Visitors to London today are often struck by the relative approachability of the offices of central government. Although the security concerns of recent years have certainly spawned an elaborate network of fences and gates, a casual stroll along Whitehall and its surrounding neighborhoods still brings one much closer to important figures in the national government than is often the case in, say, Washington D.C. Some explanation for this relative intimacy may be found in the ways in which the physical nature of the national government evolved in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, when it was known by the shorthand expression “the court.”
Between 1529 and 1698 the official residence of the English court was the rambling riverside palace at Whitehall, conveniently located near the Parliament House at Westminster, and big enough to house hundreds of courtiers and most of the offices of the central government.
In an age when monarchs still mattered, the court was the center of the world. We might be tempted to think of the court at early modern Whitehall as equivalent to the modern White House or Buckingham Palace, but it was much more than that, for the king’s household was not merely the seat of England’s government, but its social and cultural headquarters as well. For starters, the royal household was probably the largest single employer located in one place in the British Isles. Not only politicians but writers, painters, composers and even scientists all came to court for commissions and rewards. Others flocked to court to marvel at the grandest facades and the most glorious interiors in the kingdom; to view the greatest art collection in the British Isles and (from the 1580s) the latest plays; to hear the best poetry, musicians and preachers; to catch the hottest gossip; to chart the changes in the winds of politics; or merely to catch a glimpse of the sovereign.
The average Londoner or tourist had ample opportunities to gawk at the monarch traversing between palaces, out hunting or just taking the air in St. James’s or Hyde Park. Moreover, there was no strict security cordon surrounding royal personages in the early modern period; rather, every subject had the right to petition his sovereign and a good ruler was expected to accept such petitions patiently. The parks were royal spaces, but they were also open to the public, the price of admission being a tip of the cap or a curtsey to any royal present. The result was a security nightmare: In 1682 and 1696 there were plots to assassinate the king while out riding. Nor were firearms the only threat to a public monarch: In January 1678 a lunatic named Richard Harris was committed to Bedlam after throwing an orange at Charles II in St. James’s Park.
In theory, the ruler was more secure within his own house. Porters at the gate, provost marshals, the yeomen of the guard and the servants of the public rooms were repeatedly ordered
to prevent the entry of unsuitable persons, but the frequency of these orders suggests that they were not very effective. Rather, people seem to have assumed that the court was a public space, open to virtually anyone. Like London itself, it was always up for negotiation, and its flexibility was its great strength. Indoors, the court was most accessible on holidays and state occasions. Guests were expected to turn up in splendid new clothes especially tailored for the occasion. Men wore waistcoats embroidered with gold and silver thread while women were expected to display all the family jewels and any they could borrow. At Queen Anne’s birthday in 1711, the Duchess of Buckingham and Lady Poulett “were scarce able to move under the load of jewels they had on.” Having “with much ado got up to the Loft” of the Great Hall to see the birthday ball for Queen Catherine of Braganza on 15 November 1666, Samuel Pepys found himself bewitched by the fashions: “Anon the house grew full, and the candles light, and the King and Queen and all the ladies set …all most excellently dressed in rich petticoats and gowns and Dyamonds – and pearls.” No wonder that crowds gathered outside the palace gates on such occasions, as at the Academy Awards today, to see who was wearing what.
Indeed, there were no invitations or guest lists on such occasions, which meant that the porters at those gates and the gentlemen ushers inside could not possibly know who was who, and so dress was just about the only criterion of admission. In short, access to court was open to anyone who looked good and talked fast. As a result, the galleries of royal palaces were always crowded with what amounted to party crashers of all types: suitors, spies and idlers.
And so, although today’s paparazzi and internet gossip scribblers have taken access to the great and good to an all time high (or, perhaps more accurately “low”) level, it’s important to keep in mind that a few centuries ago it was simply expected that the leaders of English society would conduct much of their public and private business in plain view of commoners. It is certainly understandable that access to political leaders today is controlled by their “handlers,” but it is somewhat ironic that politicians chosen in a democracy can seem, at times, less open to casual interaction with their subjects than was the case with monarchs who ruled several centuries ago.
Robert O. Bucholz and Joseph Ward are the authors of London: A Social and Cultural History, 1550-1750 (on sale July 24).