Diplomatic Letters as Political Literature: Copying Sir Henry Unton's Letters

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This paper examines the political letters of Sir Henry Unton, resident ambassador to Henry IV of France from 1591-92 and again in 1595 until Unton’s death the following year. The fact that several (different) copies of his diplomatic letterbook survive raises questions regarding their origin and use. These versions range from original drafts, through contemporary and eighteenth century manuscript copies, up to the OCR text of the nineteenth century print on the Internet Archive. In the context of the perhaps more common political letterbooks of the seventeenth century (thinking of those of Ralph Winwood, Dudley Carleton, and later William Trumbull, for example), and the scribal publication of famous political letters as manuscript separates, this paper asks where Unton’s letterbook and its various copies fit in terms of social, political, and antiquarian value. Unton struggled with slander and regal disfavour during his diplomatic career, and died childless and intestate. By considering the diplomat’s motivations for copying his own letters, as well as other attempts by himself and his widow to defend and preserve his name, this paper offers some conclusions on the contemporary and later copies of the letterbook of the man who was gravely warned by Robert Cecil that ‘men in action are on stages’. Evidence of textual elision in one of these suggests a level of conscious editing that positions diplomatic letters as more than mere carriers of information. The corpus of letters left by an embassy represent its lasting written record and the collecting and editing of those letters was one of several reputation management techniques open to the vulnerable aspirant within the competitive political environment of the late sixteenth century.

Speaker: Lizzy Williamson


Diplomacy in Early Modern Period 1400-1800

Contact name: Ruggero Sciuto

Contact email: ruggero.sciuto@hertford.ox.ac.uk

Audience: Open to all