10/29/10 - life in the royal court

In today's excerpt - the 1700s saw the last gasps of court life for kings with any true overriding authority in Britain and France, and during this period court life evolved to exaggerated extremes. Lords, ladies and the hundreds of court employees that swirled around them were required to be present at court and strive for the attention and favor of the regents. Their status, land, titles, and livelihood were at stake, and the least faux pas could have real and devastating consequences. In this excerpt we see the court of King George I of England at Kensington Palace in the early 1700s. The fawning within these courts finds its echoes in the capitals and large corporations of today:

"The Great Drawing Room, crammed full of courtiers, lay at the heart of the Georgian royal palace. Here the king mingled most evenings with his guests, signaling welcome with a nod and displeasure with a blank stare or, worse, a turned back.

"The winners and the losers of the Georgian age could calculate precisely how high they'd climbed—or how far they'd fallen—by the warmth of their reception at court. High-heeled and elegant shoes crushed the reputations of those who'd dropped out of favor, while those whose status was on the rise stood firmly in possession of their few square inches of space.

"In the eighteenth century, the palace's most elegant assembly room was in fact a bloody battlefield. This was a world of skulduggery, politicking, wigs and beauty spots, where fans whistled open like flick knives. Intrigue hissed through the crowd, and court factions were also known as 'fuctions'. Beneath their powder and perfume, the courtiers stank of sweat, insecurity and glittering ambition.

"The ambitious visitors crowding into the drawing room were usually unaware that they were under constant observation from behind the scenes. The palace servants—overlooked but ever-present—knew of every move made at court. ...

"The Georgian royal household was staggeringly vast and complicated. The highest ranking of its members, the courtiers proper, were the ladies-and gentlemen-in-waiting. These noblemen and women were glad to serve the king and queen in even quite menial ways because of the honor involved.

"Beneath them in status were about 950 other royal servants, organized into a byzantine web of departments ranging from hair-dressing to rat-catching, and extending right down to the four 'necessary women' who cleaned the palace and emptied the 'necessaries' or chamber pots. ...

"While the monarchy was slowly sinking in status throughout the eighteenth century, the glamour of the court still attracted the pretty, the witty, the pushy and the powerful.

"But although Kensington Palace teemed with ambitious and clever people in search of fame and fashion, it was also a lonely place, and courtiers and servants alike often found themselves weary and heart-sore. Success in their world demanded a level head and a cold heart; secrets were never safe, a courtier had to keep up appearances in the face of gambling debts, loss of office or even unwanted pregnancy.

"Thousands longed to be part of the court, but John Hervey [a courtier in the Georgian court], knew all too well that danger lay hidden behind the palace walls. 'I do not know any people in the world,' he wrote to a courtier colleague, 'so much to be pitied as that gay young company with which you and I stand every day in the drawing-room.' "


Lucy Worsley


The Courtiers: The Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace


Walker Publishing Company, Inc.


Copyright 2010 by Lucy Worsley


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