Time to Mount Spain

Colin Burrow

  • The Prince and the Infanta: The Cultural Politics of the Spanish Match by Glyn Redworth
    Yale, 200 pp, £25.00, November 2003, ISBN 0 300 10198 8

Never trust a man called Smith. Or rather, don’t trust him if he has a fake beard and is travelling with another man called Smith who also has a fake beard. This is one of the profound moral lessons which emerge from one of the most extraordinary incidents in 17th-century English history.

On 17 February 1623, the future Charles I and the royal favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, set off for Madrid incognito. They wore false beards, and they called themselves John and Thomas Smith. Their mission was to win the hand of the sister of the king of Spain, the Infanta María. The courtly duo were not well suited to a life in mufti. The only coins they carried were of a suspiciously large denomination. A ferryman to whom they gave a silver 20-shilling piece decided they must be noblemen who were going to fight a duel abroad, and reported them to the authorities. At Rochester they spotted an ambassador and his escort, and fled over the fields to Canterbury. There the mayor attempted to arrest them, and Buckingham had to pull off his beard, confess his identity, and claim that as admiral of the fleet he was off to arrange an impromptu inspection at Dover. The prince and the favourite then joined up with two courtiers, Endymion Porter (who had been born in Spain) and Sir Francis Cottington, and set sail for France on 19 February. They were thoroughly sick on the voyage. The small party was conspicuous enough to be identified by a group of German tourists outside Paris, so they took the precaution of buying periwigs to thicken their disguises. These were effective enough to enable them to see the sights of the French court without being identified. They then trekked down the Iberian peninsula, where they behaved like the very best kind of Englishmen abroad, rustling goats and provoking fights by making tactless remarks about people’s mothers.

On 7 March they arrived at the home of the most frigidly formal court in Europe. The English ambassador, the Earl of Bristol, was, as a contemporary source had it, ‘in a kind of astonishment’ (early modern English for ‘gobsmacked’) when a stranger pulled off his false beard to reveal that he was the heir to the English throne. The Spanish court had to pretend that Charles was invisible until an official reception could be organised for him on 16 March. To celebrate this occasion, more than three hundred prisoners were released, including all Englishmen serving in the galleys, and candles were ordered to be lit in every window in Madrid. ‘The voyage of the Knights of adventure’, as the secretary of state Edward Conway called it, finally seemed to be taking off. Buckingham recorded that Charles was in love: ‘Baby Charles is so touched by the heart that he confessed that all he ever saw is nothing to her.’

Poor Charles was not to get the girl. The infanta declared that she would rather take to a nunnery or die a martyr than marry a heretic. James I obligingly sent out a brace of high Anglican churchmen to convince the Spanish that England could do things with smells and bells too, but this was not enough to persuade them. One of these unfortunate clerics never arrived, having been jolted off his mule en route to Madrid. It rather sums the whole venture up. Also among the larger entourage sent out to reinforce Charles in making his suit was the king’s fool, Archie Armstrong. He had been kitted out with a wildly expensive new suit for the trip, and the climate clearly agreed with his sense of humour, which was always dry and sharp. He saw more of the infanta than Prince Charles ever did, and seems to have charmed her. When she remarked how extraordinary it was that the Duke of Bavaria’s tiny Catholic army should have ousted the Protestant forces from Prague, Archie merrily reminded her that it was equally extraordinary that only ten ships had made it home from the Spanish Armada. History does not relate how loudly she laughed.

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