Historian goes behind palace doors
In her appearances on BBC, historian Lucy Worsley has shown herself to be an engaging, sometimes unconventional, guide to the habits and customs of bygone Britons. The chief curator of Historic Royal Palaces once demonstrated Henry VIII’s caloric intake by purchasing the ingredients for a Tudor feast — ale, meat, a few vegetables — and then cheerfully analyzing the results in terms of today’s money and diets.
Worsley’s winsome approach to history finds apt subject matter in “The Courtiers,’’ a richly informative and entertaining account of palace life under George I and George II, who reigned, respectively, from 1714 to 1727 and from 1727 to 1760.
Most Americans are familiar with King George III, who received the Declaration of Independence in 1776 and later went famously mad, but the first two Georges tend to be less remembered here, even though a noteworthy lieutenant colonel named George Washington commanded colonial troops in the service of George II during the French and Indian War. These kings were Germans, not Englishmen. Born prince electors of Hanover, a constituent state in the Holy Roman Empire, they were appointed by act of Parliament to succeed the childless Queen Anne, to whom they were only distantly related. Dozens of Anne’s living kin ordinarily would have taken precedence in succession, but they were all aligned with Anne’s father, the scandalous Catholic convert James II, who had been deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Sufficiently Protestant to appease Parliament, the Georges, who had been raised Lutheran, agreed to adopt the Anglican rite in order to win the throne.
As such machinations suggest, life around these sovereigns was seldom simple. The royal court “was a world of skullduggery, politicking, wigs, and beauty spots, where fans whistled open like flick knives.’’ In this rarified atmosphere, proximity to the monarch signified influence. Even attending to the king on his chamber pot constituted a desirable office, one worthy of a nobleman who could proudly style himself Groom of the Stool.
Worsley’s deep scholarship shines through in her evocation of the details and routines of 18th-century life, as she expertly describes matters ranging from atrocious fingernail hygiene to wayward standards of marital fidelity. She has a keen eye for figures that many historians might omit — royal mistresses, household servants, and tragic, marginal characters like Peter the Wild Boy, a feral and languageless child whom George I kept for a time as a pet.
Worsley rightly notes that palace life, despite the ardor it aroused among courtiers, amounted to little more than a cage whose gilt was beginning to flake off: “With the passing of power to Parliament, the court was gradually becoming a backwater, and the ambitious no longer vied for the great court offices.’’ The prodigiously creative figures from this era play only a peripheral role in Worsley’s narrative because they achieved their success, for the most part, far from the confines of court. Due to force of habit or wishful thinking, however, the courtiers could not perceive the ever-dimming twilight of monarchical authority. Their disputes, passions, and snubs and slights did not seem in the least bit petty to them, for they still believed that their world stood at the very center of the universe.
Jonathan Lopez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.