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Rob Hardy: The Courtiers


Rob Hardy



People like to hang out with the famous. You can, for instance, pay someone like Paris Hilton to come to your party, and thereby increase the chances that your guests will come away happy, although being close to Ms. Hilton might not convey any real power. You have more of a chance for power if you hang out with politicians, and of course there are plenty of people who strive to do so, and sometimes get paid for their efforts. It's nothing new; bowing and scraping to royalty was the way things were done, for instance, in the courts of England.  


In "The Courtiers: Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace" (Walker), Lucy Worsley has given a funny, gossipy, and, well, intriguing picture of the courts of George I and II. They were minor kings and flawed personalities (Worsley gives the most complimentary portraits of either you will find but does not skimp on their demerits), but their courts were active and bitchy and essential. This was how the king's organization was run, when the king had power that was just beginning to be encroached by Parliament. The court linked the king from the gentlemen of his bedchamber down to the lowest scullion.  


Worsley is in a privileged position to tell these stories; she is the curator for the organization that looks after Kensington Palace (as well as the Tower of London and Hampton Court), where in the Georges' time the court set itself for the summer months. She takes as her centerpiece the remarkable portraits that surround the King's Grand Staircase. They were commissioned by George I as part of his effort to make the Kensington retreat more palatial, and were painted by the ambitious artist William Kent in 1725. There are 45 figures in the mural, all of whom seem to be looking over a balustrade at people on the stairs; they hold their lapdogs and dandle their babies and look pleased to be eternally at court. Kent had the surprising idea of using real courtiers from the household as his subjects, so he is there, along with many of the people profiled in Worsley's book, the mistresses, the dwarf, the vice-chamberlain, and more.  


The novel mural was part of George I's tactics used against his son, the Prince of Wales, the future George II. Whatever benefit you get by being royalty, it does not seem to help family relationships, or it did not with these Georges. George I was believed, and there are grounds for the belief, to have had his wife's lover murdered in Hanover, over which he ruled. Queen Sophia was happy to gain a divorce, but then he clapped her under house arrest and denied her access to their son. In 1714, he was off with the son to England when at age 54 he became king, although he loved going back to Hanover where he felt more at home. He spoke only broken English, and before the Parliament appointed him the successor to Queen Anne, he had never previously been to England. He didn't like his English subjects much, nor they him. He might have been helped if he had a lively queen for the subjects to enjoy, but she was still a prisoner; instead, he brought one fat mistress and one skinny, and his unforgiving and irreverent subjects dubbed them The Elephant and The Maypole. He also brought his two trusted Muslim servants, and the nasty rumor was that they were kept for sodomy. The rumor was unfounded. It might be, too, that if there were a queen to run interference between George I and Prince George Augustus (the future King George II), the son might not have hated the father so.  


Misunderstandings of various levels of silliness led to "The Christening Quarrel" upon the birth of the fourth child of the prince in 1717. The king wanted a particular godfather to be appointed, the prince and princess had their own ideas on the issue and took offense that the king was trying to interfere, there were difficulties in German / English understanding, and the prince's family left their palace, with the special shock of realizing that the king could demand that their children be left in his care. A courtier wrote about "the difference running as high between the two courts as ever," with the king attempting to keep his courtiers around him while courtiers looking to a future stuck with the prince. The king liked being with his close friends and mistresses, and hated wider socializing, but with the quarrel, he used hospitality to keep his court together; the renewal of the palace at Kensington (and Kent's murals) were part of the attempt to keep his court sparkling. The prince did what he could for his fans, and the battle raged until a ball given by the king in 1720, which the prince deigned to attend, and which meant that they were again on speaking terms, but barely. 


Also involved in the tug of war between the king and the prince was Peter the Wild Boy who had been found in Germany and was presented to George I as a curiosity. He could not speak, he climbed trees with skill, and he shuffled along on all fours when he was on the ground. The King loved Peter for his complete lack of modesty and artifice, just the opposite of the courtiers around him, who nonetheless found that Peter was a wonderful subject to show off their own curiosity and the depth of their knowledge of current philosophical thinking.  


The king, in a fit of generosity, promised to give Peter to his son's wife, Princess Caroline, who liked such oddities, but then could not bear to make good on his promise. Peter was treated kindly, and lived a long time, although he was eventually tended in the country; he had what must be considered a happy life, unlike many profiled here. Caroline also procured a real hermit for her gardens. He was a poet and was shifted from making his obscure hermit life in the country to being a royal curiosity. He committed suicide. 


George II loved a court run by routine. Lord Hervey, whose memoirs of court life contribute to many of the anecdotes here, wrote that the king "'was rigidly attached to court etiquette,' and seemed 'to think his having done a thing today an answerable reason for his doing it to-morrow.'" The same daily routine resulted in mind-numbing boredom. Hervey wrote, "I will not trouble you with any account of our occupations; no mill-horse ever went in a more constant track, or a more unchanging circle." One of the things the court of George II did was to feed before his subjects. It might have been quite a show if you had a scorecard to keep track of the players.  


The audience, assembled specifically to watch a royal dinner take place, would have seen such plays as happened when the queen wanted a drink, and so "a page handed it to Henrietta [Henrietta Howard, the queen's Woman of the Bedchamber as well as official mistress to the king] who gave it to the Lady [of the Bedchamber] who finally presented it to the queen." Perhaps in an effort to see such a ballet more closely, at one dinner the crowd behind the rail pressed in and broke it. "The people who'd been leaning upon it all fell over and made a diverting scramble for hats and wigs, at which their Majesties laugh'd heartily." 


George II was to similarly alienate his own son Frederick who died before Frederick could ascend the throne, and he frightened Frederick's son, the little boy who was to become George III. This George, famous to Americans as the one who lost the American colonies to independence, was to inherit a court that had been tired out.  


Parliament was to have more power: the court and its routine and its detailed rules of protocol became less important, and so Worsley's book ends essentially with the death of George II. Every page here is full of reference notes, but the anecdotes are so peculiar and cover so many subjects (banquet foods, sexual conduct, medical treatment, and on and on) that there is plenty of diversion to be found in this completely unstuffy book. The smarter observers in the court looked at the proceedings, saw the ridiculousness, and hid their titters; those who see it via Worsley'


Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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