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.”


2 thoughts on “Count Gondomar’s brilliant failure

  1. Pingback: Travel in Spain, Baiona, Monterreal Fortress | London Life with Bradshaw's Hand Book

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