An Amazon in Venice

Detail of Lucas Vorsterman after Peter Paul Rubens, The Battle of the Amazons, 1623, Copperplate Print, 857 × 1202 mm, London, British Museum

Her appearance before the Venetian Senate was not the first time that Lady Arundel had to take action defend her interests in Venice and London. Shortly after her arrival in Venice, the Ambassador Henry Wotton had written a letter to George Calvert, the English Secretary of State, in which he denounced English students studying medicine in Padua as predominantly “popish”, that is as follower of the Catholic church. As proof for his allegations, Wotton added the oath of allegiance that had to be taken by students. In the letter of July 18, 1621, Wotton warned of the consequences for the spiritual wellbeing of future English patients , a warning which was clearly aimed directly at Lady Arundel and her sons.

„(…) Divers of his Majesty’s subjects come to study physic at Padova; for the most part Popish before their coming out, or made so abroad (for of the good I do not speak). Here they take the degree of doctorship and legitimation for practice; at which formality, if it be performed in the College, where for more reputation it is commonly done, especially by all Papists, there is an oath to be first taken (…) wherein –to omit other corrupt clauses– is in plain terms sworn indefinite obedience to the Pope, as his Majesty may see by the adjoined copy thereof, which, though in print, I could not procure without some difficulty, being a thing which the parties themselves are desirous should be smothered as much as may be. After this degree, or before, they usually make a step to Rome. What new character they bring thence I know not. Priests they may be, and that some of them have been and are, I make little doubt (…) being indeed the fittest to work afterwards upon others at home. For through the generality of their faculty all families, all hours, are at their command; and if they have a dispensation to reconcile in hora mortis (as their term is) they can remove all company from their patient, and clear the room in an instant. Nay, if himself have no such power, may not his servant be a priest or a Jesuit? And who will shut out the doctor’s man, or so much as suspect him? To this I must add a note which many have taken at home, that one of these Popish physicians shall gain more practice in a month or two, even among Protestans, than another in a year. Quid ita? Because those of his own complexion proclaim his sufficiency to more ends than one, and by putting him in voice, put him in use. This I humbly leave to his Majesty’s most wise and Christian care, having thought it my duty to represent–as I conceive itso dangerous, so universal, so opportune, so close and indiscoverable a means of corrupting his people (…).“

Logan Smith, The Life and Letters of Sir Henry Wotton 1907

This oath had been mandatory since 1564 (Richard Palmer, The Studio of Venice and its Graduates in the Sixteenth Century 1983). Obviously, Wotton attacked Lady Arundel personally, putting her in the position to defend herself against the accusations of treason implied.

The relationship of the state religion of Anglicanism to the Catholic faith and of the Vatican to the English court was difficult and subject to dangerous fluctuations. While the practice of the Catholic faith could be viewed as high treason at the end of the 16th century, these strict views eased when James I came to power. But while the attendance of a Catholic mass and the possession of Catholic scriptures were tolerated in London, contact with Jesuits or a visit to Rome were causes for suspicion. Relations between the Vatican and the English Court remained strained even throughout the 17th century (John Cedric H. Aveling, Rome and the Anglicans: Historical and Doctrinal Aspects of Anglican-Roman Catholic Relations 1982).

An English doctor’s oath of allegiance to the Pope in Italy publicly contradicted the King’s claim to sole and God-given sovereignty over his subjects. It must have become immediately clear to every reader of Wotton’s letter that his reference to the oath was intended to harm one of the most prominent personalities of the English court. Wotton obviously did not know that the Secretary of State himself sympathized with the Catholic faith, resulting in a very public conversion to Catholicism in 1624 (John D. Krugler, English and Catholic: The Lord Baltimore in the Seventeenth Century 2004).

Lady Arundel’s reaction to Wotton’s criticism is unknown, but she could not have left such a defamation uncommented. George Calvert might have intervened himself. Despite Wotton’s accusations which might have caused great damage to her and her husband at the English court, her sons remained enrolled at the University of Padua until the end of their education and Lady Arundel stayed in Venice until 1623.


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