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Merle

Merle

The Courtiers by Lucy Worsley

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

This is an entertaining, readable, yet well-researched look at the royal courts of George I and II of England (early to mid-18th century). Worsley picks out a handful of people and follows them throughout the book: a royal mistress who was also the queen’s lady-in-waiting; an ambitious painter who got the commission for a palace mural; a few hanger-ons who wrote extensively about their contacts with the royals; a feral child who was brought to court as a curiosity. A solid chunk of the book is also spent on the domestic intrigues of the royal family themselves – and wow, did these people tear each other apart at every opportunity – but we also learn a fair bit about the lives of the people around them. The book is worth reading for its storytelling alone.

Meanwhile, it taught me a lot about how the royal court functioned. The crowds of nobles at court, as it turned out, weren’t just the idle rich; much of what they were scheming for was jobs, which paid actual salaries, upon which many of them depended. Even menial positions close to the royalty were occupied by the nobility: we see a lot of one equerry, a sort of unarmed honor guard whose job was to follow the king around all day without apparently having much personal interaction with him, and who nevertheless is the son of an earl. Overall being a courtier sounds fairly miserable from a modern perspective (and based on their writings, at least some of these folks thought so too): always surrounded by other people, and if you were a woman, you wore incredibly restrictive clothing and took hours getting ready for an event. Though the maids of honor also got to raise quite a ruckus without anyone seeming to care much about their behavior. If you were married to someone in the line of succession though, you were expected to give birth before an audience of high-ranking men.

I did wish Worsley’s writing about the rules of court was more comprehensive. For instance, she mentions that no one was allowed to leave the king’s presence without his permission, which led to one unfortunate lady-in-waiting peeing all over the floor. To which my question is: how did the system normally work to keep this from happening all the time? Did the king spend tons of time granting people permissions to leave? Or was it understood when you attended an event that you had to wait for the king to leave first? Did this rule apply even in the crowded drawing-room gatherings, large enough to attract gate-crashers as well as actual courtiers? Did people dash out whenever the king himself left to use the toilet? Or did they all go around a bit dehydrated to ensure they wouldn’t have to? Or maybe the whole thing was more of an etiquette suggestion that this one lady took way too seriously? Maybe Worsley can’t explain further because no one wrote it down. But the book definitely left me curious about how the practices we see in the narrative worked in other contexts.

At any rate, this is entertaining history, gossipy without being frivolous, and I definitely learned a lot about the Hanovers from it (not having known anything about them previously). Worth reading for those interested in royal history.