Never trust a man called Smith. Or rather, don't trust him if he has a fake beard and is travelling with another man called Smith who also has a fake beard. This is one of the profound moral lessons which emerge from one of the most extraordinary incidents in 17th-century English history.
On 17 February 1623, the future Charles I and the royal favourite, the Duke of Buckingham, set off for Madrid incognito. They wore false beards, and they called themselves John and Thomas Smith. Their mission was to win the hand of the sister of the king of Spain, the Infanta Marķa. The courtly duo were not well suited to a life in mufti. The only coins they carried were of a suspiciously large denomination. A ferryman to whom they gave a silver 20-shilling piece decided they must be noblemen who were going to fight a duel abroad, and reported them to the authorities. At Rochester they spotted an ambassador and his escort, and fled over the fields to Canterbury. There the mayor attempted to arrest them, and Buckingham had to pull off his beard, confess his identity, and claim that as admiral of the fleet he was off to arrange an impromptu inspection at Dover. The prince and the favourite then joined up with two courtiers, Endymion Porter (who had been born in Spain) and Sir Francis Cottington, and set sail for France on 19 February. They were thoroughly sick on the voyage. The small party was conspicuous enough to be identified by a group of German tourists outside Paris, so they took the precaution of buying periwigs to thicken their disguises. These were effective enough to enable them to see the sights of the French court without being identified. They then trekked down the Iberian peninsula, where they behaved like the very best kind of Englishmen abroad, rustling goats and provoking fights by making tactless remarks about people's mothers.
LRB 2 September 2004 | PDF Download