Sir Benjamin Keene, KB, (1697 in King's Lynn – 1757 in Madrid) was a British diplomat known for his service as British Ambassador to Spain. He strove to maintain good relations between the two countries, but was unable to prevent the War of Jenkins' Ear breaking out in 1739. He later successfully kept Spain neutral when the Seven Years' War broke out in 1756. At the height of his powers he wielded wide influence over events in Spain, and was in the confidence of leading Spanish statesmen.
Keene was born in King's Lynn to Charles Keene, who served twice as mayor, and to his wife Susan Rolfe of Heacham in Norfolk. Keene's aunt, Mary Rolfe, was the wife of Rev. Thomas Pyle of Lynn and mother of Joyce Pyle, who stood as one of the sponsors at Admiral Lord Nelson's private baptism. Keene was named after his uncle Benjamin Keene, the first mayor of King's Lynn under the letters patent granted by King Charles II. Sir Robert Walpole was acquainted with Keene's maternal grandfather, Edmund Rolfe who acted as Walpole's election agent in the borough of Lynn and extended his patronage to the young man. After attending King's Lynn Grammar School and securing a post with the South Sea Company, Keene joined the diplomatic service and swiftly rose to prominence with Walpole's assistance.
Ambassador in Madrid
Keene was twice British ambassador to Madrid, in 1729–39 and 1748–57.
During his first mission Keene was following the advice of Walpole. He negotiated the Treaty of El Pardo in 1728 and the 1739 Convention of El Pardo in an attempt to prevent war between the two states. That mission was interrupted by the War of Jenkin's Ear (1739–1748), and so he was forced to return to London, but just after the peace was concluded, he set off again to Spain.
Ambassador in Lisbon
Following his departure from Spain in 1739, Keene was sent to Lisbon as ambassador to Portugal - while also continuing to function as a de facto ambassador to Spain. He was involved in peace talks along with the Marquis de Tabernuiga in attempt to end the conflict, but these ultimately broke down. When the war was brought to an end by the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle, Keene returned to Madrid and resumed his role as ambassador there.
Keene was very influential at the Spanish court. He played a major role in ousting the anti-British Marquis of Ensenada and helping a new Spanish minister of Irish descent seize power - Ricardo Wall. In the wake of this, King George II conferred the Order of the Bath on Keene, who had the honour presented to him by the Spanish king in a special ceremony. The king was grateful to Keene for exposing Ensenada, who had violated the monarch's policy of friendship to Britain. In the wake of this a number of Anglophile ministers came to power, further strengthening Keene's hand.
Because of this, Spain guided by Wall, stayed out of the Seven Years' War until 1762 - denying France one of her major allies and contributing to the decisive British victory in that war. He died in Madrid shortly after being relieved of his position due to ill health. He had requested his recall to London on several occasions, but he was considered too valuable to British interests for his withdrawal to be considered.
Following Keene's death in 1757, his position was taken by George Hervey, 2nd Earl of Bristol, who struggled to make the same impact as Keene had. Following the accession of king Charles III in 1759, he was unable to prevent Spain entering the war on the side of France and against Britain.
- Richard Lodge The Private Correspondence of Sir Benjamin Keene. In: The English Historical Review, Vol. 49, No. 194 (Apr., 1934), pp. 344–45.
- Rodger, N.A.M. The Insatiable Earl: A Life of John Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich, 1718-1792. Harper Collins, 1993.
- Simms, Brendan. Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire. Penguin Books, 2008.
- JSTOR The Private Correspondence of Sir Benjamin Keene
- Oxford Biography Index
- Sir Benjamin Keene's papers, GB/NNAF/P150670, National Archives
- Portrait of Sir Benjamin Keene
- Will of His Excellency, Sir Benjamin Keene, His Majesty's Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Catholic King of Madrid