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Image for the news item 'Rubens at Emmanuel' on 19 May 2021
Left: Peter Paul Rubens in 1628. Right: Entry in the Grace Book Zeta recording, at foot of the page, the award of an M.A. to Rubens in 1629.

The great Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens visited Emmanuel in September 1629. He had come to London to try to broker a Peace between Catholic Spain and Protestant England. It is extraordinary that a professional oil-painter should think he could manage this -- and more extraordinary that the Courts of Flanders (where he was Court Painter), and even of Madrid, supported his initiative. But Rubens was Europe’s foremost artist: he was used to painting princes – and was a persuasive individual. After months of anxious waiting, he was formally accredited, and set out for London.

As to his motivation, Rubens knew about war, having grown up in the midst of the atrocity-strewn Cologne War (1583-88): and a painter who loved the human body so warmly would have hated the amputations and slaughter of war. Europe was currently torn by the Thirty Years War (1618-48).

In London also Rubens had to wait, while Charles I debated whether to accept a freelance artist as a diplomat. But negotiations advanced. One good omen was the arrangement made by London for Rubens to receive an honorary Master of Arts Degree in Cambridge.

The Congregation of September 1629 was a festive event, partly because it included the first visit to Cambridge of the new Chancellor, the Earl of Holland. Also receiving an honorary degree then was the new French Ambassador, the Marquis de Chateauneuf. His presence was significant for Rubens because Cardinal Richelieu, watching from Paris, had sent de Chateauneuf to London specifically to frustrate any Anglo-Spanish Peace.

Rubens and de Chateauneuf were both present at the celebrations which Cambridge arranged. These included the performance of a Latin comedy, Fraus Honesta, in Trinity, and banquets in Trinity, Christ’s, Peterhouse – and Emmanuel. Since Emmanuel was a Puritan foundation, and still strong in its Puritanism in the 1620s, it is interesting – and illuminating as to what ‘Puritanism’ meant – that Emmanuel was a principal host. Emmanuel paid now a third, now a fourth, part of the theatrical expenses. And our Archivist, Amanda Goode, has found, in the Bursary Accounts of 1629, that the cost of the banquet in Emmanuel was £16 7s 3d (Amanda adds that the Master’s salary then was £60 per annum). So Rubens would have eaten well here, though it is sad that we don’t have the menu, only the bill.

One wonders what words Rubens and the French Ambassador exchanged, at one High Table or another. Probably both were urbane, though their conversation involved some shadow-boxing, since the war-alliances of Europe hid under the table.

Back in London, de Chateauneuf urged the Puritans of the English Parliament to prevent a Peace with Catholic Spain. But the Peace had its advantages, and Rubens played a conspicuous role in the formal Exchange of Ambassadors in April 1630. That Peace is known now as the Madrid Peace 1630: it last for several decades and outlived both Charles I and Rubens himself, who died in 1640.

Rubens’ rich vision of Peace can be seen in the great painting on which he worked throughout his stay in London, and presented to Charles I. It is known as ‘Peace and War’ and hangs in our National Gallery. I have tried to tell the story of Rubens’ English adventure in my recent novel PAX: for more please see my website at john-harvey.co.uk.

Dr John Harvey, Life Fellow of Emmanuel

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