studies in the history of science and culture
   IN BRIEF > BIOGRAPHIES > Don Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, Count de Gondomar (1567–1625)
   SEARCH this site
© January 2007
revised 7 March 2007

The following biography of Don Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, Count de Gondomar, the Spanish ambassador to England from 1613–1618, is copied from Alexander Brown’s The Genesis of the United States, vol. 2, pp. 899–901.

As always, Brown is most interested in a subject’s association with “the movement in England, 1605–1616, which resulted in the plantation of North America by englishmen, disclosing the contest between England and Spain for the possession of the soil now occupied by the United States of America,” and his biography of Gondomar slants in this direction. Among other details, Brown gives a transcription of one of Gondomar’s letters, dated 28 November 1616, interpreting recent events of note in the English colonies of Bermuda and Virginia for the Spanish king. Gondomar mentions the privations suffered in the Bermudas on account of a sudden deluge of rats — an unforeseen consequence of chaotic colonial development on the islands. Captain John Smith described the same event in the 5th book of his Generall Historie of Virginia, New England, & the Summer Isles, explaining the infestation of rats as God’s punishment for certain questionable “proceedings” of the colonial administration, including the dishing out of coporal punishment. According to Smith, “in the space of two yeeres” the Bermudas were “neere devoured with rats”:

... they filled not onely those places where they were first landed, but swimming from place to place, spread themselves into all parts of the Countrey, insomuch that there was no Iland but it was pestered with them; and some fishes have beene taken with rats in their bellies, which they caught in swimming from Ile to Ile: their nests they had almost in every tree, and in most places their burrowes in the ground like conies: they spared not the fruits of the plants, or trees, nor the very plants themselves, but ate them up. When they [the colonists] had set their corne, the rats would come by troupes in the night and scratch it out of the ground. If by diligent watch any escaped till it came to earing, it should then very hardly escape them: and they became noysome even to the very persons of men.

They [the colonists] used all the diligence they could for the destroying of them, nourishing cats both wilde and tame, for that purpose; they used ratsbane, and many times set fire on the woods, that oft ran halfe a mile before it was extinct; every man was enjoyned to set twelve traps, and some of their owne accord have set neere an hundred, which they ever visited twice or thrice in a night; they also trained up their dogges to hunt them, wherein they became so expert, that a good dog in two or three houres would kil forty or fifty. Many other devices they used to destroy them, but could not prevaile, finding them still increasing against them: nay they so devoured the fruits of the earth, that they [the colonists] were destitute of bread for a yeere or two; so that when they had it afterwards, they were so wained [weaned] from it, they easily neglected to eat it with their meat. Besides they endevoured so much for the planting [of] Tobacco for present gaine, that they neglected many things [that] might more have prevailed for their good; which caused amongst them much weaknesse and mortality, since the beginning of this vermine.

(Works, ed. Arber, ii:658–9)

Gondomar concludes his account of the rat infestation with speculation that the desperate English colonists would do as they had always done: send “some vessels to plunder and provide themselves with victuals in the countries nearest to Y. M.’s subjects.” The plunder of Spanish colonies and treasure ships was still then a means of financing English colonial enterprises, and this sort of English privateering was a sub-text to the dispute over what Philip III of Spain called in one of his letters to London, “the mischief” Ralegh and associates “had done in the Indies” during Ralegh’s 2nd failed expedition to Guiana of 1617–18 in search of the fabled city of gold, known as Manoa, and its nearby ore deposits.

While many historians credit Gondomar with engineering Ralegh’s execution, Gondomar was gone from England when the beheading took place on 29 October 1618. As Brown notes, Gondomar left England in July 1618, soon after Ralegh returned to London from the disastrous expedition to Guiana. And Gondomar did not return to England until March 1620 (“new style” calendar), well after Ralegh was put to death.

But by the time he left England in 1618, Gondomar had set in motion a course of events that turned Ralegh’s expeditionary threat to Spanish interests in the West Indies to Spanish advantage.

Gondomar was a courtier, a scholar, a collector of objets d’art, an intriguer, an intellectual, a brilliant conversationalist and a surpassingly fine diplomat. He could joke with King James, make up the dog Latin phrases James loved to exchange, flatter James’s scholarship, play upon him as on an instrument. In time Gondomar established an extraordinary mental ascendancy over King James, and he used his influence to try to steer James away from his support of the French, Dutch and German Protestant princes. He was a most capable politician and he took advantage of every shift in the European political scene. He advocated especially keenly a marriage between Prince Charles and the Spanish Infanta. The match had at least one powerful incentive for King James. Spain offered a dowry of £600,000.

Gondomar exerted himself to stop Ralegh’s expedition. He first offered Ralegh a safe conduct to the mine. If gold was really all Ralegh wanted, then he could dig for it to his heart’s content, under Spanish protection, and return with whatever he had mined. But Ralegh refused. He knew Spanish “protection” of old. To be protected by Spain often meant having one’s throat cut. Even King James jibbed at the notion of a Spanish escort. It would concede the Spaniards’ claim that they were the rightful owners of Guiana. Ralegh maintained that Guiana was English by right of his former occupation, and that it was the Spaniards who were intruding upon English soil. Quite possibly King James also believed this.

King James would have taken Ralegh’s side with much more conviction had Ralegh returned with enough gold.... Ralegh would be forgiven anything, could he bring home enough of it. As a matter of interest, the [Spanish] Plate Fleet in 1618 was worth £2,545,454. Had Ralegh brought home even a fraction of that, he would never have gone to the scaffold.

Gondomar could not stop Ralegh going, but he made it virtually impossible for him to succeed. He persuaded King James to promise that if Ralegh damaged Spanish property or subjects he would be delivered up to the Spanish authorities in Madrid for punishment — which, of course, would mean execution. King James demanded to know the number and size of Ralegh’s ships, their armament, the ports he intended to call at, and the dates — in short, all Ralegh’s plans, to the last detail. King James then gave this information to Gondomar, who passed it on to Madrid....

... Gondomar’s manipulation of King James resulted in an impossible situation for Ralegh. He was to be sent with an ostentatiously armed force into disputed territory, where the political atmosphere was known to be highly charged. The target gold-mine might, as Keymis believed and reported, be some distance away from any Spanish settlement. But the Spaniards would be waiting for Ralegh. They would know where and when he was coming. They would certainly resist his approach and any attempt to pass. And yet, if a single Spaniard was hurt or a single item of Spanish property damaged, then Ralegh’s life was forfeit.

(Winton 300–1)

Don Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, Count de Gondomar (1567–1625)

Gondomar, ‘Don Diego Sarmiento de Acuña, Count de Gondomar.’ Spanish ambassador to England. Edward Edwards in his ‘Life of Ralegh,’ vol. i. pp. 569–572, gives his pedigree, also a biography of him, from which I will extract: ‘He was born on All Saints’ Day in 1567; was serving (though not actually in arms) against Francis Drake in 1584. He served against Portugal in 1589. He was made civil and military governor of Tuy in 1596, when the news came to the Escurial of the sailing of the expedition under Essex and Ralegh. In Galicia, he acquitted himself so much to his master’s satisfaction, that Philip the Second soon afterwards made him a knight of the Order of Calatrava and governor and alcalde of Bayonne; with which he retained his important command at Tuy. He also became corregidor of Valladolid, and, eventually, a member of the Spanish Council of State.’

“‘In the first days of 1613 the English government was in expectation of a Spanish invasion,’ and on January 10 the Council ordered the sheriffs to search the houses of recusants for arms; but the Spaniards persuaded themselves that the colony of Virginia, which was the ‘bone of contention,’ would certainly die out of itself, and they, resolving to leave the matter to diplomacy rather than to arms, replaced their ambassador in England by one of the ablest diplomatists in their service, Don Diego Sarmiento de Acuña (see Gardiner’s ‘Hist. of England,’ ii. pp 164, 165). He arrived at Portsmouth late in July, and at London in August, 1613. He found only four survivors of the original pensioners of Spain, ‘the Earl of Northampton, and Lady Suffolk, Sir William Monson, the admiral of the narrow seas, and Mrs Drummond, the first lady of the bedchamber to the queen.’ To these Sir Thomas Lake was added within a few years, and Gondomar became very intimate with Sir Robert Cotton.

“The following is a copy of one of the last letters that I have from Gondomar relating to the American enterprise :—

“General Archives of Simancas. Department of State, vol. 2596, folio 7. November 28, 1616. Copy of an original letter from Don Diego Sarmiento de Acuña to the King of Spain, dated London, December 7, 1616.

“‘Sire,—I have told Y. M. of the Colonies of Virginia and Bermuda what is found in different dispatches; there is no news of importance, except that here altho’ they consider that of Bermuda as of great importance; on the other hand, it is reported that the mice have multiplied to such an extent as to eat their wheat and any other grains which they sow, so that the English who have gone there have endured such suffering that five men took a boat with four oars, with a sack of bisquits and a barrel of water and came to this place. It took them nearly twenty days, having made the voyage in a very short time and meeting no storms, which has excited great admiration at their happy escape, and on this account they have been pardoned. They speak now of sending large supplies of provisions to Bermuda. I have heard that the people on the island have sent some vessels to plunder and provide themselves with victuals in the countries nearest to Y. M.’s subjects.

“‘In Virginia matters are said to go on better since they have made peace with the Indians; but in spite of all that they complain very much of the misery endured there by the English, who are there, and it must be so, for the President of the Company of these Colonies, having authority here to take for their benefit any prisoners he may choose among those who have been condemned for criminal causes, has had some who have preferred hanging to going to Virginia. A few days ago, when they were about to hang some thieves, three of them, the soundest and strongest, were chosen to go to Virginia; two of them accepted, but the third would not, and seeing the two returning to gaol, he said; Let them go there, and they will remember me! Then he urged the hangman to shorten his work, as if he was thus relieved of a greater evil, and thus it was done. Here, however, they preserve these places very carefully, as it appears to them that they will be very useful to England, if there should be war with Spain. And I feel sure that for this reason and for honour’s sake they will never give them up. May God preserve the Catholic person of Y. M. as Christendom needeth it. London, December, 7, 1616. DON DIEGO SARMIENTO DE ACUÑA.’

“He was created Count of Gondomar in April, 1617; but remained in Eng[land] until July, 1618. Lorkin to Puckering, from Greenwich, June 16, 1618: ‘The Spanish ambassador [Gondomar] took his leave here at court on Sunday was sennight’ (June 8th). The same letter mentions the arrival in London of Sir Walter Ralegh.

“During his absence the Spanish secretary, Julian Sanchez de Ulloa, was the acting Spanish ambassador, and on September 26, 1618, Philip III. wrote to him that ‘the English king assured Gondomar that he would either punish Raleigh and his associates for the mischief they had done in the Indies, or send them to Spain for punishment.’ Fray Diego de Lafuente (‘Padre Maestro’), Gondomar’s confessor, was also representing Spain in England during the autumn of 1618.

“Sanchez wrote to Philip III. from London October 2/12, 1618: ‘The English are very hastily settling and fortifying Bermuda and Virginia, sending every year a number of men there, and this year more than 700 persons have already gone, taking with them samples of various fruits to plant, and a variety of fowls and cattle to raise there, and a supply of artillery, ammunition, and arms, and many tools to erect earthworks and fortifications.’

“Gondomar returned to England in March, 1619/20 (Philip III. died March 31, 1621, and was succeeded by Philip IV.). I have a long letter written by Gondomar, on January 23, 1621/2, to Secretary Juan de Ciriza regarding the taking of the Spanish ship, Sancto Antonio, at the Bermudas; but Virginia is not mentioned. The new Spanish ambassador, Don Carolo de Columbo (Don Carlos Coloma), arrived in England about the last of April, 1622; Gondomar returned to Spain in May, 1622, and was never in England again. He was made a councilor of state at Madrid in March, 1622/3. The assertion that James I. annulled the Va. charter at the instance of Gondomar is incorrect. When the charter was declared null and void by Chief Justice Lee, Gondomar had been absent from England for more than two years. Spain’s demands were really against the colony, not the company. Spain’s strongest point had been that her territory was being settled by a mere company of English adventurers. The annulling of the charter, and taking the colony more immediately and publicly under the protection of the crown of England was the conclusive answer to this point; and the act was rendered necessary at this time, as well by the war then existing with Spain as by the factions which existed in the Va. Co. In fact, every member of the Council of War (April 21, 1624) was interested in Virginia, namely: Lord Grandison, Lord Carew, Lord Brooke, Lord Chichester, Sir Edward Conway, Sir Edward Cecil, Sir Horace Vere, Sir John Ogle, Sir Robert Mansell, and Sir Thomas Button.

“Gondomar died at Bommel in Flanders in 1625. ‘He told a merry tale; read Shakespeare’s plays, subscribed for a First Folio; liked English wines; assured Sir John Digby that he was an Englishman at heart; was very gallant to the ladies;’ and ‘became all things to all men.’ Granger says, ‘Perhaps there never was a man who had so much art as Gondomar, with so little appearance of it.’”

(Brown II:899–901)


an IN BRIEF biography of James I of England, the king whom Gondomar “could play upon ... as on an instrument”

* * *
an IN BRIEF biography of Sir Walter Ralegh, whose final downfall Aubrey attributed to Gondomar and his unique brand of “Spanish Politicks”

* * *
an IN BRIEF biography of the Spanish ambassador to England ca. 1605–1612, Don Pedro de Zuñiga

* * *
further discussion of Don Alonso de Velasco, the Spanish ambassador preceding Gondomar, in the GALLERY exhibit on the “Velasco Map” of 1610/11

* * *
further discussion of Captain Keymis's reconnoitering expeditions to Guiana (on Ralegh's behalf) in a letter from Keymis's old college friend, Thomas Hariot, to Sir Robert Cecil; see the digital transcription of Hariot’s letter (dated 1596) in the LIBRARY

< Count de Gondomar, Spanish ambassador to the court of James I

Attributed to A. Blyenberch.

At least of one of Gondomar’s portraits — perhaps this one — was engraved, stocked and sold in London by the Commonwealth print dealer, Thomas Jenner, active from 1618–1672.

< Count de Gondomar, Spanish ambassador to the court of James I

From Ben Damman’s engraving of the original portrait by Mytens at Hampton Court (as of 1890, when reproduced by Alexander Brown in vol. 1 of his Genesis of the United States, facing pg. 430).

return to top of page

up a level: IN BRIEF page

This Web page was last modified on:  09/02/2014 12:56 PM.