Skip to main content Skip to navigation

Abstract Ronald Asch

The princely court and political space in early modern Europe

Ronald G. Asch (Freiburg i. Br.)



The hierarchy of space in the princely palace


Court life in early modern Europe was dominated by the quest for place and profit and by the competition for status and precedence. Both were intimately linked to the politics of access. Only those who were able to gain access to the ruler could hope to influence his decisions in matters of patronage and to gain his favour. Court ceremonial granted or denied rights of access to certain groups of persons by reserving specific rooms in the palace for a select circle of courtiers and the ruler’s personal attendants. This spatial differentiation was particularly pronounced at those courts which followed the Burgundian-Spanish ceremonial rules – as for example in Vienna and most other German courts – but also in England, much less so in France where the King in comparison to Madrid or the imperial court was easily accessible and where most courtiers could at certain times of the day even enter the royal bedchamber, the innermost sanctum of the palace. Social distinction was organised at the French court not so much by spatial principles but by granting other privileges as for example the various “entrées” during the lever and the coucher. the right to join the King on his hunting expeditions or the right of women to be presented to the King (honneurs de la cour). In stressing the comparative spatial openness of the French court, however, a number of reservations are necessary. 1. French kings could only afford to be so accessible because a strict etiquette and a sophisticated ideal of polite conversation which rendered it almost impossible to mention any controversial subject when talking to the King, made it very difficult for courtiers to raise personal complaints in conversation outside an official audience, and such an audience was only rarely granted. On the other hand the King was able to express his displeasure with great effect by the smallest gestures and signs, even a mere frown. In the sixteenth century when the refined politeness of the honnête homme did not yet shape noble culture to the same extent the openness of France royal palaces had been a much greater political problem as for example under Henry III. Accessibility and severe restrictions on communication were thus dependent on each other. 2. Nevertheless even Louis XIV felt a need to enjoy some privacy by retiring to his (second) wife’s appartments or a smaller residence or lodge near Versailles (e. g. Marly) at times. To be able to follow the monarch into this “private” space was a privilege of the utmost value. On a different level an apartment in the royal palace itself granted to real or “supernumerary” officeholders was an important status symbol in Versailles.

Outside France, in Madrid and Vienna but also at Whitehall or at many German courts the ruler’s (and his or her consort’s) apartments normally formed a long sequence of presence, guard, audience and antechambers, leading up to the cabinet and the bedchamber. Apart from formal audiences – and often not even then - only very few courtiers could enter the actual living quarters of the monarch, who remained invisible to most of them for long stretches of time and was most easily accessible when he went to chapel or while hunting. However monarchs were confronted by a paradox. If they were too easily accessible it became difficult to control the stream of petitions and suits, they risked being too generous and to undermine their own ministers by listening too often to opposing court factions. On the other hand, a monarch who shut him self off from all contacts in his Privy lodgings could loose control and provoke the growth of a political fronde outside the court. Moreover early modern courts were governed by a sort of horror vacui. Palaces could only represent the splendour of majesty when they were filled by courtiers – rooms that were empty and festivals which were thinly attended were seen as a sign that the ruler’s prestige and authority were in danger. Royal and princely palaces often sought to impress visitors and the public by the sheer vast amount of space which they provided for ceremonial occasions and accommodation, but this only worked when the royal household was sufficiently large to fill this space. This may explain why some monarchs preferred at times a minimalist approach; small studiolos or cabinets within the palace which created an atmosphere of intimacy could emphasize the aura of majesty and could give the visitor the impression to enter into the sphere of the arcana imperii, an impression underlined by decorations which for the very reason that their message was difficult to decipher re-einforced the feeling that mere mortals were inadequate to understand the mysterious ways of their god-like rulers. Equally small country houses and hunting lodges built in the style of an Italian villa could impress the visitor more by their elegance and their exquisite taste than by any outward splendour or their sheer size – the Queen’s house in Greenwich and other buildings by Inigo Jones would be an example for this approach.



The Court and the wider political space


In the 16th century most monarchs had still travelled a great deal. Some like Charles V spent almost their entire life travelling from one part of their realm to another, others limited their progresses mainly to a select number of favourite palaces situated in or in a convenient distance from the administrative capital as for example Elizabeth I of England. However only during the course of the 17th century did royal government cease to be itinerant. Louis XIV settled at Versailles and English kings tended to spend most of the year in the later 17th century at Whitehall or Windsor or perhaps at Hampton Court, but rarely ventured any further. To the extent that the monarch was no longer physically present outside the capital and its immediate surroundings and that solemn entries into the great cities of the realm became a matter of the past he had to be represented in other ways. Statues, coats of arms, pictures in town halls and public buildings or even triumphal arches in public squares were meant to dominate the public space in the remotest corner of the realm. In the capital itself courtiers built impressive town houses, which transformed the urban environment. Cities like Vienna were dominated entirely by the palaces of the aristocracy in the 18th century and became a sort of extension of the court; even the religious space was shaped by the court and courtiers and great aristocratic families constructed conspicuous funeral monuments in the more important city churches (Hengerer). In other capitals the effect was more ambivalent. In London Westminster became equally dominated by the town houses of the aristocracy in the 17th cand 18th century but these were no mere extension of the court. Rather they provided a rival social space which was in competition with the court and which in the end almost marginalized it in the 18th century. This held also good to a lesser extent, however, for Parisian salons and the hotels of the French aristocrats who moved to Paris in the 18th century to escape the strict etiquette of the court in Versailles.



The public sphere and the court


The court was a public space which gained its prestige and special function from the fact that it was also the ruler’s private space. In any case its accessibilty was limited to a greater or lesser extent and those who did gain access did not all do so on the same conditions. By entering this specific space which even in legal terms was separated from other areas, having its own jurisdiction, one accepted the rules and norms set by the monarch for his courtiers and all visitors. One may therefore be tempted to see the court as a typical example of a public sphere where communication between equals – and as some would argue all communication based on sincerity instead of dissimulation - was impossible but where the public provided merely a passive audience for the words and actions of one dominant actor, the prince (repräsentative Öffentlichkeit). However, this view of things is too one-sided; even rulers such as Louis XIV who asserted their pretended absolute power in the strongest terms had to respect – and to be seen to respect - their courtiers’ claims to status and honour. In fact the secret of Louis XIV’s success was that he gave the higher nobility largely, apart from some disgruntled malcontents such as the Duke of Saint-Simon, the feeling that he did so. To some extent aristocrats who enjoyed enough social credit, however defined, were even under an “absolute” monarchy able to negotiate their status at court, though perhaps less so than in the 16th century when withdrawal from court and even military revolt were still real political options. But the court was not just the stage for the monarch’s glory and majesty, it provided also the indispensable platform for the search for prestige and honour which was of such a paramount importance for aristocrats. This search for honour could only succeed if the actions performed by noblemen and their families took place in public under the “sovereign’s gaze” and that of other courtiers. Thus the court was a typical example for a space marked by agonistic communication (Rau/Schwerhoff, Räume, p. 19), a space hierarchically structured and in which some where actors and others indeed mere spectators, but which was nevertheless more than just the theatre of royal power.