Ambassadors in the late middle ages

March’s medieval offering is from Senior Research Fellow, Dr Charles Moreton, who is currently working on our 1461-1504 project. Charles previously worked on our 1422-1461 volumes which are due for publication in the coming weeks. Today he discusses the ambassadors of the crown in the late middle ages…

As attested by the recent travails of Her Majesty’s recent representative in Washington, the role of ambassador is not always an easy one, and this was no less the case in the later Middle Ages.

Late medieval embassies often comprised a mixture of churchmen and laity. Typically, the laymen below the ranks of the peerage whom the Crown named for such missions were from those parts of society from which Members of the Commons were usually drawn, being either gentry landowners (often those associated with the government or Court) or substantial merchants from the larger and more important boroughs. The former invariably fitted the qualifications for knights of the shire and many of the latter sat as parliamentary burgesses at some point in their careers. Consequently, it was not unusual for men who served as MPs also to serve as ambassadors.

John Wenlock depicted in stained glass, St Mary’s Church, Luton

Unlike their modern counterparts, late medieval ambassadors were appointed for specific missions and did not take up residence in the territories to which they were sent. There were however MPs who had extensive diplomatic careers, among them Sir John Cheyne, Sir Walter Hungerford, Sir John Tiptoft, John Howard, Thomas Vaughan and John Wenlock. Wenlock, a knight of the shire for Bedfordshire in six mid 15th-century Parliaments, served both Henry VI and Edward IV as an ambassador over a period of nearly three decades. Although some of his missions were time consuming, they involved little hardship and he was well rewarded for his participation. During the 1460s, for example, he and other envoys were lavishly entertained by the Burgundians and French and the Crown allowed them generous wages and expenses.

Others were far less fortunate. In the mid 1370s, a few years before sitting for Cambridgeshire in several of Richard II’s Parliaments, Simon Burgh visited Rome as an envoy of Edward III to the Pope. When returning home, he fell into the hands of the followers of Cardinal Robert of Geneva (a future anti-Pope) who detained him until he paid a ransom of 800 francs. The Crown subsequently licensed him to sequestrate property belonging to the cardinal in England but it is unlikely that he never fully recovered his losses. Six decades later, another East Anglian ambassador and parliamentarian, Sir Robert Clifton, likewise suffered imprisonment abroad. In the mid 1430s Henry VI’s council sent Clifton, who had sat for Norfolk in the Parliament of 1433, on a mission to the Holy Roman Empire, probably to seek an alliance against the duke of Burgundy, then a common enemy. In the spring of 1436, however, the Burgundians captured and imprisoned him and his fellow envoy, the canon lawyer, Stephen Wilton, presumably while they were on their way home. Although the Crown responded favourably to appeals for help from Clifton’s wife and family, the ambassadors languished in custody for two years before regaining their freedom.

While they did not suffer captivity, a couple of ambassadors of mercantile background, Henry Bermyngeham and Walter Cony, endured troublesome missions in the mid 1460s. They were from Bishop’s Lynn (now King’s Lynn) and both represented that borough in Parliament. Lynn was a significant port with a major stake in the Anglo-Prussian trade, giving its merchants an incentive to participate in embassies to northern European rulers and the powerful Hanseatic League of German towns. At the same time, it served the Crown to appoint as envoys men well versed in matters of trade when commercial treaties were the goal. In 1464 Bermyngeham and Cony were selected for an embassy commissioned to conclude an agreement between England and the League and to negotiate with the king of Denmark. The ambassadors had reached Utrecht in the Low Countries when political problems in the Baltic and an outbreak of plague ensured the postponement of proceedings at Hamburg, the venue chosen for the negotiations. After delaying for several weeks at Utrecht, they gave up and went home. Bermyngeham and Cony were subsequently reappointed to a fresh embassy that finally reached Hamburg in September 1465. Two problems quickly emerged. A committee of learned men able to converse in Latin helped to solve the first of these, the language barrier, but the second, namely the demands of Lübeck and Bremen for immediate compensation for injuries their merchants had suffered at the hands of the English, proved insurmountable. The embassy did not return completely empty handed, since it managed to make a treaty with representatives of the king of Denmark, although this was a relatively minor return and the personal and business interests of Bermyngeham and Cony must have suffered during their many weeks of absence abroad.


Biographies of most of the individuals mentioned in this blog will appear in The History of Parliament’s new volumes for 1422-1461 which will be published by Cambridge University Press in the spring of 2020.

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