The Ambassadors should be seen in the context of the political and religious controversies that were dividing Europe at this period. The careers of both Dinteville and de Selve directly involved them in these discords. Many of the texts in de Selve's collected writings were direct responses to the religious and political situation.
Political Context in 1533:
The political landscape was defined by the rivalries of the major European powers: the Kings of England and France, the Emperor, and the Pope. These power politics were especially apparent during the eventful tenure of Jean Dinteville as ambassador to England in 1533. At the end of October of 1532, Francis I had met with Henry VIII. Francis had hoped to gain Henry's support for an anti-imperial coalition of Protestant and Catholic German princes, the League of Scheyern. While Henry, for his part, wanted Francis to use his influence with Pope Clement VII to resolve the issue of Henry's divorce from Catherine of Aragon, the aunt of the Emperor Charles V. The meetings were marked by the warm friendship between the two monarchs. Suggesting his support for Henry's divorce, Francis had extended an invitation to Anne Boleyn, while Catherine of Aragon did not attend. Francis gave Anne a diamond worth 15,000 écus. As a further indication of the friendship, it was agreed that Henry's natural son, the duke of Richmond, would be brought up at the French court along with the sons of Francis. Francis admitted two of Henry's favorites, the dukes of Norfolk into the order of St. Michael, while Henry made Montmorency and Chabot, two of Francis's favorites, members of the knights of the Garter.
During the winter and spring of 1533, French Cardinals were involved with secret negotiations with the Pope, and as an enticement to the Pope to accept Henry's request, Francis agreed to allow his second son, Henri the Duke of Orleans, to be betrothed to the Pope's niece, Catherine de' Medici. The Pope's decision to issue the bulls necessary to have Thomas Cranmer become Archbishop of Canterbury, suggests that the Cardinals had made some progress with the Pope on behalf of Henry VIII's appeal.
But on January 25, 1533, Henry secretly married the already pregnant Anne Boleyn. In March, Henry sent Anne Boleyn's brother, Lord Rochford, to France to secretly inform Francis of his actions. Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn was certainly to Francis's advantage since it widened the split between Henry VIII and the Emperor, Francis's primary rival, but Francis could not publicly announce his support for the marriage since this would hurt his relations with the Pope. On May 23, Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, usurped the pope's jurisdiction and announced that Henry's marriage to Catherine was null and void. On June 1, Anne Boleyn was crowned as Queen in Westminster Abbey.
On July 11, Clement VII condemned Henry's separation from Catherine and his marriage to Anne, and gave him until September to return to Catherine or face excommunication. Henry VIII sent the duke of Norfolk to France in hopes of having Francis call off his meeting with the Pope. When Francis I met with the Pope in Marseilles from October 13 to November 12, Clement apparently secretly accepted the French claims to territories in Italy including the Duchy of Milan that had been lost after the French defeat at Pavia in 1525. In return, Francis agreed to take an anti-Reformist stance in France. Francis' appeals on Henry's behalf, to approve of his divorce and to lift the sentence of excommunication, were refused. While Clement agreed to submit Henry's suit to a Franco-papal commission, an agent of Henry VIII charged with giving the king's reply broke into the pope's chambers. Infuriated, Francis felt his deliberate negotiations on behalf of Henry were undercut by this rash action. Francis sent the Bishop of Paris, Jean du Bellay, to Henry to complain about the agent's actions. But Henry VIII felt betrayed by Francis I, and accused the French king of allying with Henry's worst enemy. Henry kept du Bellay waiting for four days for an audience. On March 23, 1534, Clement excommunicated the king of England, whereupon Henry completed the schism with Rome.
Religious Context in 1533:
The French church was clearly split over the question of the Reformation. There was a moderate faction revolving around individuals like Lefèvre d'Etaples, Guillaume Briçonnet, and Gérard Roussel who preached an evangelical form of Christianity which had close parallels to Lutheran positions. While not advocating a break with the Roman church, these moderates called for reform of some of the abuses of the church. This moderate faction was opposed by the staunch advocates of orthodoxy led by the theological faculty of the Sorbonne. Under the leadership of Noël Béda, the Sorbonne in collaboration with the Parlement made various attempts to root out heresy within the French church.
1533 was marked by the continued conflict between these opposing factions. During the Lenten season, Gérard Roussel, under the patronage of Marguerite of Navarre the sister of Francis I, preached a series of pro-Evangelical sermons. The site of these sermons had to be changed three times to accomodate the thousands who attended. The wide popularity of these sermons attracted the attention of the staunchly conservative theologians of the Sorbonne. In a series of responding Lenten sermons, six bachelors of theology from the Sorbonne leveled charges of heresy and Lutheranism at Roussel. The sermons also accused the king and Marguerite of being protectors of Roussel. Shortly after Easter, a delegation of theologians, including the arch-conservative Noël Béda, was sent by the Sorbonne to the king to press charges of heresy against Roussel. The king, instead of arresting Roussel, ordered the banishment of the Sorbonne delegation including Béda.
In October of 1533, a satirical play was produced by the students of the Collège de Navarre in which Marguerite of Navarre was depicted preaching heresy. The play included a fury who was a thinly veiled reference to Roussel instigating Marguerite. Later in the month, Marguerite again became the center of controversy when her originally anonymously published Miroir de l' âme pécheresse (Mirror of the Sinful Soul) appeared on the black list of the University of Paris. Francis I came to the defense of his sister, and the Sorbonne was forced to back down.
On November 1, All Saint's Day, the newly elected rector of the university of Paris, Nicholas Cop preached a sermon heavily influenced by the writings of Erasmus and Luther. He attacked the conservative theological faculty, and ended with the following words: "Blessed are the persecuted! Let us not be afraid of confessing the Gospel. Should we strive to please man rather than God? Should we fear those who can kill the body yet are powerless over the soul?" The outcry from the university and threat of a trial by the Parlement lead Cop to flee Paris for Basle.
Both the university and the Parlement appealed to the king to take action responding to the spread of heresy in Paris. Undoubtedly in response to his meeting with the Pope in Marseilles, Francis addressed a letter on 10 December , 1533 to the Parlement of Paris expressing his displeasure at the spread of Lutheranism in the French capital, and vowed to use all means to stamp it out.* When Francis returned to Paris in February, 1534, the persecutions quickly petered out. Roussel was cleared of all charges and Noël Béda, the reactionary theologian, was banished for life to Mont-Saint-Michel.
The radical swings in Francis I's actions have been variously explained. Clearly his political situation necessitated a balancing act between different factions. While wanting an alliance with the Pope to support his claim to the Italian territories, Francis I also needed to maintain his ties with the pro-Reform German princes in their mutual opposition to the Emperor. At the same time his court was deeply divided in factions. His sister, Marguerite of Navarre and Jean du Bellay, the Bishop of Paris, were the focal point of a faction sympathetic to the Reformers cause at the French court. On the other hand, Anne de Montmorency, the marshal of France and the Grand Maître of the King's household, and Cardinal Antoine Duprat, chancellor of France and archbishop of Sens, were both staunchly orthodox in their views.
The Affair of the Placards in October 1534 forced Francis's hand. Protestant broadsheets or placards entitled Articles véritables sur les horribles, grands & importables abuz de la Messe papalle ("True articles on the horrible, great and insufferable abuses of the papal mass') had been posted in various public places during the night of October 18. This caused an immediate public reaction. Under the leadership of the Parlement persecutions against pro-reformers began. Francis could not condone such a Protestant action directed at the very foundation of the church.
The Ambassadors should be seen in this context of shifting politcal alliances, religious conflict, and changing fortunes. When Jean Dinteville arrived in England in February of 1533 there were hopes of a stronger alliance between England and France, but when he returned to France in November of 1533, the relationship between Henry VIII and Francis I had clearly cooled.
Dinteville, as the representative of Henry VIII's principal ally, was in a pivotal position in this eventful year of 1533. That his brother François, the Bishop of Auxerre had been the French Ambassador to the Vatican the previous year accentuated the important role Jean played in trying to resolve the differences between the Pope, Francis I, and Henry VIII. A letter that Jean sent to his brother on May 23 gives us interesting insights into the delicate negotiations he had to conduct. At the beginning of the letter, Dinteville refers to an apparently off-handed comment the Pope had made in the presence of François. Clement VII observed that the marriage of Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn "would be better made than to make." Dinteville saw the potentials of this remark in trying to reconcile the differences between Henry VIII and Clement VII. He asks his brother whether he can use this in his discussions with Henry, and suggests that his brother might remind the Pope of this comment. Dinteville thought that the matter was of such "considerable importance" that the Grand Maître (Anne de Montmorency) and Bishop of Paris (Jean du Bellay) might be informed. Unbeknownst to Jean Dinteville on the very day he sent this letter, May 23, Thomas Cranmer took the fateful step of declaring Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon null and void.
Later in this same letter Jean Dinteville refers to George de Selve's visit to him which brought him "no small pleasure." His reference to the visit concludes with the intriguing remark that "there is no need for the Grand Maître to know anything about it." Except this and another letter from Dinteville date June 4, there is no other record of the visit save for the The Ambassadors itself. What would de Selve have had to report that needed to be kept secret from the most powerful man in France after the King? It is interesting to note how Dinteville does not explicitly refer to Jean du Bellay here like elsewhere in the letter. That du Bellay's name is not paired with the Grand Maître's suggests that perhaps du Bellay knew about the mission. The opposing positions that du Bellay and Montmorency took on the direction of the French church might suggest a possible topic of exchange between the two kings. The Grand Maître , as noted above, was a staunch supporter of orthodoxy, while du Bellay and de Selve as members of the moderate faction had sympathies for the reformers' positions and were strong advocates for reconciliation of the church. It has been noted above how Francis I, during the Spring of 1533, was attempting to maintain a balancing act between the orthodox and moderate factions within the French church.
Henry VIII understood Dinteville's position between the factions in the French court. At the request of Henry, Dinteville wrote a letter dated June 9 to Jean du Bellay in addition to a separate letter addressed to Francis and the Grand Maître. Henry saw in du Bellay and his family allies. His brother, Guillaume du Bellay, seigneur de Langey, in 1530 had canvassed the theologians at the university of Paris in support of Henry's cause to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled. Guillaume's activities were secretly endorsed by Francis I, who avoided coming out publicly on behalf of Henry for fear of offending the Emperor Charles V who was holding Francis's sons hostage. Fierce opposition to the annullment of Henry's marriage to Catherine was mounted by the conservative faction within the Sorbonne lead by Noël Béda, who as mentioned earlier was a primary opponent to Lutheranism. Dinteville's June 9, 1533 letter to du Bellay expresses Henry VIII's anger at reports he has received from the Consistory at Rome that Francis "...would use all his power to resist the Lutherans, and even attack them if necessary." What is undoubtedly a reference to the influence of Montmorency on Francis, Dinteville passes on to du Bellay the remark of Henry that "...the French king has been badly counselled and badly served." Henry VIII urges du Bellay through the letter from Dinteville to use his influence Francis to take the more moderate position endorsed by Henry.
This climate of secrecy and careful negotiation between opposing factions finds resonance within The Ambassadors. Here most explicitly in the political symbolism of the lute:
de Selve in his writings frequently comes back to the theme of resolving the religious and political divisions through a spiritual peace in Jesus Christ. His writings also refer to the difficulties of serving a temporal lord. True peace and security can only be gained by serving continually the true master, Jesus Christ.