More 17th century diplomatic incidents: the King of Denmark and his unfortunate gesture to the hero of the Armada

Dr Ben Coates, Senior Research Fellow on the Lords 1603-60 section, relates a less-than-diplomatic exchange in 1606 between King Christian IV of Denmark and the then Lord Admiral, the earl of Nottingham…

Contrary to popular belief, Sir Francis Drake did not command the English fleet which defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588. That man was the then Lord Admiral Charles Howard, 2nd Lord Howard of Effingham , later 1st earl of Nottingham. The prestige of the victory helped ensure that Nottingham was still Lord Admiral in 1606 when the King of Denmark, Christian IV, arrived in England to visit his brother-in-law James I.

On 11 August, the eve of Christian’s return home, he entertained the English king and queen and their court, including Nottingham, on board his ship. James was unwilling to stay too long and assigned Nottingham to keep an eye on the time. Accordingly the Admiral put his pocket-watch forward by two hours to give his master an excuse to leave early. In due course, James asked Nottingham what time it was, and the earl replied that it was four o’clock and time to disembark. Understandably Christian protested that it was still only two and to emphasise his point he raised two fingers to Nottingham.

This was an unfortunate choice of gesture. Although most English sources insist that Christian had no intention of offending the earl, the French ambassador reported that Christian had frequently teased Nottingham about the substantial age difference between him and his young wife Margaret, and that the gesture was a deliberate ‘sign of the horns’, the traditional symbol of the cuckold. To make matters worse, the countess was currently pregnant. She did not witness the incident but leapt to the same conclusion as the French ambassador. She duly fired off a furious letter to the Danish king’s secretary protesting that ‘there is as much baseness in him [Christian IV] as can be in any man’ and that ‘I deserve as little that name which he gave me, as either the mother of himself or of his children’ (you can read her letter in full here, in the Egerton Papers). Christian in turn complained to James about the countess, who was promptly banned from the English court. However, Nottingham himself remained in office until 1619 when, despite two damning reports into corruption in the navy, he was allowed to retire with a handsome pay-off and a large pension.

There remains the question of what gesture exactly the Danish king made. The sign of the horns is usually thought of as involving the thumb and little finger, but one source states that Christian IV raised his ‘foremost fingers’, presumably his index and middle fingers. If such a gesture could be interpreted as the sign of the horns in early seventeenth century England, could this in fact be the origin of the two fingered salute?


For more unusual 17th century diplomacy, see Dr Paul Hunneyball’s recent blog: ‘How to cause a diplomatic incident with a false beard’.

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