A Royal Lesson, Part I
One of the best moments in Princess Diaries are the scenes when Mia takes ‘princess lessons’ with her grandmother. We watch as her regal grande-mere teaches her granddaughter to present herself as the ideal princess. These lessons on royal etiquette provide a short glimpse into the world of royalty. We never see royals hunched over. Nor do we see them sit awkwardly for photographers. While they make it as easy as a breeze, learning the art of etiquette is a tasking endeavor. But how did it come to be?
With the very word itself – étiquette – of French origin, it’s no surprise to discover modern social customs and manners originating at the Court of Louis XIV. As he transformed Versailles from hunting lodge to one of the grandest palaces in Europe, the nobles relied on pomp and ceremony to reinforce their social positions. But Louis was not the investor of such modish habits. His wife, Maria Theresa of Spain, may have had some influence, as the court ceremonial in her native country was renowned. It adopted many elements from the Court of Austria, where another branch of the Habsburg dynasty ruled, whose own court etiquette originated from the Duchy of Burgundy. Formalities of etiquette can also be found in China, with Confucius himself wrote on the modes of protocol, and even as far back as Classical Egypt. But as Louis set the fashion for everything, he remains credited for making etiquette de rigeur. Indeed, it was the French king himself who wrote guidelines to etiquette at Versailles. It was not to civilize the nobles but control them. Decades earlier, when Louis was still a boy-king – he was proclaimed ruler of France at the age of four – a rebellion broke out. Known as the Fronde, the rebel leaders included nobles and even some members of his own family. Though forces loyal to Louis were victorious, the Sun King was nevertheless affected by the traitors. It is for this very reason Versailles became the center for royal government, and where the elaborate ceremony of etiquette yet another tool in keeping nobles in their place.
Regardless of the rules, social rank was paramount. While everyone abided by the standards set by the Sun King, one’s place at Court was of great value. Even the slightest mistake could spell social – and, very possibly, political – ruin. Courtiers were not to knock on doors, instead, scratch them with the nail of the left pinkie finger. Turning your back on the king or queen was tantamount to lèse-majesté (violating the royal majesty), while nobles waged private ‘wars’ over precedence. This ranged from who had to give way when carriages arrived, the rights to sit in certain chairs, and the privilege of handing the royal dress shirts. As shown in the 2006 film Marie-Antoinette, precedence dictated who had the honor of handing garments to royals, let alone attend the levee or rising ceremony. Though royal etiquette gradually ‘relaxed’ during later centuries, nobles and royals clung to these rituals to reinforce their position in the world.
Across the pond, there emerged another form of etiquette. Although English elites adapted many modes of behavior from their French counterparts, the English gentry/bourgeois classes created their own codes of conduct. Here, civility formed around the gentlemen coffeehouses and ladies tea tables. In fact, one could say it define modern behavior systems. Coffee became the optional choice for respectable men. Instead of a glass of wine or beer, gentlemen maintained civil discourse over a cup of coffee. Fashionable men removed themselves from bawdy taverns for the elegant coffeehouses of London. It was here they discussed politics, kept abreast on international news, and conducted business. Before the establishment of clubs, coffeehouses were the realm for men and men only. Women, meanwhile, had tea to enjoy. Introduced as a health beverage in the 1660s, it quickly became a fashionable drink for the elites. It was also an expensive drink, as it was far more expensive than coffee. But by the 1700s prices dropped and the beverage trickled its way down the social ladders, eventually becoming a staple of British diet and a symbol of British culture. Teatime became an elaborate ceremony of its own, with the best chinaware put out for display. Though members of both sexes partook in teatime, it was the lady of the house who led the ceremony. She ensured the rules of propriety were upheld during at teatime.
While the genteel codes of manners evolved, so too did court etiquette. Monarchies may come and go, but protocol lasts forever. While etiquette sets norms and guidelines for social behavior, protocol prevails as an international code of conduct. Today, governments around the world provide similar guidelines for behavior regardless of the post. This ranges from addressing individuals based on their government rank, to dress, to even tips to toasts. The United States is no exception, providing guidelines for both the State Department and the Army.
But in the world of social media and business casual, are rules of etiquette and protocol still a necessity?