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Royalcourt

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, and the wealth of the nation it rules. 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.

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.
  • 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 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.
    • 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 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 White Prince 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.
  • The chief advisor. May be titled Chancellor, Vizier 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. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 filled by the ruler, but more advanced 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. 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.
  • 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 Subtext 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 less respectable. This doesn't stop ambitious courtiers parading their sisters in front of the king.
  • 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 [1], 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.

Most 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 of Standard Royal Court include:


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.
  • 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-choke. 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 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.

Live Action TV

  • Babylon 5: Ah, the Centauri court. Don't let the decadence and rituals fool you - it's got more plots than a cemetery. Poison is quite popular. There are a couple of 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.

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.

Theater

  • 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, though sometimes those same court members can be detrimental; a Catholic ruler who picks up a pagan magician is just inviting trouble with the Pope.

Notes

  1. Common historically, i.e. the Swiss Guard who protect the Pope, the Varangian Guard who defended the Emperors of Constantinople, or Christian knights hired to defend Moorish princes
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