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During the early to mid 18th century two world empires were jostling for position, both in the Old World and the New. As a result of the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Latin America in the 15th and 16th centuries, Spain, with its access to Aztec and Inca gold and silver, had become the world's richest and most powerful nation. Nevertheless, this wealth had been squandered unwisely by the fanatic catholic monarch Philip II in his wars of religion, not least the abortive Spanish Armada of 1588.Within a further century and a half, Spain and her colonies remained fabulously wealthy, but the strain of continual hostilities had set this vast global empire on an ineluctably declining course. Meanwhile, the rising star on the international horizon was the nascent British Empire, far more concerned with trade than with conquest, yet operating in substantially the same transatlantic and European areas as their Hispanic rivals. Warfare between the two global giants seemed inevitable, and indeed it was, but for many years a delicate balancing act was maintained between the rising and falling superpowers by the diplomatic and persuasive skills of one brilliant man, described by contemporaries as having "great wit and universal knowledge." This expert funambulist on the tense international stage was Sir Benjamin Keene, Member of Parliament for Maldon and Looe, as well as Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Spanish Court in Madrid. The living embodiment of Walpole's peace-loving and trade orientated administration in London, Keene negotiated shoal after shoal of tricky situations and left both sides satisfied in the potential powder keg of 18th century European and colonial relations. The front cover, by Van Loo - shows Sir Benjamin Keene as Ambassador to Ferdinand VI. In 1753 the new town - later to become a city - of Keene was, in a strikingly complimentary gesture, named in honour of Sir Benjamin by Benning Wentworth, the Governor of New Hampshire.

  
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