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State Papers Online: Eighteenth Century, 1714-1782, Part III: Western Europe is the newest addition to the extensive State Papers Online archive. Part III provides primary source material from the Catholic courts of Spain, Portugal and France, as well as from smaller states of Italy and the Mediterranean, bringing together a huge variety of people, places and events. Great powers and small Republics, border skirmishes and arguably – in the Seven Years’ War – the first global conflict, monarchs, spies and merchants; all are part of the network of information and politics centring on the British Secretaries of State in Whitehall, and through them, the King.
Protestant Britain’s relations with the Great Powers of France and Spain are perhaps the most important focus of this part of the collection. Religious and territorial rivalries meant the relationships frequently collapsed into war and conflict throughout the eighteenth century. The correspondence from Paris and Madrid allows researchers to follow the careful line walked by diplomats posted to these countries, between supporting Protestantism where they could and maintaining good relations with the courts of the Catholic kings. Brushes with the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal are mentioned in the State Papers, while the instructions for every new ambassador contained a clause to help Protestants where they could.
Concerns over the European balance of power were central to British foreign policy for most of the eighteenth century. France, Spain and Portugal possessed overseas colonies to rival Britain’s, whilst France and Spain in particular wielded considerable power on the continent. The century began with the War of the Spanish Succession. The peace treaties that ended this conflict had as one of their chief aims the neutering of the dominance of Spain and the Bourbons. A crucial outcome of the war was therefore the ascension of the Bourbon Philip V to the Spanish throne on condition of his removal from the French line of succession, and the agreement that the two thrones would never be united. The threat of an alliance between these two great powers through the Bourbon pact de famille was a spectre that haunted British diplomats in the period.
The smaller territories of the Italian States – Savoy and Sardinia, Sicily and Naples – were all pieces in the complicated game of politics between the great thrones, and the correspondence to Whitehall reflects the interest in attitudes and opinions at these smaller courts, their prospective alliances and marriages, and territorial ambitions. Jacobitism was a perpetual concern, as Catholic rulers were sympathetic to the ousted Catholic monarchy, and the exiled Stuarts feature particularly strongly in the reports from France and Rome.
Beyond all this, and central to the appeal and value of this archive, are the individual figures of the men writing the letters and deciding the policies and politics of the British government abroad. This includes the efficient Rochford in Sardinia and Madrid, Dodsworth sending increasingly hysterical missives from his prison at Malta, Molesworth describing the comings and goings at Turin, and John Walton’s work as a spy in Rome (in SP85/14, for example).
Studying the careers and correspondence of these individuals provides information and details beyond the great affairs of state that they were involved in. They help create an impression of the daily life of diplomats and foreign courts; how they lived, what they did, who they spoke to and had audiences with, which conversations were considered private and which official, the entertainments and social gatherings they held or attended, and the levels of information circulating between courts. The letters don’t stand alone but frequently reference other documents, papers and reports, or mention correspondence with other people, and pieces of information withheld or shared. They give us a more personal insight into trade, empires and the practical realities of international relationships at the coal face of ports and border lands. They allow a close insight into events as they unfolded, and the parts played by various official bodies. By providing a personal voice, they bring the grand narratives of history down to a human and practical level.
Let us take, as one example, James O’Hara, 2nd Baron Tyrawly and 1st Baron Kilmaine.
Tyrawly was an Irish nobleman who served in the War of the Spanish Succession, was wounded as aide-de-camp to the Duke of Marlborough in 1709, became the British Ambassador to Lisbon in January 1727 and appears to have loathed every second of it until 1741, when he was allowed to leave. Returning there for a brief stint as Envoy Plenipotentiary in 1762, he had grown no fonder of the country.
His letters are caustic, irascible, often sarcastic and always querulous. Tyrawly freely damns the Portuguese as ‘a Bigotted Mob’,[i] detests Portugal in general and Lisbon, as ‘the finest School in the World for Patience’,[ii] in particular. The British merchants he deals with are ‘a parcel of the greatest Jackanapes I ever met with, Fops, Beauxs, Drunkards, Gamesters, and prodigiously ignorant’[iii] and he considers that the Portuguese court ‘the most oddly composed in Europe, will make [anyone] mad’[iv]. He thinks his fellow statesmen are incompetent and foolish (bemoaning that he needs a Consul ‘with Talents able to fill his post’[v]) when they aren’t disrespectful and duplicitous, as in the brief, but well documented, interlude of Sir John Norris. Tyrawly is openly bored by and contemptuous of Lisbon, and continually and enthusiastically recommends a tough approach to British policy in the region – ‘there can be no Inconvenience that I can foresee in bringing these people to reason, even by the roughest means…for I cannot see there is any nations under the sun would interpose if the King, Our Master, had a mind to lay this Country in Ashes’.[vi]
Tyrawly’s letters contain a wealth of detail about his manner of life in Lisbon; expensive, lavish, dull. In one letter to Charles Delafaye he mournfully enquires into the breeding habits of pheasants and talks wearily of his gardens and the pleasant walks and prospects there, ‘in this Melancholy Country’, commenting sadly that ‘our Amusements here are so few’.[vii] In another, he bemoans the necessity of having to have an expensive house far too big for him and his own family, but does so only to accommodate the worship of British Protestants at his private chapel.[viii] The lavish spending of money of the Portuguese aristocracy surrounding the exchange of Infantas in a double royal wedding between the Spanish and Portuguese royal families[ix] enrages Tyrawly, who says the King’s spending is ‘beyond belief’.[x] But it is the building of Mafra that nearly sends him over the edge, as can be seen in the following letter to the Duke of Newcastle.
From such a promisingly sinister beginning, Tyrawly goes on to describe King John V’s obsession with the building of the grand complex at Mafra – ‘there may be employed there about fivety thousand Men’, ‘this has drained the whole Country of their Labourers’, ‘the whole Kingdom is in a confusion next to a Rebellion upon account of this Building’. Taxes are up, ‘which makes it so extravagant living here that I hardly know which way to support my self’. He finishes by informing Newcastle darkly, ‘Your Grace may give a guess what this mighty Design will be when it is finished, when I tell you, that the Chief Architect is a Silver Smith, and the Superintendent of the Work is the Kings Shoe Maker’.
Tyrawly suffers further when forced to work with Sir John Norris in 1736, Norris having been sent to Lisbon to command a naval force there to protect Portuguese and British trade from Spanish marauders. Their relationship is catalogued in the archive through polite and professional letters sent from them both to Portuguese or British diplomats, interspersed with increasingly acidic missives to each other and letters complaining of the other to Whitehall, and even to Queen Caroline herself.
Despite his apparent hatred for the place, Tyrawly remained the chief British expert on Portugal, and the longest-serving ambassador to Lisbon, and was therefore the obvious choice to return as Envoy Plenipotentiary in the crisis year of 1762. Astonishingly, he doesn’t seem to have enjoyed the experience.
The letters of Tyrawly and others allow researchers and students to follow international and foreign affairs of the eighteenth century, whilst also discovering the fascinating details and peculiarities of the different courts and countries. Through such correspondence one may go beyond standard readings of events to a more holistic and complete understanding of their context, causes and political and practical meaning.
I am pleased to end on an assurance that Lord Tyrawly’s adventures in diplomacy were not yet finished. He was the British envoy to St Petersburg between 1743 and 1745, a period which will be covered in the State Papers Eighteenth Century: Part IV. I wonder if he liked it?
[i] Lord Tyrawly to the Duke of Newcastle, November 7 1728. SP89/35 f.117.
[ii] Tyrawly to Charles Delafaye, September 18 1733. SP89/37 f.262.
[iii] Tyrawly to [Charles Delafaye], February 25 1729. SP89/35 f.141.
[iv] Tyrawly to the Duke of Newcastle, January 28 1741. SP89/40 f.222.
[v] Tyrawly to the Duke of Newcastle, February 8 1731. SP89/37 f.54.
[vi] Tyrawly to the Duke of Newcastle, July 17 1729. SP89/35 f.188.
[vii] Tyrawly to Delafaye, September 18 1733. SP89/37 f.262.
[viii] Tyrawly to the Duke of Newcastle, November 7 1728. SP89/35 f.117.
[ix] Alan David Francis, Portugal 1715-1808, Tamesis Books Limited (London: 1985), p56.
[x] Tyrawly to the Duke of Newcastle, July 10 1728. SP89/35 f.81.