Saturday, 26 November 2016

Take a Seat: Seating Etiquette

Sitting was considered a privilege when in the presence of royalty and as such was the privilege of the few. As with everything else at Versailles the rules became ever more complicated - some could sit near princes while others could only when no royal was present. Further than that was what type of seating one was entitled to.

The most discussed seating arrangement was the special privilege awarded exclusively to duchesses and princesses - princesses being allotted a chair with a back whilst a duchesse had to make do with a tabouret. They had the honour of a tabouret - a stool without a back - in the presence of the King and royal family. However, if the duchesse was with a grandchild of France she could have a chair with a back.

The French court was the epicentre of sophistication and of course every court in Europe knew what happened. The King of Poland, Sobieski, had married Marie Casimire Louise de La Grange d'Arquien (a Frenchwoman by birth) and he was all too aware of the hoops his wife had been willing to jump through in order to achieve her tabouret. He is alleged to have said: "To think how she longs for that miserable stool on which nobody can sit at ease!"

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This is a tabouret which duchesses had monopoly on

At fêtes and balls seating was arranged depending on two things: where the King was and the rank of the seated. The closer you were to the King, the higher rank you possessed. Then there was the question of the type of seat provided. All in all, the rank went from an armchair, an armless chair, a sofa, high stool, low stool or no seating at all.

The King and Queen was given the comfort of a decently padded armchairs. The only other people who were given such an honour were other monarchs. This included the exiled King James of England and his Queen as well as visiting royalty.
This has generally been seen as a sure sign of Louis XIV's secret marriage to Madame de Maintenon since the latter was often observed seated in an armchair in the King's presence - something the King would never allow had they not been equally supreme in rank. As a contrast, his greatest favourite, Madame de Montespan, never acquired a tabouret because her husband refused to accept it as a sign of spite of the affair. Consequently, she was obliged to stand although being widely recognised as the unofficial Queen of Versailles and the mother of several children by the King.
Likewise, the unofficial second wife of the Grand Dauphin (the non-aristocratic Mademoiselle de Choin) was seated in an armchair when her husband was present.

The children of the King could only claim a stool in their father's presence. Princesses of the blood were generally entitled to a chair with a back but not to one with arms.

Cardinals could sit on a sofa when a prince of the blood was in the room but if the Queen entered he had to move to a stool.

The only time a "gentleman of quality" could sit was when he was with princes and princesses of the blood.

Everyone who was not a part of these categories had to stand - regardless of age or condition. For most courtiers court life involved a lot of standing and walking but only very little sitting. The only other way to attain the honour of being allowed to sit at court was by being granted the honour of  the Louvre which in itself was quite a reward. As it happens the Prince de Salm made it a condition for a marriage to made between a member of his own family and a daughter of the Duc de Croÿ; the marriage was only to take place if the bride's father could obtain the right for her to be seated at court. The Duc de Croÿ immediately took advantage of his connection to Prince de Soubise - a favourite of Louis XV - who obtained the honour for his family. Duly, the entire Croÿ-family travelled to Versailles in order to witness the bride-to-be being seated for the first time.

Several serious disputes were caused over the rights of seating which we know about largely thank to the countless memoirs of the age.

In one instance the Duc de Lorraine was the source of the problem. At the French court he had the title of prince étranger or Foreign Prince but he had recently been travelling abroad. There - at the court of the Austrian Emperor - he had been offered an armchair. Once he returned he asked for one of Louis XIV who refused. As the King said the monarchs each had their own etiquette but the matter was not completely dropped. Philippe (Monsieur) proposed a middle-way by the way of a chair with a back which Louis agreed to. However, this was not enough for the Duc de Lorraine. The consequence was that the Duc and Duchesse d'Orléans' projected trip to Bar (where the Duc de Lorraine stayed) had to be cancelled to avoid further conflict.

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The Duc de Lorraine

Later, in 1699, the House of Lorraine was the cause of another row over seating. The Duchesse de Bourgogne was the hostess of a soiree at which the Lorraine ladies intentionally arrived too early. Thus, they could sit on the chairs closest to the hostess on her right side - reserved for the duchesses. However, there was one person who had arrived there before: a duchesse was already seated in her proper place. This only angered the Lorraine ladies further and in an aggressive attempt at fulfilling to scheme the Princesse d'Harcourt grabbed a hold of the Duchesse and force her away from the seat!

One of the few places of exception was at Marly where the King allowed his courtiers a far freer seating arrangement - another reason why an invitation was so coveted.

Since the honour of being allotted a seat was so great it was customary for the monarchs to give those who had recently received the right to a seat the chance to publicly show off that right. This would usually happen by the monarch either offering the "new-comer" a seat (normally this was the King's way since it was considered polite to let ladies sit) or taking a seat themselves. So, Marie Leszczynska received the Duchesse de Châtillon - who had recently been elevated to that rank - and promptly took her seat which enabled the new duchesse to also sit down.

Seating etiquette was not only a matter of entitlement but also of duty. It was the duty of everyone hosting a soiree at Versailles (which anyone with a decent apartment could) to make sure that the correct number of chairs were available - and the correct varieties.

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An armchair in Louis XIV's style

Not even the King's brother could be granted a decent seat in the King's presence. Philippe, Duc d'Orléans requested such an honour from his brother but was met with a refusal. Not only would it be a breach of etiquette but it would also serve in Philippe's own interest that things were not eased of; it would only diminish his position if the marks of honour were erased. As Louis XIV reasoned if everyone sat down then what was to distinguish a baron from a King?

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