History Today eBook: The Second World War

The French Renaissance Court

R.J. Knecht looks at the ­practical considerations behind the smooth operation of the huge courts of the Valois kings of France.

Courts have long been a popular subject among a certain reading public. The love affairs of kings, queens and royal mistresses – what the French aptly sum up as histoire d’alcôve – have been the stuff of popular historiography for centuries; but a court needs also to be considered as an institution, significant politically, socially and culturally. Politically, it was the centre of decision-making; socially, it attracted all those people looking for advancement for themselves and their relatives by capturing some morsel of royal largesse; culturally, it promoted innovation and excellence, notably in the visual arts, often as a means of projecting the monarch’s image to the world at large. In recent years a number of historians have focused their attention on the court in a number of countries, notably Britain and Spain. The subject is now well-established and has prompted the creation in Britain of a Society for Court Studies with its own scholarly journal. The court of France has not been neglected, but much of the attention has focused on Louis XIV’s court at Versailles (r.1643-1715) – a huge gathering of nobles and ladies, revolving around the royal person, and controlled by a rigid code of etiquette. This image is far removed from the French court as it existed during the Renaissance, say between 1483 (when Charles VIII came to the throne) and 1589 (the beginning of the reign of Henry IV). It was then a motley crowd of people who sometimes stayed put, but were more often moving across the kingdom and largely unaware of etiquette. The king was surprisingly accessible to his subjects. A royal edict of 1530 showed how easy it was for anyone to enter his lodging: 

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