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HistoryVersailles through the centuries

The courtiers



The nobility surrounding the King

The kings of France lived surrounded by many members of the nobility, the courtiers. To attract the favours of the monarch, they were obliged to frequent the royal residences regularly and observe the strict rules of conduct. In return for constant availability, they were rewarded with royal pensions and financial gratifications, living quarters in the palace of Versailles and regular invitations to festivities and ceremonies.

"The whole of France around the King".The spacious quarters at Versailles allowed a large Court to live in residence close to the King. Depending on the days, 3,000 to 10,000 people crowded there, forming a very varied society with a rigid hierarchy. Some were there by birthright, others by social obligation, others out of self-interest or curiosity, and others still to earn their living. The high-ranking nobility were often present, currying the favours of the master of Versailles.

The courtiers were obliged to follow the rules of Etiquette. These extremely strict rules governed priority, determining not only who was allowed to approach the important people in the Court, but also where and when. Gestures and language were also codified and varied subtly according to the circumstances: this included using titles to address different people, the right to sit down, and use an armchair, a simple chair or a stool, etc.

Among the courtiers, those who held a role were said to be "established" at Court. These roles, either inherited or purchased, often very dearly, corresponded to a function or office. For the most important, the King's approval was essential; this was particularly the case for the secretaries of State. But for a simple valet de chambre or barber, the agreement of the Grand Master of the King's Household was sufficient. Living quarters in the palace were also highly sought after. They avoided much travelling back and forth and provided a place of retreat for those moments when one was not at Court. The princes of the royal family had apartments overlooking the gardens, while "established" courtiers were accommodated on the town side or in the Palace outbuildings: in the Grand Lodgings, the Stables and so on.

Serving the King in the army or in high administration was the principle means of gaining the Monarch's favour, even if the art of appearances at Court remained essential. Personal attributes, such as beauty or wit, rivalled with dazzling finery to attract the Monarch's attention. By granting the Court greater importance than either Henri IV or Louis XIII had done, Louis XIV gave the nobles a sense of service. Serving was a means of pleasing the Sovereign, it was useful to the kingdom and contributed to a certain control over the nobility, thereby strengthening the royal authority.

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