This article was first published in the May 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine
The Great drawing room, crammed full of courtiers, lies at the heart of the Georgian royal palace. Here the king mingles most evenings with his guests, signalling welcome with a nod, and displeasure with a turned back. The winners and losers of the Georgian era – which runs from 1714–1830 with the reigns of Kings George I to IV – can calculate precisely how high they have climbed (or fallen) by the warmth of their reception at court.
Although parliament’s power is rapidly growing, ambitious and talented people still flock to court in search of perks and prestige. High-heeled and elegant shoes crush into the palace floorboards the reputations of those who have fallen from favour, while those whose status is on the rise stand firmly in possession of their few square inches of space.
So the elegant state apartments of a royal palace are also a battlefield. This is a world of politicking and skulduggery, wigs and beauty-spots, where fans whistle open like flick-knives. Intrigue hisses through the crowd, and court factions are also known as ‘fuctions’.
Successful courtiers have level heads and cold hearts. They understand all the nuances of court etiquette, and know how to manipulate them to their advantage.It’s vital, therefore, to learn the rules of the game.
What should you wear at court?
Ladies have to wear the court uniform: the ‘mantua’. A coat-like dress spread out sideways over immensely wide hoops, this formal court dress has become trapped in a fashion time warp.
Tightly-laced, uncomfortable, and immensely heavy because of the silver in the weave, its skirts will get wider and wider as the 18th century progresses. Your arms descend from a requisite three rows of frills. (“I am so incommoded with these nasty ruffles!” says novelist Fanny Burney.)
You should wear your best jewels, and carry a fan. Gentlemen should wear a wig, an embroidered suit and a sword, and under their elbows they carry a flat, unwearable version of a hat. Because you have to bare your head in front of the king, no one wears real hats at court. However, you can gate-crash a court party quite easily if you borrow the right clothes and slip a shilling to the footman on the door.
You can even hire a sword from a booth at the entrance. “Dress is a very foolish thing,” declares the arch-courtier Lord Chesterfield, and yet, all the same, “it is a very foolish thing for a man not to be well dressed”.
Tip: you can’t be overdressed
How do you walk in a dress like that?
It’s quite hard to walk in a mantua, and only grand palace doorways have the width to accommodate the hooped skirts without the lady turning sideways.
The whalebone hoops force you to take tiny steps, so court ladies are described as looking like they roll along on wheels. Ladies-in-waiting aren’t allowed to sit down, or to fold their arms.
Before exiting the royal presence they have to curtsey three times, then back out of the room. But don’t worry: your dancing master will train you in how to do all this.
Tip: take tiny, elegant steps, and practise beforehand
How on earth does one relieve oneself in such a dress?
It’s easier than it looks, as you won’t be wearing knickers (not invented yet). You may squat over a chamber pot, or else you use a ‘bourdaloue’. This is a little jug like a gravy boat that you clench between your thighs.
Privacy is not essential, and the French ambassador’s wife annoys everyone with the “frequency and quantity of her pissing which she does not fail to do at least ten times a day amongst a cloud of witnesses”.
However, if the queen doesn’t grant you permission to go, you just have to try to hold on. One of Queen Caroline’s ladies was once defeated by a bursting bladder. A humiliating pool of urine crept out from under her skirt and “threatened the shoes of bystanders”.
Tip: take a ‘bourdaloue’ with you
What messages can I signal with my fan?
There are hints that the secret language of the fan – ‘beware, my husband approaches’, ‘you are cruel’, ‘don’t forget me’ – is already in place in the 1720s.
According to these coded displays, the ladies painted by William Kent on the walls at Kensington Palace are all saying variations of the same thing: ‘I am married’, ‘I wish to get rid of you’ or just plain ‘no’.
Either this is a very strange coincidence, or else William Kent is playing a joke in depicting all these ravishing ladies making such cruel denials!
Tip: don’t wave your fan about without forethought!
How do I get to meet the king?
Once in the drawing room, you’ll need to push your way into the ring of people waiting to speak to the king. People “jostle and squeeze” by one another, reports Baron de Pöllnitz, shouting pardon over their shoulders, and it’s simply impossible to hold a conversation. Everyone laughs when Lord Onslow tumbles backward among the crowd and lies sprawling, while a gentleman, “drunk and saucy”, is ejected for throwing a punch.
Beautiful dresses conceal poor hygiene: the courtiers will be “sweating and stinking in abundance as usual”, complains courtier John Hervey, while exchanging “lying smiles, forced compliments, careful brows, and made laughs”.
If you’re lucky, one of the court officers will introduce you to the king. Remember to bow low and kiss his hand.
Tip: grab a good place in the circle
What’s the Rumpsteak Club, and how can I join?
If King George II does not wish to acknowledge a courtier who is out of favour, he will turn his back or ‘rump’. Those who have been spurned console themselves by the thought that they’ve won membership of an exclusive group, the Rumpsteak Club.
The existence of this disrespectful group really annoys the king: “What! Are they laughing at me?” he bellowed when he first found out about the joke.
Tip: if you’re slighted, make a joke of it
Who should I cultivate?
The court is not really a meritocracy, and to acquire a post in the royal household you will need a powerful patron. You must wait for the right opportunity to press your case for a job, a promotion or a favour. “By the Grace of God”, an ambitious court equerry promises himself, “I am willing & ready to bustle thro’ this bad world”.
If a man “can hold out five years”, counsels another courtier, “tis morally impossible he should not come into play”. But there is still a risk that you might end up penniless and jobless, having wasted “half of the very flower” of your life standing waiting outside a door.
Tip: identify a patron as soon as you can
How do I get home?
Leaving the drawing room at last, you need to search among the jostling sea of servants in the courtyard for your own chairmen and sedan chair.
Ladies travelling by chair flip up their whalebone hoops on each side so that they look like strange winged insects. They also tilt their heads back and remain motionless so the roof doesn’t squash their tall hairdos. Exhausted by the hours of standing in their weighty dresses, they will go straight home to bed.
Gentlemen, however, might not go home at all, but continue their networking in the clubs and coffee houses of St James’s.
Tip: prepare for an exhausting evening!
Lucy Worsley is a historian and presenter.