Lemme tell you guys… this one was a doozy to write. Several weeks ago I was doing some worldbuilding and setting development for my WIP trilogy, when it dawned on me that I hadn’t spent much time developing the secondary characters that are going to be around my main protagonist. She’s a young royal, ascending to her country’s throne and the cultural seat of the world with her twin brother at the tender age of seventeen, and it never occurred to me to thoroughly develop their courts. I had their households staffed with nameless wisps, and for a story as massive and all-encompassing as it’s shaping up to be, I simply couldn’t allow these vital people to remain faceless and nameless. So I set out to develop the royal court, its many peoples, purposes and movements, and thus the notion of this article was born.
In addition to the list of players any royal court is going to need, I also came across several scenario questions that you might want to consider, if you ever find yourself needing to develop a court like I have. Consider these:
- Who is likely to be present in court at any given time? How are these numbers likely to change throughout the year?
- Does the court and/or government have a time when it’s in session?
- What happens when someone with a court title dies?
- What happens when someone with a court title is murdered?
- What happens when the monarch moves houses, either as planned or unexpectedly?
- What is the court likely to be like during peace and war?
And now, consider these people and offices that are likely to be present in some capacity or another:
- The monarch(s) – Regardless of what titles you give them, this person or duo is the center of a royal court; she defines the rest of the court. If the monarch consists of two people they are most likely either married or siblings, sometimes both depending on the culture and age.
- The monarch’s family – people related to the monarch by blood, adoption or marriage fall into this category, and these people might or might not have their own titles and additional positions, though not necessarily always officially. Consider how younger royal siblings might be sent places to be married off, and be expected to function as ambassadors without the pay, or the many hats that a dowager queen might wear in her “retirement.”
- Ambassadors – these men and women come from other kingdoms but they’re vital to functioning on a wider scale. They communicate their lady’s desires, intents and goals, as well as bring her insider news from the courts where they are appointed. When things are going well, they command a lot of respect and power, but if their two countries are on the outs, their lives are almost certainly in danger. Keep in mind too that ambassadors are likely to have their own households, and there might be a junior ambassador in play as well.
- Nobles – At any given time, a royal court is bound to be packed with the country’s gentry, there to doing things such as discuss business, introduce a child for courting, serve the crown for their appointed time or because they are so active in politics because they make their home wherever the Queen does. Unlike ambassadors who are primarily going to be focused on inter-country negotiations, noblemen and women will have their own agendas to further their families, and while you’d like to think that they’re all loyal to the crown and their country, sometimes their own ambitions might get in the way.
- Court Fool/Jester – We like to think of the court fool as someone who is, genuinely, a fool, but that’s often not the case. The Fool is a useful tool for the monarch because he distracts the court, and more often than not acts as a spy, passing along tidbits of overheard information or sightings – after all, who pays attention to the simpletons?
- Courtiers – Courtiers are different from nobles in that they are people whose talents or ambition have brought them to court seeking the next rung on their ladder, rather than people whose daily business has brought them to the Queen’s presence. They are here to make a name for themselves, and can almost always be counted on to act in their own best interests, unless motivated by an exceptional force. These types are often at court on their own dime.
- Resident military commanders – Military commanders are not likely to be regular fixtures at court, as they’re needed with their forces. But the highest ranking among them are going to be in nearly constant contact with the monarch (or the monarch’s representative, as is sometimes the case) and that will often necessitate being physically present at court.
- Guests – Whether from outside of the country, rich or poor, landed or not, the royal court is ALWAYS going to have guests, and a well-established court is going to have provisions for housing and caring for a large number of them. A person’s station and/or possible value to the crown might determine wherein a castle they are housed and how they are treated, but if you write in a few guests consider that their perspective could be useful in defining the court as a whole.
- Semi-permanent guests – These guests are people who don’t necessarily belong at court, and while their stay might be lengthy, it is well established that it will not be permanent. Examples of these kinds of people might be businessmen appointed to oversee some long term prospects, or the children of foreign nobles who have been sent to another country to be educated.
- The monarch’s favorites – These could be really good characters for you to develop in depth. They’re essentially wild cards, and as they are favorites of the Queen, they have the potential to be outlandish or scandalous, hated or misunderstood, but the love and blind eye from the Queen keeps them nearby… tethered.
- Royal lords and ladies – It will be rare for any ruler to find themselves alone; their personal attendants live to see to their needs and are never going to be far from hand. These politically powerful positions are likely to be jostled over a great deal, especially if the monarch is young, and might overlap somewhat with the royal favorites. Sometimes these people are lifelong companions and sometimes they are placed strategically close to the monarch for certain goals but regardless of how they came to be there, they are likely to share in the fine things, wealth, power and danger that surrounds a royal.
- Sponsored artists – Sponsored artists could easily be labeled courtiers, except that it wasn’t usually their idea to come to court, and they’re not there for their own ambition. If the wealthy of your world are at all inclined to supporting the arts – drawing, painting, writing, performance, design, etc – they’re likely going to want to show off their investments, so in this regard these artists are usually nothing more than accessories. Though being a court is always a good way to increase one’s sales.
- Guards – Any court is likely to have several levels of protective personnel, all the way from those hired by the royal household to keep the general peace and take care of grunt work to personal, more elite bodyguards. This is another varied group that can include any number of peoples, skill level, objectives and professional capacity, but everybody who’s anybody is going to have one or two. Eunuchs might also fall into this category – those maimed men who have been conscripted in guarding typically women whose virtue is deemed vitally important.
- Servants – Another highly varied group, but no less vital to the functioning of a royal castle and court. Servants might hold roles such as cooks, head cooks, librarians, messengers, laundresses, seamstresses, housekeeping, tasters, children’s nurses, ushers, grooms, heralds, and gardeners. If you world isn’t very progressive, some of these roles might also be filled with slaves or bonded servants.
- Harem members – This again will depend largely on your story itself, but if the King or Queen is going to be flitting from bed to bed, there’s likely to be a group of bedmates hanging around for royal pleasure. Whether or not this group is well respected or received (or even publically visible) is up to you.
To further break down a royal court, consider these positions, or court appointments. Depending on how you want to define it, these appointments might be considered part of the Queen’s household, meaning that these people’s chain of command is relatively short, and the expectations that are placed on them are some of the highest in the nation. Alternatively, they might also be considered to be part of the royal court “household” meaning that the people who are currently residing within the court have some (albeit usually limited) access to these people and their responsibilities.
- Butler – chief manservant of a house
- Chamberlain – an officer who manages the household of a monarch
- Chancellor – a senior state or legal official
- Constable – a peace keeping officer, usually with limited policing abilities
- Cupbearer – a person who serves wine
- Keeper of the Seals – the officer appointed to keep and authorize the use of the nation’s great seal, and possibly smaller ones as well
- Marshal – an officer of elevated military rank and/or civilian law enforcement
- Master of the Horse – an officer charged with the care of a monarch’s horses and sometimes royal hounds as well
- Private Secretary – an officer appointed to address personal concerns of a monarch, noble or public court figure
- Sergeant at Arms – an officer of the governing body responsible for maintaining order and security
- Steward – an officer who manages the lands and maintains daily functions of those lands
- Master of Hunt – an officer charged with the organization of hunts, sometimes also the keeper of royal and/or hounds
- Master of Ceremony – the official host/organizer of staged events, sometimes the one to give speeches or present performers
- Master of Robe – the officer in charge of a monarch’s wardrobe, especially for important events such as coronations or annual celebrations
- Master of Coin/Head Coffer – the chief financial adviser charged with managing the crown’s money, advising the monarch and overseeing all region-affecting transactions
- Chaplemaster(s) and/or confessors – officers charged with keeping the mortality of a court and nation, sometimes high ranking members of a predominate church
- Falconer – keeper of birds, both messenger and predatory
- Pantler – the officer responsible for the pantry or food supplies
- Standard-bearer – a usually honorary position responsible for carrying a flag, in and out of battle
Most of these titles are pretty standard and can be found in a lot of our modern day countries’ histories in some form or another. The names are usually slightly different depending on the nation and how the position itself has evolved over the years, and you should keep that evolution in mind when designing your own court titles. Changing up the titles completely is always an option but if you’re going for an edge of realism, try just adding prefixes such as:
- High Lord/Lady (or Lord/Lady High)
So there is is. An overview of designing a royal court. Now please excuse me while I go contemplate the enormity of the task in front of me and rethink all of my life decisions….
Have you ever written a royal court? What about someone who takes part in a court, even occasionally?
See also: Do’s and Don’ts of Writing Royalty