Rank and Seating at Versailles: It’s Complicated

I have a thing for crowns, and I'm fine with the notion of an aristocracy as long as I'd be assured a part of it. I'd never be happy a land where there were a nobility from which I were excluded, and for that reason it's probably best that I was born and bred an American. Monarchy is fine with me as long as the crown is on my head. American to the core, I was always more concerned with inclusion, but never gave much thought to rank--until I found out about the tabourets. It turns out no one ranked lower than a duchess could sit on one. This is just one of many rules about who could sit where, and in whose presence, at Versailles. I find this intersection between etiquette and decorative arts completely fascinating. The rules start simply enough: only the queen and king could sit on a fauteuil. When foreign monarchs visited the French court, they, too, were given fauteuils.   MarieAntoinetteFauteiulALaReine

One of a set of eight fauteuils commissioned by Marie Antoinette

FauteuilAVersailles

A pretty blue fauteuil at Versailles.

When the king and queen were present, the king's brothers, sisters, and children, could sit on a chair without arms. PrincessElizabethOfFrance

Princess Elizabeth of France, sister of Louis XIV

GrandTrianon

A pretty combination of chairs in the Grand Trianon

The duchesses of the court used tabourets. Tabouret

A tabouret was a small armless stool with no back

DuchesseDePolignac

Duchesse de Polignac, a good friend of Marie Antoinette

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This room is ready for a gathering of duchesses

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The grandly named Louis Jean Marie de Bourbon, Duc de Penthievre, still wasn't permitted to sit in most cases

The complicated protocol changed slightly depending on who was in the room. A Cardinal was not permitted to sit in the presence of the king. When only the queen was present, Cardinals were allowed a simple seat. Everything shifted when the Dauphin was present; the children of France, or brothers and sisters of the Dauphin, were permitted the use of a fauteuil. Grandchildren of France, princesses of the blood, cardinals, and duchesses were allowed the use of a tabouret. It gets more confusing when the grandchildren of France are the highest ranking people in the room (they're given fauteuils), and other high ranking nobles move up to armless chairs.

The minutiae of this is starting to make my head hurt. The point is that in every social setting, in every combination of people, the system served to remind everyone of his or her rank, everyone else's rank, and his or her rank in comparison to everyone else. This was a world of jealously guarded social standing, and the seating rules were a constant physical reminder of exactly where everyone ranked. Can you imagine the frustrating logistics involved when everyone got comfortable with a Dauphin seating arrangement, the queen walked in and everyone in fauteuils had to move to armless chairs, and everyone in armless chairs had to move to taboruets, and everyone in tabourets had to stand? And then the king walked in and the cardinal had to jump up? This sounds so exhausting to remember, not to mention the sheer volume of fauteuils, armless chairs, and tabourets that needed to be ready at any time, and the servants it would have taken to accommodate the constantly changing seating arrangements. This knowledge does give new meaning to images like the one below. ALittlePrincess

A Little Princess in the Gardens at Versailles by Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta

 

Nantes in My Pants: The Huguenots and Decorative Arts in England

Huguenots Meeting in Secret, The Granger Collection, New York

Huguenots Meeting in Secret, The Granger Collection, New York

Remember the good old days of Western Europe, when the biggest religious drama was Catholic vs. Protestant? My modern mind always wondered why two sects of the same religion couldn't get along better, until I learned about the Latin phrase cuius regio, eius religio. It means "Whose realm, his religion," and it raised the stakes for who was in power on the thrones of Europe. It's one of the reasons why King Henri IV of France couldn't just be Protestant if he wanted to be (and he did). As king of France, the principle of cuius regio required him to be Catholic, because his subjects were overwhelmingly Catholic.
Henri IV of France

Henri IV of France

Henry IV was raised Protestant, but converted to Catholicism upon his accession to the throne. "Paris is worth a mass," he famously said. Even though his job as king sort of required him to be Catholic, he still showed a lot of tolerance to the Protestants, especially when he issued the Edict of Nantes, which granted civil rights to Huguenots. This was huge because the Huguenots had been persecuted in France for awhile. The Edict of Nantes acted as a truce between French Catholics and Huguenots: Huguenots could work in any field and were afforded some protections from the French government, but Catholicism was also reaffirmed as France's established religion. The Pope didn't like it, but it actually turned out well for everyone else, Catholic and Huguenot alike, for almost 90 years. The real drama happened when Henry's grandson, Louis XIV, issued the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which made Protestantism illegal and forced Huguenots to convert or flee. More than 400,000 Huguenots fled to England, the Netherlands, Prussia, Switzerland, or the Americas.
 Portrait of the French King Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud

Portrait of the French King Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud

 
Huguenot refugees arrive in England. Source: Getty Images

Huguenot refugees arrive in England. Source: Getty Images

The Revocation happened in 1698, which, not coincidentally, was just before English furniture started to get really interesting. Up until this point, English furniture had been sort of clunky, bless its heart, with carvings that attempted but never quite achieved the sublime detail of contemporary French pieces. Now, droves of French artisans flooded into the country, ready and willing to contribute their taste, craftsmanship, and skill to English pieces. That picture of the Huguenot refugees is making me sad, so let's get to the good part: all the absolutely delicious eye candy that they created after emigrating to England, and America, too! The Huguenots were silk weavers, gilders, metal workers, and engravers. They truly contributed to their new cultures, and forever changed the course of decorative arts in the places that took them in.  
A Queen Anne gilded pine and beech, console table with inlaid marble, by Thomas Pelletier, circa 1704-05. Royal Trust Collection.

A Queen Anne gilded pine and beech, console table with inlaid marble, by Thomas Pelletier, circa 1704-05. Royal Trust Collection.

 
Hampton Court Palace, originally a Renaissance palace of Henry VIII, was updated by William III to reflect changing tastes influenced by Huguenots

Hampton Court Palace, originally a Renaissance palace of Henry VIII, was updated by William III to reflect changing Baroque tastes influenced by Huguenots

 
Bedroom of William III at Hampton Court Palace

Bedroom of William III at Hampton Court Palace

 
Golden gates at Hampton Court Palace by Jean Tijou.

Golden gates at Hampton Court Palace by Jean Tijou.

 
English court dress in silk, circa 1750. Silks like this were made by Huguenot immigrants in England.

English court dress in silk, circa 1750. Silks like this were made by Huguenot immigrants in England.

 
Montrath ewer and dish, by Paul de Lamarie.

Montrath ewer and dish, by Paul de Lamarie.

Another day we'll discuss Huguenot influence in America, and we'll talk about my favorite patriot and silversmith, Huguenot Paul Revere. The moral of the story is this: everybody has something to teach, and good things happen when we're nice to people whose beliefs may be slightly different from our own.