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Standard Royal Court

The Standard Royal Court is a staple setting of historical and Speculative Fiction, the natural home of good kings, Evil Chancellors (as well as some good ones), and every breed of aristocrat. Usually, it is loosely based on an idealized version of the medieval European model, with minor variations to fit the setting, which is more plausible than it may seem. Feudalism, in the narrow technical sense, only occurred in western Europe, but recognizably similar systems have developed throughout history, whenever and wherever the central government was too weak to function (or, as was more often the case, just plain gone.) The courts of Ancient Egypt and medieval Japan are recognizably variants of the same theme.

How elaborate the court is will depend on the technology level, the wealth of the nation it rules, and the image the ruler wishes to convey. A barbarian warlord will have the most basic version; one right-hand man, a dozen minor chiefs, and a few hundred warriors. A galactic empire will have a court bigger than most cities, and a population to match - ten million courtiers living in conditions of unparalleled magnificence, their lives all revolving around the centre of power, the emperor at the court's heart. If, that is, the writer wants to keep in touch with reality; total mismatches between the size of the court and the size of the country occur, and often without causing administrative problems (if the court is too small) or financial ones (if the court is too large).

Any court beyond the most basic will typically be fractal in structure. Most of the courtiers will themselves be the heads of lesser courts, mirroring the structure of the main court, and many of their courtiers will in turn head minor courts. Thus, the crown prince's best friend and chief advisor might be a duke, ruling over several earldoms, advised by the ducal chancellor. Historically, most courts stopped at four or five tiers, but in fiction there is no limit.

How much of this structure the reader sees depends on the focus of the narrative. If the protagonists are just visiting the court, they'll usually only deal with an handful of people in it, leaving the rest of the Standard Royal Court as a background blur. If the protagonists are themselves courtiers, the whole panoply will be deployed.

In general, the overall tone of a court is set by its ruler. A good king will have good courtiers; an evil king will have evil courtiers. However, there will usually be one or two courtiers who run counter to the trend, which gives them a greater prominence in the plot, and a new king may inherit a court that runs opposite to his preferences.

Morality is only one dimension along which the Standard Royal Court varies. Others include:

  • Sneakiness - some courts are a web of conspiracies; in others, everyone is open about their intentions.
  • Aristocrats vs civil servants - the nobles may actually run the kingdom, or they may leave all the administration to the clerks. (Note that in the Real Life Middle Ages, appointing paid civil servants rather than letting the nobles run things was an important step towards modern government, although in some cases the civil servants became aristocrats themselves, e. g. counts, originally appointed officers of the crown became first a hereditary office and then a rank of nobility).
  • Decadence - are the courtiers interested only in pleasure?
  • Level of ritual - some courts are pretty plain, others can't do anything without a three hour ritual.
  • Appearance - Can range from Spartan to the Ermine Cape Effect.

The Deadly Decadent Court falls in one corner of this space. All these dimensions are loosely correlated with the age of a court. A newly established kingdom will generally have a simple court. A millennia-old imperial court will usually be decadent, and encrusted with many layers of meaningless ritual.

Positions in a royal court usually start out as purely functional, become either hereditary or reserved for nobles, and end up as purely ceremonial, with the actual work being done by the holder of a more junior post, which may then go through the same cycle. This is how old courts, where this has happened several times, end up with their bewildering array of titles. Young courts, with no long standing traditions, are much simpler, and the nobles in them more likely to do actual work.

Typical plot lines for works set in a Standard Royal Court include internal power struggles and external threats.

The members of a Standard Royal Court can be classified by their closeness to the center of power. The monarch, of course, is right at the center. The inner circle of courtiers has one or two people from each power bloc within the court, and directly advises the monarch. The outer circles of courtiers spend their time trying to get into the inner circle. The part-time courtiers have a recognized place in the court, but spend most of their time away from it. At the bottom of the pile, the servants keep the whole place running.

The important members of the court, and associated tropes, are:

  • The ruler. Normally this is the monarch, but sometimes the role is filled by a regent. Either way, this person bears ultimate responsibility for the conduct of the nation. Many factions, both within the court and outside, will be attempting to control or depose them. An evil regent may attempt to become Regent for Life. Good regents, as well as kings, act as mentors to their successors. (Though some evil kings may try to arrange matters so that they won't need a successor...)
  • The heir. Normally the next in line to the throne, but during a regency this role is filled by the actual monarch. The heir spends most of their time waiting for the ruler to die, and may decide to hurry up the process with a little direct action, especially if the ruler isn't their parent. In turn, the heir is the frequent target of assassination attempts by people wanting to move up the line of succession. The heir is also an alternative centre of power for the court, since their inner circle is the government-in-waiting.
  • Other royals.
    • The previous generation. Royal uncles, and the Queen Mother. These tend to spend a lot of time telling the king what his father would have done, if they don't actually rule the kingdom as regents for an underage king. If the uncle is an Evil Uncle who continues to plot against the king, even when it's his nephew rather than his brother... there will be trouble.
    • The Queen Consort. Her official role is to produce the next generation of royals, but her family will expect her to find them influential positions or other perks, which can make her unpopular, and people will seek to use her to influence the King. If there isn't a queen, the process of filling the vacancy is itself a popular plot. She often comes in the varieties dignified and noble and cruel and petty. The Woman Wearing the Queenly Mask is usually the supreme ruler herself. The rare Prince Consorts typically follow the same tropes with a gender flip, but are more likely to attempt to take power for themselves. If there is a partnership between a strong and competent king and a strong and competent queen this will form a Ruling Couple. The latter might be indicated by them receiving audiences with dual thrones.
    • The Harem. Most often found in Middle Eastern or Far Eastern settings. Guarded by eunuchs. There is intense competition within the harem for the king's favour, and a tense relationship with the Queen (if there is a Queen).
    • Royal siblings. These are either the King's most loyal supporters, or scheming to get the throne for themselves.This is especially true for the oldest younger brother of the present ruler.
    • Royal children. The daughters get married off, perhaps after an Engagement Challenge. Finding something for the spare sons to do tends to be a problem for Kings. If they're not kept busy, sibling rivalry often turns lethal. Illegitimate royal children get high status, but are outside the line of succession. The Sheltered Aristocrat is sadly spoiled and naive, The Evil Prince can decimate a regent's offspring. The Wise Prince, in contrast, would be any good king's pride. During part of the middle ages it was customary for younger siblings and sons to be encouraged to join the clergy.
  • The chief advisor. May be titled Chancellor, Vizier, Dewan or First Minister. They are often the Evil Chancellor, but can also be a mentor, sidekick to the king, or even a figurehead. They can come from any of the power blocs.
  • The court jester. Can be any form of entertainer, e. g. a minstrel or resident troubadour. These people have no official power, but do have the king's ear, and can often speak freely. Usually either the comic relief or a power behind the throne. In more modern ages jesters were replaced by other entertainers such as royal composers, poets laureate etc. Sometimes the jester is secretly also something else, for example a court wizard or spymaster (like Zorn and Thorn of Final Fantasy IX fame).
  • Head of the church. Might be called High Priest or archbishop. This person holds allegiance to an higher authority than earthly kings, making their relationship with the king fraught. On the other hand, many religions either place the king at the head of the Church or consider him outright to be a living god, and even the ones that don't may allow the king to claim divine right to rule, in which case all is well. When the nation worships a pantheon, the king may have the fun task of balancing scheming high priests of several different gods without incurring any divine wrath. In some cases the head of the church is important enough to have a court of his own (e. g. medieval popes), in which case e. g. the king's own chaplain or confessor may assume the most influential clerical role in the royal court.
    • The court chaplain. Often this role goes hand-in-hand with the head of the church, but when they're two separate positions, they're distinguished by the fact that the latter serves more as the monarch's personal spiritual advisor or confessor, whose authority is limited to the court itself. Of course, this doesn't make him any less important a figure, since having the ear of the monarch himself gives him a lot of influence.
  • Court Mage or pet mad scientist. Not all courts have these. When they exist, they usually get on badly with the church representatives, and supply phlebotinum to the court. They are also popular choices for chief advisor.
  • The head of the civil service. More common in Chinese-style and Space Opera courts. Since this person has risen through the ranks, they usually have an inferior social background, creating tension with the nobles.
  • The head of the military. In medieval courts this role is often filled by the ruler, but some also had a crown commander with a title like Connetable, Shogun or Lord High Admiral; these titles on occasion become hereditary. Many monarchies have a professional army, with all the associated tropes. If General Ripper is the chief advisor, it's time for the neighbouring countries to get worried.
  • The head of intelligence. It might be official or unofficial, this person handles the more delicate affairs of court and country. They gather information that was not meant for their regent's ears, they find that Blackmail Is Such an Ugly Word and they can make great nuisances disappear. Their loyalty is always an interesting question.
  • The great magnates. These are the chief nobles, each with near-sovereign power in their own domains, standing as far above the typical noble as they do above their peasants. In medieval times these will also include e. g. the realm's most important bishops. Their support is essential for any rebellion, and priceless to foreign invaders. If the ruler loses majority support among the great magnates, the nation will be in crisis. In future settings, this role can be filled by the heads of megacorporations or planetary/sector governors.
    • The typical noble, with one castle and 20 acres of land or the Space Opera equivalent, is usually a nobody at court, with no hope of gaining personal access to the Monarch. If he's lucky, however, his own direct liege might take an interest in his concerns and pass them up the chain of command.
  • Any number of special favourites, courtiers who are important not because of their inheritance and offices but because the regent has an affection for them. They usually have a certain something about them which can be charm, boldness, honeyed tongue, cleverness, honesty, strength, beauty and other quirks and abilities. The important part is that their influence on the leader is not easily measured. The writers might add as much spicy Sub Text as they like.
    • A common ploy is for a patron to introduce suitable candidates to the ruler. If any of them find favour, the patron can then influence the ruler by passing suggestions through the favourite, though ambitious favourites will turn on their patrons the moment they have a better one.
  • Any mistresses the king has. Essentially the same role as favourites, but usually less respectable (although between Charles VII and Louis XV the position of official mistress to the king was highly prestigious in France). This doesn't stop ambitious courtiers parading their sisters in front of the king.
  • Various court offices, ranging from the sÚnÚchal, whose position is akin to that of a butler in a great aristocratic household in Britain, to various smaller ranks such as the grand moutardier of the papal court in Avignon (yes, he was in charge of the pope's mustard). Some of these offices became much more important than their original circle of duties over time, thus the chancellor, originally the head of the king's chancelry and in charge of writing his documents, became the title of the king's most important official advisor, while marshal (the word originally meant "horse-servant") became a high military rank. In the Holy Roman Empire the seven princes-elector held the key court offices as herditary ranks, but only acted in the respective capacities during the coronation ceremonies, on other occasions these functions were fulfilled by others.
  • If there are enough nobles, they might form a separate body within the court that acts as a kind of legislature for the nation. Expies of the British House of Lords, the French Estates-General (or just the First and Second Estates), the Roman Senate, and the Holy Roman Reichstag are common.
  • The royal bodyguard. Expect flashy uniforms and weaponry. Depending on the story, they can be little more than a showy force with no substance behind them to unkillable badasses. May be a Cadre of Foreign Bodyguards note , and the possibility of a Bodyguard Betrayal may become important. Anyone seeking to do harm to the ruler or anyone else in the court will likely have to deal with them at some point.
  • Foreign Ambassadors. Representatives of foreign powers. These are like other courtiers but have more official authority not to mention more firepower behind them. These can range from a lowly envoy from a Barbarian Tribe to a pompous glittering one from The Empire. Unlike most courtiers they might make open threats from time to time, however this will usually be during very unusual circumstances. Most of the time they do what other courtiers do; bribing, flattering, exchanging favors, and, of course, recruiting spies. Whatever they are doing they are generally treated politely because the monarch would hardly want to get into a war for a silly reason. What constitutes "politeness" will naturally vary according to the culture. At the least, unlike other courtiers the ruler cannot say Off with His Head! with an ambassador because that would certainly mean war.
  • Miscellaneous dignitaries: These are various courtiers whose place has a Backstory more interesting(or at least better developed) then "I like to hang around court." Typical examples of these might be a Noble Fugitive; it was long common practice for rulers to harbor pretenders to the throne of a rival kingdom or their followers in order to have possible leverage. Another possibility is a hostage; once it was considered an honorable practice for rulers to exchange relations as a guarantee of a treaty. Other possibilities include high-class prisoners of war awaiting their ransom. In both of these cases both the ruler and the prisoner or hostage are considered host and guest under the rules of Sacred Hospitality with appropriate modifications for the circumstances of their position. There could also be sons of lesser nobles being fostered by a given monarch as training as a warrior or courtier. Or a prince or princess from an Arranged Marriage; this character would have constant Conflicting Loyalty. Guild leaders, especially from the capital city will often be here. And of course, as rulers never have enough money and merchants never have enough force there will likely be a Merchant Prince negotiating a deal with the monarch. If the ruler has a liberal streak or wishes to pretend to have such he might have a tribune or ombudsman speaking for the interests of "the people". And very common will be artists, or scientists, or scholars or other such expressions of "culture" who the monarch can sponser as a way to get prestige or simply as a Pet the Dog.
  • Dissolute nobles and courtiers: Most courts have at least some of these. They might be fairly harmless, or they might be a source of disgusted but rather envious scandal. Some of these end up sooner or later finding that they have Hidden Depths if appropriate to the plot.
  • Caterers: This is actually a fairly important job, absurd as it sounds. Knowing how to put on a good Fancy Dinner or Dances and Balls puts people in a good mood to begin negotiations, and advertises a monarchs importance. If The Kingdom can pay for political disputes with wine instead of blood, The Kingdom has gotten a good deal. As a footnote, having rival dignitaries drunk(or drugged) during a negotiation can be a useful if risky ploy. Certain palace servants like the Seneschal or Major-domo will have making deals with caterers as one of their major jobs. Other servants have need of these as an obvious part of their role. Cooks need food. Bards need special effects experts, musicians and so on, the palace itself needs architects, and everyone needs expensive clothing, sometimes even including servants.

Many of these people will have their own circle of courtiers filling the same roles, but their titles will be lesser. Though the stakes are lower, the politics is no less vicious.


Examples:

Anime and Manga
  • The Five Star Stories, being a Feudal Future, has quite a few. Most notable is Amaterasu's royal court, wherin nearly everyone is also the pilot of a Humongous Mecha.
  • Seirei no Moribito features the ruler, the royal children, the queen, the head of the military, and the Holy Sage who is pet scientist, advisor and head of the intelligence at the same time. Court proceedings are not decadent but ritualized and cold.
  • Code Geass has a Deadly Decadent Court that includes The Emperor, his 108 consorts, his many children (the numbered princes and princesses), the Knights of the Round, and the many nobles who hold important positions in The Empire. The First Prince (Emperor Charles' oldest son) Odysseus is "The Heir" (although he's not very savvy), and Second Prince Schneizel is the Prime Minister/Chancellor. Princess Cornelia appears to be a very high ranked military official (possibly the head of the army), and Clovis is the Viceroy of Area 11 (Japan).

Comic Books
  • The Legend of Zelda has one of these as its center of action. Zelda's father is a good king, surrounded by good subjects.

Literature
  • The Deryni series is centred on a royal court.
  • In The Riftwar Cycle, many of the protagonists belong to royal courts, none of them decadent. The Tsurani one can be quite deadly, however.
  • The Wheel of Time shows several courts in detail.
  • Philippa Gregory's Tudor novels are mostly set at the courts of Henry VIII or one of his children. The Constant Princess also shows some of Henry VII's court.
    • This is true of any novelizations of the lives of real-life monarchs. The novels of Jean Plaidy and Molly Costain Haycraft fall into this category.
  • The Reynard Cycle has two royal courts combining into one, and all of the lingering resentment, bickering, and petty backstabbing one would come to expect from two factions of previously bitter enemies being forced to make nice. Passive-Aggressive Kombat is practically the default manner of speech there, with very few exceptions.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire shows several courts, ranging from the austere court of the Ironmen, to the deadly decadence of King's Landing, to the unstructured free people of the King Beyond the Wall.
  • The Honor Harrington novels have the Star Kingdom of Manticore. Which axis of morality and composition you see depends on why you're there in the first place.
  • Gormenghast is sneaky, aristocratic, decadent, and ritual-choked. It is so grossly mismatched to the size of the country that to all intents and purposes the court is the nation-state!
  • King Boniface's court in John Barnes's One for the Morning Glory: a Fairy Tale court with a liberal admixture of a royal court as needed by the Rule Of Whimsy.
  • Most, if not all, of the books written by Mercedes Lackey have at least one.
  • The Court of Amber in The Chronicles of Amber seems surprisingly simple and informal considering it is literally the center of the universe, but this could be due to the POV characters ignoring the flunkies and trappings they've been accustomed to all of their extremely long lives.
  • The Empress Berenene in The Will of the Empress runs a decadent and elaborate court like this, with Ishabal Ladyhammer as both her chief mage, head of armies, and chief advisor.
  • Dune features several, from the simple and open Ducal court of the Atreides to the decadent, despotic court of the Harkonnens to the (presumed to be) deadly decadent Imperial court of the Corrinos. The Landsraad is also presumably one of these, as well as being an Expy of the Holy Roman Empire's Reichstag.
  • The Tale of Genji is set at the Imperial Court of Heian Japan which features an Emperor; two or more ex-Emperors, each with his Empress and harem; Princes and princesses galore and rival noble families all jockeying for position and power. However, as a rule the characters are kept so busy managing their complex love lives that one wonders who - if anybody - is actually running the country.
    • In real life, that exact question more or less brought on the age of the samurai and the Shogunate.
  • A large portion of The Princess Bride takes place in the royal court of Florin - more than The Film of the Book would suggest.
  • Vorbarr Sultana in Vorkosigan Saga. That's where counts and vor hang out.
  • Belisarius Series : Each empire has it's own flavor whether on the good guys side or the bad guys.
  • Yashim Series : The story is about an Ottoman court eunech who fights crime. The picture of the Sultan's court given is one of a rather amiable decline with the weight of ages pressing down on them. The curious contrast between tradition and foreign innovation is brought out.
  • In the Chivalric Romance Bisclavret, Bisclavert is trapped in wolf form, but he manages to inveigle himself into the king's court, where he impresses one and all with his nobility and gentleness.
  • Most of John Moore's Fractured Fairy Tales set in the Twenty Kingdoms revolve around one of these, e.g. the Royal Court of Melinower in The Unhandsome Prince.
  • The Nibelungenlied shows a bit of medieval court life, especially at the Burgundian court in Worms with king Gunther and his younger siblings Kriemhild, Gernot and Giselher, queen mother Uta, chief advisor Hagen of Tronje, whose brother Dankwart heads the squires, court musician Volker of Alzey, master of the cellar Rumold, and the nameless chaplain who becomes the only survivor of the Burgundians' journey to Etzel's court.

Live-Action TV
  • Babylon 5:
    • Don't let the decadence and rituals of the Centauri court fool you - it's got more plots than a cemetery. Assassination is quite popular; plotters decide whether they'll use stabbing or poison based on which one is in fashion. There are a few Centauri who want to change things - about three of them. Fortunately for the Centauri people, Vir Cotto, one of those three, eventually becomes Emperor after a crisis that nearly destroys them. It is presumed he makes the Republic a much nicer place to live and the court much less intrigue-ridden.
    • The Centauri magnates/great families are well-represented at court, and are collectively known as the Centaurum. The Centaurum is implied to be a legislature of sorts for the Republic (Londo often mentions getting a bill through the Centaurum as an obstacle to his plans), most likely modeled (as befits the theme) on the Roman Senate.
  • The Tudors would be a perfect example, considering that the entire show is about Henry VIII and his court.
  • The first two seasons of Blackadder have cut-down versions for a sitcom budget. The court of Richard IV in The Black Adder had the King, the Queen Consort, the Wise Prince Harry, the incompetently Evil Prince Edmund, and Edmund's Too Dumb to Live friend Lord Percy. Other nobles were generally around, but never made much impression. In Blackadder II, Elizabeth's court consisted entirely of Lord Melchett and Nursie (her childhood wetnurse).
  • The royal court of Merlin, naturally. The King (first Uther, now Arthur), the Royal Sibling (Morgana) the Advisor (Gaius), the Evil Chancellor (Agravaine), and plenty of Nobles. Arthur was the Heir until season 4, Merlin is the Court Mage, albeit in secret, and Guinevere is now Queen Consort.
  • Princess Returning Pearl depicts the struggles of a common-born adopted daughter of the Emperor Qian Long in adapting to life in the palace, to hilarious effects.

Tabletop RPG
  • The Scarlet Dynasty in Exalted are one of the less-detailed variants.
  • Traveller : The aristocracy of the Third Imperium is heavily detailed in the volume Nobles. The Imperium's court is on a grand scale with tons of courtiers and servants, and there are dozens of provincial courts as well.
    • The whole planet of Captital/Sylea is an Imperial Court.
  • Battletech features a wide variety of royalty, INSPACE! From typical royalty found in the Federated Suns and Lyran Commonwealth, to Feudal Japanese Shogunate in the Draconis Combine, or Space Romans from the Marian Hegemony.

Theatre
  • The Danish royal court in Hamlet.

Video Games
  • In the Total War games, your faction leader can develop any or all of these elements of his court, depending on how the game goes. Court members usually provide bonuses, both strategically and tactically. For example, a spymaster or master assassin gives a kingdom-wide bonus to authority and overall spy/assassin effectiveness. Sometimes those same court members can be detrimental; a Catholic ruler who picks up a pagan magician is just inviting trouble with the Pope. Generals will also pick up their own retainers and mini-courts as well, and within a few generations you'll have a massive, sprawling family tree with countless courtiers.
  • A good chunk of the Crusader Kings games is managing the affairs of your court, with courtiers jockeying for favor and positions (or sometimes plotting against you).
  • Since the Europa Universalis series is set chronologically after Crusader Kings and has a more global and grander scope in its domestic politics and diplomacy, the gameplay of its installments isn't as court-heavy. However, you can still hire advisors, diplomats, spies, generals, admirals, explorers and conquistadors, broker royal marriages and other court-related deals with foreign countries, etc.
  • We get a fairly good look of Alexandrian Royal Court in Final Fantasy IX. Includes: a bombastic tyrannical queen who is the first and second disc villain; her captain of the guard (Playable character) and the guards themselves (comic relief NPCs); the general of the army (Guest character / Sixth Ranger); a naive, sheltered princess who has no idea what's going on (Playable character); a duo of twin jesters who are in fact something between spymasters and court wizards (recurring villains); and a mysterious favourite / phlebotinum supplier (Big Bad).

Web Original


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