Journal of the Northern Renaissance

~ Radical Open Access ~

Review: Confessional Diplomacy in Early Modern Europe

by Elvira Tamus

Roberta Anderson and Charlotte Backerra (eds.), Confessional Diplomacy in Early Modern Europe (London: Routledge, 2021). ISBN 9780367532314, 276 pp., £36.99 PB.

Cover of Confessional Diplomacy in Early Modern Europe[1] This collection of essays was born out of the Splendid Encounters conferences, organised annually since 2013 in various European cities by the Premodern Diplomats Network (PDN). It builds upon recent scholarly developments investigating the role of religion in diplomacy. The editors, Roberta Anderson and Charlotte Backerra, have succeeded in compiling essays from an exceptionally wide range of geographical areas, many of which are usually neglected in English-language literature. The studies are based on the argument that the ‘confessional and religious divide was a key element in the diplomatic affairs of premodern Europe’ (1). In their Introduction, Anderson and Backerra reveal their aim to highlight the activities of various individuals, intermediaries who conducted foreign affairs ‘on the ground’, and thereby contribute to the school of ‘new diplomatic history’. By dividing the volume into three parts, they manage to throw light on the significance of confessions in foreign relations from different perspectives.

[2] In the opening chapter of the first part, which is dedicated to ‘Papal diplomacy’, Dorota Gregorowicz explores the Holy See’s stance towards the elections of kings during the Polish-Lithuanian interregna in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In her analysis of the papal diplomats’ correspondence and diaries, Gregorowicz demonstrates that confessional concerns dominated their activities in the Commonwealth, as Rome was interested in the election of a Catholic monarch to strengthen the papacy’s power in the fight against the Ottomans, the Protestants, and the Orthodox Churches. Béla Vilmos Mihalik investigates the importance of Pope Innocent IX’s Holy League in the war against the Ottoman Empire and for the Pax Christiana. Mihalik meticulously shows us the interaction between the Holy See and the Holy Roman Empire concerning the struggle against the ‘common enemy’ of Christendom, the French-imperial rivalry, and the Catholic-Protestant conflicts of Europe. Cristina Bravo Lozano completes this part with her study on the activities of the Irish Franciscan Fr Bonaventure de Burgo, papal envoy across European courts, to protect Catholics in early eighteenth-century Ireland. She asserts that Pope Clement XI succeeded in using the international political situation to enhance Rome’s peacemaking role and to strengthen Catholicism in Protestant areas.

[3] The second part, on ‘Clerics as diplomats’, starts off with Katharina Beiergrößlein’s essay analysing the diplomatic missions of a condemned heretic, Friar Robert Barnes, to the Schmalkaldic League and Denmark in service of Henry VIII of England. She argues that the friar’s status as a heretic was actually beneficial when seeking support for his king in Protestant countries, as English diplomacy in the 1530s greatly depended on the ramifications of Henry’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon and separation from Rome. Ernesto Oyarbide Magaña draws our attention to the diplomatic negotiations of the Dominican friar and confessor Diego de la Fuente with the English courtiers during the Spanish ambassador’s absence between 1618 and 1620. With his inquiry into the friar’s letters, Magaña proves that the secondary members of the diplomatic staff, commonly overlooked in scholarly literature, could participate effectively in the forming of Anglo-Spanish relations, and thereby in European politics. In his excellent chapter on Diego de Quiroga, the Capuchin confessor of Holy Roman Empress María Anna of Austria, Rubén González Cuerva explores the double role that a politically talented clergyman could play at the imperial court in the 1630s and 1640s. He argues that Quiroga’s ‘combination of religious charisma, royal service, court patronage, and diplomatic authority’ matched the Spanish court’s endeavours to employ multiskilled envoys with the ability to ‘switch between different roles and allegiances and to communicate and agree with the many, often confronted, political actors involved’ (30).

[4] ‘Religion as a matter of diplomacy’ is dealt with in the third, longest, and most heterogeneous part of the book. Roberta Anderson takes us to early seventeenth-century London and concentrates on its Catholic embassy chapels, which served as both home and office to the ambassadors and their entourage. She explains how the concept of the inviolate embassy was becoming acknowledged by European princes by looking at the ways in which Catholic ambassadors aided English Catholics in the Protestant kingdom, and the anti-Catholic responses triggered by these practices under James VI & I. Steve Murdoch provides us with an examination of a peculiar case: the activities of the Scottish Calvinist ambassador Sir James Spens in the Lutheran court of Sweden, and how he became a member of the Swedish House of Nobility in the early seventeenth century. Murdoch convincingly states that Spens built up this special career thanks to the social capital that he utilised to create a Scottish Calvinist network of agents and spies working for Swedish interests across the continent, particularly in Poland-Lithuania. The daily lives of diplomats serving in the first half of the eighteenth century in countries where they belonged to religious minorities are investigated by Charlotte Backerra, with a focus on London and Vienna. This essay introduces us to their complex task of helping co-religionists while preserving good relations between their home and host countries, and highlights the developing practice of maintaining ‘reciprocal existence of chapels with near diplomatic immunity’ (191). In the following chapter, Martin Bakeš and Jiří Kubeš provide a summary of the historiography concerning the chapels of the Holy Roman Empire’s embassies in Lutheran Saxony and Scandinavia, and point out the conflict between foreigners and locals as well as the material aspects of such research. Bakeš and Kubeš also explore the Catholic chaplains’ clandestine strategies, such as the establishment of a wide network of diplomatic and lay contacts along with postal relations with foreign Catholic patrons. In the book’s last study, Gábor Kármán looks at how Ferenc II Rákóczi, leader of the Hungarian anti-Habsburg uprising of 1703-1711, strove to legitimise his rule by applying political grievances in his communication with European rulers. Kármán demonstrates that Rákóczi was able to get the attention of the Protestant King Charles XII of Sweden, although only to a limited extent, by emphasising the legacy of the Protestant cause and their shared confessional interests.

[5] Kármán rightfully claims in his afterword that this volume helps us ‘understand many facets of the intriguing issue of the conflict between the religious and the political in early modern Europe’ (252). The attention paid to East Central European territories such as Hungary and Poland-Lithuania and the inclusion of a truly broad scope of diplomatic actors and institutions are particularly welcome. Nonetheless, a greater emphasis on the rather underrepresented sixteenth century would have improved our insight into how cross-confessional encounters influenced foreign affairs from the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, during the age of confessionalisation, to the end of the early modern period. Overall, this book will prove beneficial to a diverse readership consisting of historians researching European politics, diplomacy and religion in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, in addition to scholars interested in the methods and approaches of microhistory and the new diplomatic history.

University of Cambridge, October 2022

Next Post

Previous Post

1 Comment

  1. Dr Roberta Anderson October 16, 2022

    Thanks, much appreciated.

Leave a Reply

© 2023 Journal of the Northern Renaissance

Theme by Anders Norén