Questions of Public Law (1737)

Cornelius van Bynkershoek

The Business and Procedure of Ambassadors at Public Audiences, Formerly and at Present

I DO not wish to describe the ceremonies with which ambassadors were formerly or are now received, nor those that are observed when envoys are met in state before or at their arrival, or when public audience is accorded them. It is clear that a degree of honour is accorded them in proportion to the dignities of the prince who sends them, or the station of the ambassador himself; for in arranging the ceremonies it matters not a little what is the rank of the ambassador. And so before he is publicly received he must present his credentials, as they are called; and this is even ordained by the decree of the States-General of August 19, 1658. Many authorities have written extensively regarding these honours, but since the several princes do not observe the same practices, nay even change them, and often even disregard them because of the expense, I do not wish to waste good time in recounting such trifles. There are also various acts of the States-General in existence regarding this matter, which I shall also pass over; even though I know that trifles of this kind are accounted so important among ambassadors that he is reckoned the better and the more skilled who is the more practiced in them. But omitting these things of little moment, it is of more importance to know whether formerly or now serious matters have been discussed in the public audiences, and what these matters are. By the Gabinian Law it was ordained among the Romans that ‘from the first of February till the first of March the senate should daily give audience to ambassadors’. The consuls usually introduced to the senate the ambassadors, who then presented their commissions, and they were then questioned by the senators who were skilled at interrogating about the matters that were presented and were to be acted upon by the senate. Presently when the ambassadors had been asked to withdraw, the senate deliberated and took its vote, and then when the ambassadors had been admitted again, the Princeps Senatus presented to them the decision of the senate in the senate’s name. The procedure of all this as described with citation of supporting testimony by Zamoscius [Jan Zamoyski] in De Senatu Ronano and in Graevius. And although the ambassadors received their response so quickly, I do not find in any of the Roman authorities that any of the matters that they presented were ever disclosed before the audience of the senate was held. Among the Achaeans there was a different rule, namely that no audience should be granted ambassadors unless they first presented in writing the matter which was to be discussed by the council, and I find in Polybius, Excerptae Legationes, and in Jacques Godefroy that they firmly enforced this law even against the Roman ambassadors. It was doubtless considered dangerous to expose men unprepared and often untrained to the speeches of the ambassadors and thus offer occasion for proposals detrimental to the state. But according to present-day custom, none of the matters that the ambassador is to present or request are submitted beforehand, nor in fact is there any reason why they should be, because it is not the custom to answer the ambassadors immediately. At the public audiences before the prince or council of state nothing of moment is nowadays transacted. What you hear there from ambassadors is usually of this order: His Majesty or His Serenity, or His Highness my Lord has done me the honour to send me to Your Majesty, Serenity, Highness, to make known how fortunate is your friend, that he has married, or that a son or a daughter is born to him, so that Your Majesty, Serenity, Highness, may partake in his joy; or that his wife or a child has died, so that Your Majesty, Serenity, Highness, may share in his grief, and trifles of that order, matters already worn out in the gossip of the street and of such little worth that they furnish the topic of conversation to all the world. The response is usually of the same quality as the ambassador’s speech, nor is anything else treated in these so important audiences, and so finally the whole purpose of the embassy is accomplished. If, however, something of grave importance is .to be treated, the ambassador usually presents his written memorial, as it is called, and, this is submitted to the ministers of state or others delegated by the state for this purpose, who discuss the matter in full with the ambassadors, and after much bargaining and many delays, finally separate without accomplishing anything, or come to an agreement with the ambassadors and so report to the prince.

There is also a question as to the place where these discussions and this bargaining shall take place. According to the Act of the States-General on ceremony, passed November 26, 1639, and another similar Act of the same body dated February 7, 1657, the deliberations with ambassadors of foreign powers are held in a public place if the ambassadors have some proposal to offer, but if the States-General are offering the proposal, it shall be done at the abode of the ambassadors. However, the Act of February 7, 1657, adds that the ambassadors of France, Spain, England, and Denmark have the privilege accorded them of having the business transacted at their abode, even though they offer the proposals. I also know that in 1684 action was taken at the abode of the Swedish ambassador, but this was because of illness. Even those ambassadors who, so to speak, have the privilege of convoking sessions at home usually, by way of showing respect, meet the delegates of the States-General in a public place, unless a question of precedence arises with the ambassadors of other powers who are to participate at the deliberations. Furthermore, not all ambassadors of whatsoever rank go to meet the delegates of the States-General, but I do not always find it defined which do so and in what circumstances, nor which ones are obliged to present their pleas in writing.

Since, as I have remarked, nothing of importance is nowadays transacted with ambassadors at those first meetings, but everything is a question of customary ceremony, you will understand that public audiences of that kind require no knowledge or diligence either on the part of the ambassadors or of those who receive them. Hence it comes that such ceremonies are now celebrated before any and everybody, without distinction of sex or age, for the ambassadors speak before men, women, boys and girls, and even infants wailing in their cradles. Formerly those gatherings were of a different nature. When Nero was presiding at an audience granted the ambassadors of Armenia, and it was feared that Agrippina, the mother of the emperor, would ascend the tribunal, the Romans were struck with dread of the impending disgrace as though they would suffer the extreme of dishonour; but Seneca, under pretence of honouring her, artfully balked the inopportune aspirations of the woman, as Tacitus reports. The fear of the Romans was indeed justified since the ambitious woman had ascended the tribunal on a previous occasion according to Tacitus. Therefore, as Tacitus relates, Nero wrote among other things to the senate after the murder of his mother, that Agrippina had aspired to a share of the imperial power, had aimed to disgrace .the senate and the people, and that he had with great effort succeeded in preventing her ‘from responding to the envoys of foreign nations’. But these indeed were the practices of the Romans, who, as is evident, considered it the depth of disgrace for ambassadors sent to men to be given audience by women. But now that the virtues of a great spirit are almost everywhere extinct, men permit women, not content to exercise great power among themselves, to all but seize royal power openly. When, in 1644, audience was granted by the King of England to the ambassador of the States-General, the King’s wife sat with her husband to receive the embassy. Besides, it is a custom, even in nations that do not grant royal power to women, for the wife of the king to accord a separate audience to the ambassadors, where she is often requested to use her influence with her husband in favour of the cause in question. And these commendations have their weight, nay, often settle the whole matter, especially with those princes that, while they rule their subjects, are in turn ruled by their wives.

However, there is some purpose in these audiences before the king’s wife. But I fail to see any reason why ambassadors even at present should present themselves before the royal sons and daughters, perhaps not more than two or three years old. And yet, before these they make a speech, whether about nuts and fruits, or some other trifle, I am not well informed. It is well known, however, that ambassadors are often greeted and dismissed by the meaningless prattle of infants. Even the Roman emperors permitted their sons to be present at the audience of ambassadors, as Claudian shows. The purpose of this was to accustom them to political administration, and to permit them to see the solemn ceremonies with which ambassadors were received. I do not recall reading that the ambassadors ever addressed them or sought their favour. Moreover, though such practices bring dishonour even to the princes, they have now so entered into the body of the law that it is considered wellnigh a crime to omit them. In my own day, the ambassador of Leopold, the German Emperor, was accorded an audience on a set day by Louis XIV, King of France. When, however, he had remarked on the day before that he did not intend to ask the children of the King for an audience at the Dauphin’s palace, he was also refused audience before the King, and that too although quite recently the French ambassador to Leopold had not asked for an audience before Charles of Austria, the son of Leopold. However, the ambassador of the Emperor was compelled to yield the point, and when on December 1, 1699, he secured his first audience before the King, he paid his respects to the King’s sons also. I understood, however, that an agreement was later made that Charles of Austria should be accorded the same honour, so that the French ambassador should request an audience with him as well.