Why Court History Matters

By Croft, Pauline | History Today, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Why Court History Matters


Croft, Pauline, History Today


* Inigo Jones' Banqueting House in Whitehall, with its great Rubens ceiling depicting the ascent of James I to heaven, formed the setting for the launch party in September of the new Society for Court Studies.

Old-style historians regarded the rise and fall of nations, governments, religions and economies as the only proper subjects of research. Yet in recent years a dazzling array of new approaches - women's history; changing perceptions of landscape; the relationship between man and the natural world; the history of food and cooking, to name but a few - have all proved the value of broadening our range when looking at previous societies. Through them we come to a richer appreciation of our own.

The Society focuses primarily on Europe between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries, although we welcome the contributions of medievalists and modernists. The courts of a semi-European society such as Turkey, or an extra-European one like Japan, also provide fruitful comparisons. Everywhere, the court was the engine that moved the machinery of power, patronage-and propaganda. it was the focus of high politics, of dynasty-dominated foreign policy, of aristocratic rivalry, and not least of musical, literary and artistic culture. So court studies are vital. They must not be seen as superficial, still less as the frivolous hobby of ageing aristocrats nostalgic for defunct Ruritanian monarchies!

Monarchs played to an international audience of other rulers. Henry VIII of England and Francis I of France vied with one another to have the most splendid, most cultivated and most trend-setting court. Their meeting at the Field of the Cloth of Gold was a channel through which French fashions in the new-style tournament, in architecture and decoration came into England. Since the French court looked to Italy, the influence of the Renaissance on England also increased. In the same spirit of rivalry, Philip II of Spain set out to create a courtly setting for himself that would reinforce his claim to be the greatest prince in Christendom. He gathered information from France, Italy and the Netherlands, and his two great new palaces, the transformed Alcazar of Madrid and above all the Escorial, were intended to be the most magnificent in Europe. Even his collections of books, picture and relics were planned to outclass all others. Though the king himself lived in monastic austerity, his bedroom little bigger than a monk's cell, he saw the Escorial and its lavish contents as the necessary embodiment of Spain's superpower status.

Monarchs also played to their subjects at home, and court studies help us to understand the ways in which they retained and enhanced control over their kingdoms. Henry VI's shabby clothing and his distaste for ceremony were key factors in losing him the respect of the English aristocracy. The lesson was not lost on his Tudor successors. A royal court had to be perceived as the apex of society; it must not be outshone by the households of its nobles. Both Henry VII and Elizabeth I were extremely money-conscious, but both deliberately maintained imposing courts. Visitors to Henry VII's rebuilt palace of Sheen were impressed by its rich decoration of roses and portcullises, emblems of the newly-established Tudor dynasty, and its `many goodly chambers ... most richely enhaunggid'.

Not only architecture but also decoration, dress, jewellery, metalwork and all the symbols of conspicuous consumption formed part of the armoury of an aweinspiring court. The elaborate ritual followed for Elizabeth's meals was noted by ambassadors and visitors from the continent as well as by suitors thronging the palace. It emphasised the virtually sacred nature of the queen's person. The style of public dining, together with the tableware and other luxurious accessories on show, formed an important aspect of royal propaganda. Catherin the Great's enormous `Frog' dinner service, commissioned from Josiah Wedgwood and loaned by the Hermitage in summer 1995 to the Victoria and Albert Museum, was intended to astonish her subjects with the latest industrial technology. …

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