In June of 1497, two men separately left Italy and headed north across the Alps. They made their way through the territory of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I along the Rhine eventually ending up in the Low Countries. This area was governed by Maximilian’s son, Archduke Philip of Burgundy. The two Italians met up in Antwerp to consult each other’s notes. Raimondo da Soncino was the secretary of Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan and his companion in these meetings was Andrea Trevisano, special envoy from the Republic of Venice.
By early August, escorted by a unit of English soldiers, the men had found their way to Calais, the enclave of the English on the northern coast of France. They had to wait until the appalling weather cleared and the coast was clear of pirates before they crossed over the English Channel to Dover. On the shore, they were met by a royal reception and then made their way through Kent, entering London along with two hundred horsemen and two senior officials who had been sent by King Henry VII himself.
A few days later, in early September, King Henry summoned the Italian envoys to join him at the royal manor of Woodstock where he and his family were spending the summer. Soncino and Trevisano left London accompanied by English dignitaries and an armed escort and headed into Oxfordshire. They spent the night in student lodgings in the colleges of Oxford before making the short trip to Woodstock.
They entered through the gatehouses which had been freshly painted with the symbols of red roses, portcullises and red dragons, the heraldic devices of the newly founded Tudor dynasty of Kings of England. They were led along a succession of galleries and adorned apartments to a small chamber which was hung with gorgeous rich tapestries. A group of councilors were gathered in the room dressed in their robes of state. These men included members of the nobility and six bishops. In their midst was King Henry VII of England and his son Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales.
The ambassadors wrote down their impressions of this meeting with King Henry. The first thing they noticed was Henry’s stillness as he stood with his fingertips touching a gilt chair beside him. They approached him, bowing. They noted his spare, high cheek bones, his dark hair with a hint of grey at the temples and his small, blue penetrating eyes. They were impressed with his rich clothing. Henry was wearing a long violet cloak lined with gold. Along with other jewels on his outfit, he had a collar with four rows of magnificent pearls. He wore a black felt hat on his head that was decorated with a dazzling pear-shaped pearl.
The ambassadors delivered their diplomatic speeches in Latin as Henry remained focused on them. When they had finished, the king turned to his councilors and closely deliberated with them. Finally, Cardinal John Morton, chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury, stepped forward to address the Italians in Latin.
Soncino was observing Prince Arthur during these exchanges. He noted the prince was tall for his age and had a ‘singular beauty and grace’. While the King was reticent to speak, Arthur spoke eloquently in Latin and seemed at ease with the councilors. After the diplomatic exchanges were over, the ambassadors kissed the hand of the King and the Prince.
They dined in state with four lords and then were led into a smaller room for an intimate chat with the King. The king spoke in fluent French with thoughtful consideration. The envoys had planned to brief Henry on the state of Italian affairs but were astonished to find he seemed to already know all the latest news. Henry spoke about the Duke of Milan as if they were old friends even though the two men had never met.
The Italian envoys were in agreement that Henry was grave, wise, and gracious with a wonderful presence, all that a king should be. Soncino even stated Henry had ‘a most quiet spirit’. Before they left Woodstock, the Italians were permitted to pay their respects to the Queen. They were admitted to a small room where Queen Elizabeth was dressed in cloth of gold, surrounded by ladies and gentlewomen. They noted her strawberry-blond hair and Trevisano called her ‘a handsome woman’. Sitting beside the Queen was her mother-in-law, Lady Margaret Beaufort and her six-year old son Henry, Duke of York. The Italians had no way of knowing this child would become King Henry VIII twelve years after this encounter.
The ambassadors were quickly taken back to Oxford where they were sumptuously entertained at the king’s command and expense. They then returned to London to await the arrival of the King and his court in the autumn. The visit to Woodstock had been brief but the envoys agreed it was an absolute and complete success. Soncino and Trevisano were duly impressed with the Tudor king and his court.
Further reading: Calendar of State Papers Relating To English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, “Renaissance Diplomacy” by Garrett Mattingly, “The Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England” by Thomas Penn, “Henry VII” by S.B. Chrimes