A top-secret mission in Scotland 400 years ago to prevent the assassination of King James isn't what you would readily associate with the downfall of Boris Johnson. But that incident marked the start of the relationship between James VI and diplomat Sir Henry Wotton.
Wotton remains something of a star in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) because of his definition of an ambassador as 'an honest man, sent to lie abroad for the good of his country'. As the 2018 BBC Inside the Foreign Office
documentary series revealed, his portrait has held pride of place for centuries above the desk of the Permanent Under-Secretary, at that time Sir Simon McDonald serving Foreign Secretary Mr Johnson.
Four years on and there is no need for diplomats to tell lies overseas, enough are already told by the Fib Factory in Downing Street. Nor is there any need for the old fuddy duddy FCO. It is now the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office, with a new Permanent Under-Secretary in charge.
After his departure, Sir Simon was offered a peerage, taking the title Lord McDonald of Salford. And it was his letter to the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner in July about the repeated untruths over the Chris Pinchin affair that triggered the landslide of Cabinet resignations and the Prime Minister's resignation as Tory leader.
Strangely, this echoes some of the cloak and dagger machinations of the early Jacobean era. Wotton's mission in 1601 was on behalf of Ferdinand, Duke of Tuscany, to warn King James of a plot to poison him. Armed with antidotes, Wotton travelled via Norway (to avoid the attention of Queen Elizabeth's spies) disguised as an Italian merchant, Ottavio Baldi. He managed to secure a private audience with the King and, maintaining his disguise, spent three months as a guest at James' court in Stirling.
Fluent in several languages and an effective networker from his previous travels in Europe, he was the King's trusted choice after his accession to the English throne to serve as the first 'Britannic' ambassador to the Venetian republic. Venice then had considerable strategic and military importance. It was also a magnet for students, merchants, and the first wave of aristocratic grand tourists and art collectors. It gave us two words, Arsenale
(then the largest naval dockyard in Europe capable of building and rigging a galley within a week) and Ghetto
, home to successive waves of persecuted Jews.
Wotton served three terms as ambassador in Venice – interspersed by a brief spell as a member of parliament.
Pleasing the King was the embassy's number one priority. This included interviewing to save Giacomo Castelvetro, James's Italian tutor in Scotland after his arrest by the Venetian Inquisition in 1611.
Wotton worked hard, although his capacity for dramatic gestures did not always go down well with the stern and secretive Venetian Government.
His consular activities included using the embassy gondola to come to the rescue of travel writer Tom Coryat from a potentially violent argument with a rabbi in the Ghetto.
Venice also pulled in sinners with its celebrated courtesans. Another travel writer, Lanark-born William Lithgow, wrote of his meetings with some of them in purely platonic (and not entirely convincing) terms.
Wotton wrote poetry and a book on architecture. His close friends include John Donne and Izaak Walton. Wotton was probably the inspiration for Sir Politic Would-Be, the Italianate Englishman buffoon in Ben Jonson's play, Volpone
. His enemies included the Catholic polemicist Scioppius who resurrected a brief note Wotton had written years earlier in Augsburg. This was the honest man sent abroad to lie for the good of his country.
Wotton was being a bit too clever. The word 'lie', according to Sir Simon in the documentary, had three different meanings then: tell fibs, lay about, and sleep around. This was lost when translated from the Latin. James was not amused, and Wotton had to make a big effort to get back into the King's favour. However, put all three meanings together now and they spell out a lazy, promiscuous, liar.
Throughout his diplomatic career, Wotton was always broke – pay for ambassadors often arrived late and was rarely enough to meet expenses. In 1635, he suffered the indignity of arrest by bailiffs in London for a debt of £300. But in his later years, he was granted a well-paid post, as provost of Eton College, which now houses his manuscripts and paintings acquired in Venice. It is not clear whether this had any influence on recent Prime Ministers David Cameron and Boris Johnson during their days at Eton.
Wotton died in 1639 and wrote his own inscription for his tombstone in the college chapel: 'The Itch of Disputation will prove the Scab of the Church'.
Given the Thirty Years' War then raging in Europe and the civil war looming at home, he got it spot on.
Chris Holme is a former
Herald reporter and Reuters Foundation fellow in medical journalism. He now runs the History Company