Court History

Clarissa Campbell Orr explains the recent revival in the history of courts, from those of the Byzantine emperors to that of Hitler.

There has been a recent revival of interest in studying the history of royal or princely courts which has found a focus in the Society for Court Studies, started in September 1995. The study of courts is taken in its widest sense, to consider the dynamics of power of any ruler, be it a Byzantine emperor or a twentieth-century dictator. In April 1998, Jeremy Noakes, in a paper to the Society’s annual conference, explored the nature of ‘courtiers’ in attendance on Hitler. He argued that modern elected politicians have their personal entourages, masters of spin, confidantes and mistresses, just as royal or princely courts in the past had their favourites, chief ministers, masters of ceremonies -- and mistresses. The formal structure of power and the means of its legitimisation may vary, but it is probably not too rash a generalisation to say that all power centres take on the character of courts.

The modern study of court history, then, is not a nostalgic look at the glamour of deposed or defunct royalty, but a study of the mechanisms of power, personnel, patronage and public image, which yields insights applicable across historical periods and different cultural contexts. Courts, whether official or unofficial, in power or in waiting, generate a charisma which needs investigation. Courts are where power elites can be manipulated, and where networks of influence bypass official channels. Courts can be dazzling centres of glamour and public magnificence, served by the most talented artists, architects, garden designers and musicians of their era, like Louis XIV’s Versailles, or they can radiate tedium and worthy correctness, like George III’s at Kew; but for those with ambition, or an hereditary assumption that they should exercise power, they could not be ignored. Nor should their history be.

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