A Conversation Starter
Bulstrode Whitelocke and the Anglo-Swedish alliance of 1654
Personal relations are highly important when conducting politics today. The first steps towards political decisions are often made through conversations and discussions at an informal level. The same applied to the early modern period, although its unofficial dialogue is harder to trace in the archives. However, oral history gives us the opportunity to study aspects that are rarely documented, such as domestic life, minorities, and personal relationships. The recorded conversations between the English ambassador Bulstrode Whitelocke and the Swedish Queen Christina in the middle of the seventeenth century gives us an insight into how politics infiltrated personal space and managed to establish a friendship tract between the two countries that still remains today – 360 years later.
In August 1653 Oliver Cromwell appointed Mr. Bulstrode Whitelocke (1605–1675) to the position of extraordinary ambassador in Sweden at the court of Queen Christina (1626–1689). Bulstrode Whitelocke was an excellent politician. As an opportunist and turncoat he succeeded in serving high roles in the government both during Charles I’s reign, as well as under the republican reign of Oliver Cromwell. He even managed to avoid execution when monarchy was restored to England in 1660. However, considering his turbulent professional life, Whitelocke explained his years in Sweden as one of ‘the most troublesome and active’ periods in his diplomatic career.
On the 15th of November 1653 a seasick Whitelocke arrived in the port of Gothenburg. Being received by no more than two gun salutes, his initial impression of Sweden was not respectable. On top of that the lodgings were poor. He describes his accommodation as ‘a common inn, far inferior than our ordinary inns in England’, which made Whitelocke prefer his field-bed over the feather down beds provided.
The embassy then continued across the Swedish mainland to Uppsala. On his way to the Queen Whitelocke observed different Swedish traditions. One custom that Whitelocke was not keen on trying was the drinking habits of the northern countries. He describes the Swedes as being ‘too much addicted to excessive drinking, and using, by many and great draughts of strong drink and wine, to drink, as they miscall it, healths, than the which nothing tends more to sickness and drunkenness’. As it was not healthy Whitleocke refused to adopt this custom of drinking to one’s health…or perhaps it was simply due to the lack of English beer, which he missed dearly.
Whitelocke’s political activity began soon after arriving at Uppsala. He engaged with other foreign ambassadors as well as with the Queen herself. As a complement to formal meetings, most of the contacts happened through conversations at dinner parties or in private. The intention was to keep a political approach on social gatherings to create a safe and informal environment for addressing important issues. It was, in fact, highly advised by contemporary treatises on the ambassadorial role to give dinners because: ‘you will succeed easily with generous table and grateful hospitality, by making a habit of welcoming those people who may give you such information; and your ear must be ready to listen as your tongue must be ready to blandish.’ as an Italian book from the sixteenth century so tells us.
Whitelocke’s journals also constitute an important recollection of the Swedish political situation in the midst of the seventeenth century. Even more they frame the mind of the notorious Queen Christina who, at the time, was in the midst of announcing her abdication and conversion to Catholicism, which signified a radical change of the political structure in Sweden. The conversation topics, that mostly surrounded religion and thoughts on power, makes these radical changes visible and acts as clues for what was coming.
The way that these political conversations developed are also interesting. Initially, Whitelocke’s conversations started with political issues and almost always they concluded in discussion of rather minor matters. One such example was a private conversation with the queen, which began with the business of religion in England, then evolved into a discussion about invisible ink (which Whitelocke produced himself), before ending in a talk about the dog breed English Bullmastiff. It illustrates that the discussion topics did not only surround diplomatic issues, but also plain trivialities of everyday life.
Another interesting matter the two discussed was marriage. Queen Christina is known for being the ‘the androgynous queen’. Contemporary depictions portray Christina as a masculine woman, a king in dress. Similar to Elizabeth I, Christina never got married. Her reluctance to get married can be understood by her own words: ‘It takes greater courage to get married than to go to war’. It is also visible on one occasion when Christina asks Whitelocke about his private life:
‘Qu.: How many wives have you had?
Wh.: I have had three wives
Qu.: Have you had children by all of them?
Wh. Yes by every one of them.
Qu.: Pardieu, vous êtes incorrigible!’
After spending five months in Sweden a coalition could be made. Whitelocke’s conversational skills indirectly led to the signing of the Anglo-Swedish alliance on the 28th of April 1654. This treaty marks a friendship between England and Sweden which, almost 360 years later, still lives on today (with the exception of our war fought on paper during the Napoleonic Wars in the 1810s). According to Whitleocke Sweden and England made the perfect match, hopefully a connection that will last for centuries to come.
‘I look upon them (the Swedes) as a Nation at a perfect Distance and Situation, to be the best Friends and Allies to us: They are neither so near, as to cause Jealousies in us; nor yet so far off, but that they may give us timely Assistance.’