead, but he may have seen that, had he not succeeded in diverting James, Spinola might not have marched, the war in the Germanies might have ended in compromise, and Spain might have avoided the unpredictable dangers of the smoldering ground-fire spreading across northern Europe, Gondomar’s success as a diplomat meant the ruin of his aims as a statesman. Perhaps he and his friend De Vera discussed the paradox as one more instance of the difficulty of reconciling the two chief duties of the ambassador, to serve one’s prince and to serve peace. They recorded no solution.”


Vermeer’s Hat is in the Mail

It’s a good thing this book isn’t about art history, or even about Vermeer, because then it wouldn’t be very useful for my purposes. It hasn’t arrived yet, but I’m itching to open the book that I ordered, used from Amazon, for $4.46. I love good, cheap books!

Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World

English language ‘originated in Turkey’

The headline of the BBC article overstates it just a tad — they’re talking about the Indo-European family of languages — but the news is still exciting.

Modern Indo-European languages – which include English – originated in Turkey about 9,000 years ago, researchers say.

Their findings differ from conventional theory that these languages originated 5,000 years ago in south-west Russia.

Reading this, I was immediately reminded of The Baltic Origins of Homer’s Epic Tales, which I read a couple years ago.

… readers will discover how Vinci, working from the evidence of place-names and geographical features … comes to agree with these early social scientists and to conclude that “the original homeland of the Indo-Europeans lay in the northernmost part of Scandinavia …”

Trying to write anything else here would add less than nothing to a topic that is so fascinating to me that it defies description. If you haven’t read Felice Vinci’s book, go out and buy a copy today. You won’t be disappointed.

Tycho, Kepler and the Modern Philosopher’s Stone

Awhile back, I read Tycho and Kepler: The Unlikely Partnership That Forever Changed Our Understanding of the Heavens.

Today I read the Modern Philosopher’s Stone and was reminded of what I wrote in my novelist’s notebook:

Kepler said, about himself, that he was in a state of “permanent repentance about lost time and a permanent loss of time through my own fault.”

Naturally, this has nothing to do with what my fellow blogger writes about hydrogen and taxes. Why should it? I am merely reminded that Johannes Kepler — who was hired by Tycho Brahe — is considered by some to be the father of modern science because he was one of the first men to ask “why”.

Why did the sun revolve around the earth? Before Kepler, no one was very much concerned with the question “why”, because there wasn’t very much hard evidence, nor was any way to add to the evidence that had already been collected. So, for hundreds of years scientists and scholars pretty much ignored the problem.

Everything changed after Kepler published his Laws of Planetary Motion between 1609 and 1619.

The fact that I’m writing this blog entry, instead of continuing my novel, is my own damn fault. And even though I am not, nor will I ever be, like Johannes Kepler, I can’t help feeling that permanent sense of repentance.

The Ring, The Whiffe and The Gulp

Writing accurately about the 1600’s has proven to be a serious challenge, especially since I’m focusing on the lives of common people.

What were the “common” attitudes about sex, alcohol, witchcraft, smoking, marriage, death, and a host of other issues?

It’s fairly easy to find out what James I thought of smoking, since he wrote his “Counterblaste to Tobacco” in 1604.

For James, smoking was “a custom loathesome to the eye, hatefull to the nose, harmfull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and in the blacke stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomlesse.”

Nevertheless, the “reeking gallants” of the day displayed such fashionable tricks as “The Ring” and “The Gulp”.

Alfred Dunhill, in The Gentle Art of Smoking, notes that the first men who brought tobacco to England from Virginia in 1586 popularized the practice of “drinking” tobacco.

It’s exciting to find details which bring a story alive, and the more I look, the more I find. In a wine bar in Stralsund, one of my characters drinks tobacco and suffers in the way one might expect. The question is, should he live or die?

Stuff from my Notebook #1

The practice of writing down my ideas in a notebook started a few years ago. When I was younger, I hated the idea. Now that I’m old(er) the habit is bearing fruit. For instance, on page 11 of the notebook my wife gave me for our anniversary (paper), I find this:

1634: England’s government begins to use the common hangman to burn books, as a way of intimidating heretics. Daniel Dafoe heard a book publisher remark that this was the best way to boost sales.

Since my notebook is just for ideas, I sometimes don’t include the source (a habit I hope won’t bite me later). Like lice, which appear later on in the form of this idea:

Book idea. The History of Itching. A story of the human condition. Folklore remedies, devices, social taboos. Pleasure and pain, fetishes. Dogs and the “robot leg”. Do amphibians itch? But there’s more! The book comes with a complimentary back-scratcher from Indonesia, hand-picked from the finest quality bamboo!

Re-reading the idea, I searched the Web and found an article at Scientific American, Of lice and men: An itchy history.

I do believe there are some new ideas under the sun, but I don’t claim to have many unique ones myself. I’ll be posting them here occasionally, for whatever they’re worth…

Beauty and Cruelty

The 17th century was a time of innovation and devastation on a worldwide scale. Kind of like the 20th century, only less automated. Researching my latest novel has been an adventure of discovery for me, and one of the hardest things to understand is the attitude toward cruelty displayed by virtually all levels of society. The images below, from Braun and Hogenberg’s Cities of the World (Civitates Orbis Terrarum), illustrate perfectly the beauty and cruelty that suffused the world. I suppose it should be easier for me to comprehend, given the situation in Somalia today (just one example of many), but I’m glad that I have that difficulty.

Imagine yourself on the road from Dresden to Prague today. And then imagine seeing this as you travel the 90 miles:

“Above seven score [1 score = 20] gallowses and wheels, where thieves were hanged, some fresh and some half rotten, and the carcasses of murderers broken limb after limb on the wheels.”  (From The Thirty Years War, by C.V. Wedgwood.)

Mapping the History of Istanbul

My forthcoming novel begins in the Istanbul of the 1630’s. Murad IV is Sultan. Coffee and alcohol are evil, and their consumption is punishable by death or worse. Mina, a slave girl captured by Ottoman troops in Hungary, tries to escape after years of captivity.

She kept her head down, but her mind was alert to the people and sounds around her, especially for the distinctive sounds of soldiers and their swords. The city was shutting down for the night. Stopping at the intersection where the Grand Bazaar ended and the Beyazit Mosque formed a barrier to the park beyond, Mina looked backward down the boulevard and gasped at the beauty of the Aya Sofya. Minarets jutted like spears of light into the dark sky, the circular dome was lit by a thousand lamps, the square perimeter dotted with more, and she knew that even this impressive display would be nothing when compared to the Night of Power as three thousand slaves would set afire twenty thousand oil lamps and all of Istanbul would witness the power and might – and the humility, she thought, remembering how she and her fellow captives were incessantly reminded of the humility – of Allah’s greatest servant, Sultan Murad IV.

Old maps of Istanbul, Anatolia, Cappadocia, Armenia — and beyond — have been critical to my novel. Here are a few maps of the city known by many names through the ages: Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul, Stamboul, and the Sublime Porte. For more maps, a good starting point is the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but three years of research have yielded many other troves of digital mapping deliciousness. Leave me a comment if you’d like me to post them for you…

Update: Scroll down for the maps. But first, a few links in response to a comment asking about the historic architecture of Istanbul.

Update: Cartography web sites. Not all of these sites contain maps of Istanbul, but I’ve found that one resource often leads to another. In my research phase, I had some very specific goals; and although I bookmarked most of the places I found, I didn’t (couldn’t) review every site thoroughly.

Update: Documents. A collection of old and new documents describing Istanbul.

Carta Marina

In 1539, Olaus Magnus, an exiled Swedish priest living in Rome, published a map of Northern Europe, the first accurate description from Iceland in the west to Russia in the east. The original was huge, made of nine wood lithograph prints. A 40″ x 30″ print hangs above my desk, done on canvas by the great folks at Bay Photo. More than just beautiful, it’s also inspirational; the detailed drawings of fantastic sea creatures, boatwrights, soldiers, men fishing through the ice and killing snakes with clubs, cannons and archers, travelers and kings … these images take me back to a time when the world was largely unknown. Or so we think today…