Derived from the Anglo-Norman ‘corteiour’ and the Old French ‘cortoyeur’, the term ‘courtier’ identified those who frequented a sovereign’s court, princely residence, or household. As the centre of royal power, the early modern court connected a series of different agents who contributed to the functioning of the state and cultural life of the realm, such as royal officials, foreign diplomats, artists, scholars, writers, or clergymen. The English court was therefore a magnet for ambitious young members of the nobility and gentry, as well as English and non-English scholars, artists, and other professionals, who sought opportunities to serve the Crown or courtly patrons in order to gain prestigious commissions and offices. The route to become a courtier or member of the royal apparatus was often long and complicated. Those who became clients or protégés of a courtier were expected to serve their patrons for several years and had to compete with other aspiring courtiers.
Navigating life at court, where individuals from different backgrounds, roles and interests vied in a competitive atmosphere, was one of the main concerns of early modern treatises like the Italian courtier Baldassare Castiglione’s seminal Il Cortegiano (1528). Castiglione’s tract served as a manual that outlined the codes of conduct and duties of courtiers. Translated into English by Thomas Hoby in 1561 as The courtyer of Count Baldessar Castilio, Europeans acclaimed Castiglione’s work as a sophisticated analysis of courtly civility and morals, and his text rapidly became a paradigmatic model for Elizabethan and early Stuart established and aspiring courtiers. One of the aims of Il Cortegiano and other influential Italian works like Giovanni della Casa’s Galateo (1558), ‘English’d’ by Robert Peterson in 1576, was to establish a code of civil conduct that could be shared by the variety of individuals who frequented the court, and smooth the often vicious behaviour caused by the competition for posts, prestige and notoriety between courtiers. At the same time, it helped to establish, at least in theory, a shared pan-European perception of certain frameworks of courtly behaviour that were communicated and emulated across national and linguistic boundaries.
Essential for the archetypical courtier proposed by Castiglione was the concept of sprezzatura, the ability of making graceful, sophisticated conduct look effortless. Translated by Hoby as ‘recklessness’, sprezzatura was a skill that all courtiers were expected to develop in order to achieve their aims and become recognized members of a courtly elite. In Hoby’s translation, sprezzatura consisted in an ‘ [a]ffectation or curiosity & (to speak a new word) to use in every thyng a certain Reckelesness, to cover art withall, & seeme whatsoever he doth & sayeth to do it without pain, & (as it were) not minding it’. That characteristic mediation between calculated effort and effortless style required both a good deal of cultural sophistication and political shrewdness. To gain the prince’s favor and the admiration and respect of the rest of the court, Castiglione’s ideal courtier needed to be adept at dissimulation and construct a specific identity that would made him able to act according to different circumstances without breaching the limits imposed by relations of power and cultural norms. An accomplished courtier never revealed his intentions or feelings, and always behaved in a polite and cautious way so as not to undermine his prospects at the court. This required the courtier to develop a specific persona and invest in a process of ‘self-fashioning’ based on elements from the political, literary, visual and material culture that influenced the court. It also inevitably resulted in the figure of the courtier being associated increasingly with political corruption and amoral or artificial behavior. In A discourse of civil life (1606), the poet Lodowick Bryskett, who read Castiglione and was well acquainted with Italian courtly literature, criticized the means used by ambitious men ‘to purchase reputation and credit, or profit’ which made them ‘plaine hypocrites’. From Shakespeare’s history plays to Tudor and Jacobean revenge tragedies, English drama demonstrates the continuing influence that such anxieties had on cultural perceptions of courtly life. Thomas Dekker’s The pleasant comedie of old Fortunatus (1600), for example, mocked the efforts of the ‘[s]pruce silken faced Courtier, that stands every morning two or three hours learning how to look by his Glasse, how to speak by his Glasse, how to sigh by his glasse, how to court his Mistress by his Glasse’.
In their pursuit of sprezzatura, English courtiers developed different strategies of social distinction that often involved the adoption of elements from foreign material and intellectual cultures. The intensification of English trade and diplomatic exchanges with continental Europe facilitated the dissemination of new literary and artistic styles, as well as consumption habits and fashions. Patronage of Elizabethan courtiers such as William Cecil, Thomas Sackville or Francis Walsingham helped to further courtly and intellectual models inspired by the models of conduct proposed by Italian humanism, which in turn had been influenced by Greco-Roman ideals of virtue, scholarly excellence and public service. Sackville, for example, wrote a commendation for Hoby’s translations of Il Cortegiano, praising the book and the translation for explaining ‘what in Court a Courtier ought to be’.
In the seventeenth century, efforts made by James I and Charles I to restore diplomatic relations with Catholic Europe further exposed Stuart courtiers to foreign tastes and practices that had a profound impact on the English cultural landscape. Lady Anne Clifford, for example, commented that during the first days of the Jacobean court there was ‘a great change between the fashion of the Court as it is now and of that in the queen’s time’, alluding to James’s adhesion to foreign cultural models and fashions, as well as the rapid promotion of a group of the king’s Scottish favorites. The presence of Spanish, French and Italian ambassadors at the Jacobean and Caroline court and their regular – and at times intimate – contacts with royal officials and courtiers generated a new interest in the cultural and intellectual life of the continental courts. Women as well as men were responsible for these changing tastes and influences. The boke of the courtyer, after all, was ‘[v]ery necessary and profitable for yonge gentilmen and gentilwomen abiding in court’ or palace. Royal consorts often offered the natural centre for the development of such courtly coteries. Tudor and Stuart queens from Spain, France, Denmark, and Portugal brought with them their own servants, advisors, tailors, priests and clergymen who altered the social fabric of daily life in the heart of the political realm. Anne of Denmark showed herself to be politically savvy at the Scottish court (‘always the Queen knows all’, Robert Cecil commented in 1598), and after her arrival in England set up her own courts at Somerset House and Greenwich, where she oversaw major building works and played an important role in bringing court masques and Italian fashions to the English court. Charles I’s French wife, Henrietta Maria, commissioned masques that celebrated the Marian cult of devotion she fostered at the court. The queen’s Catholicism and harbouring of Jesuits came under attack in the parliamentary publication,The King’s cabinet opened (1644), which also condemned the queen for the political advice she regularly gave the king.
As well as the influence of foreign elites on court life in England, the embassies that James I or Charles I sent to Madrid or Paris offered some courtiers a rare experience of courtly access abroad. The early Stuart courtier therefore became a privileged agent for the introduction of foreign novelties, increasingly associated with cosmopolitan sophistication. Young Jacobean and Caroline aristocrats with courtly ambitions invested in travel as part of their education, and visits to foreign courts and continental aristocratic households were seen as useful for obtaining relevant posts in the royal administration or diplomatic service when they returned home. Endymion Porter spent most of his formative years at the household of Gaspar de Guzmán, Count Duke of Olivares and valido (favourite) of Philip IV of Spain, and the lord treasurer Francis Cottington lived for more than a decade at the Spanish royal court. Other relevant Caroline courtiers like Kenelm Digby and Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, embarked on several ‘grand tours’ of Europe and were fluent in Italian and French. The Earl of Arundel’s wife, Aletheia Howard, accompanied him on his trip in the 1610s, taking part in diplomatic activity and developing her own networks with Italian doges and court painters.
Influential Stuart courtiers such as Robert Cecil, Earl of Salisbury, and George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, regularly commissioned English diplomats and agents stationed in the Low Countries or the Italian peninsula to acquire artwork and ancient manuscripts to promote their own political positions at home and abroad. These practices of patronage aimed not only to enhance the status of leading courtiers, but to position the English court within international artistic and intellectual centres. This had begun with Henry VIII and the humanist statesmen at his court, such as Thomas More, who had encouraged the Augsburg-born artist Hans Holbein’s endeavours in London, and who sat for portraits themselves. Writing about his experience in England in the 1630s, the artist Peter Paul Rubens commented that ‘this island...seems to me to be a spectacle worthy of the interest of every gentleman...not only for the splendor of the outward culture, which seems to be extreme, as of a people rich and happy in the lap of peace, but also for the incredible quality of excellent pictures, statues and ancient inscriptions which are to be found in this court’.
The cosmopolitanism of Stuart courtiers was often criticized as a dangerous openness to foreign (often Catholic) influences and cultural trends that could undermine English social and religious harmony. Puritan members of the House of Commons often styled themselves as those best committed to the governance of the realm, in juxtaposition to the florid indulgence and obscene corruption they saw in the royal court. Jacobean poets lamented the ‘iron’ age that had seen the breakdown of social and political virtue. In 1612, Henry Wotton described the court as a ‘market of noise and novelties’, evoking the fashions, gossip-mongering, and political maneuverings of the Jacobean court. In the same year, the poet Josuah Sylvester expressed the commonplace belief that lavishness of the court and the increasing influence of continental fashion would change the character of national governance: ‘Wee Courtiers next, who French-Italiante, / Fashion our Faith after the forme of State’. Two years later, in 1614, Sylvester revisited these lines and associated the regular adoptions of new fashions at the court with the inconstancy of the character of the courtier: ‘Wee Courtiers, next, who French- Italianate, Change (with the Moon) our Fashion, Faith, & Fate’. This association between the changes of the moons and the character of the courtier suggested a moral ambiguity that other authors also evoked. John Donne perceived the court as a place for intrigue and opportunism, so that ‘vertue in Courtiers hearts / Suffers an Ostracisme, and departs’. 
These portraits of the courtier as an extravagant, morally dubious individual transformed by foreign influences contributed to the development of a perceived dichotomy between the London-based courtier and the English countryman, the latter of whom represented the true qualities of the English nation. The opposition between the court and the country, perceived as an idyllic and naturally virtuous place, was often used as an allegory to criticize governmental measures or members of the political and social elite. The negative stereotypes of the urban aristocrats who frequented the court became a recurrent literary trope to launch veiled or direct criticism to the political, religious and cultural developments of Stuart England in the lead-up to the civil wars. Many of these works presented courtiers as intrinsically corrupt and arrogant characters who failed to embody the true values of courtliness. The character of the countryman in Nicholas Brenton’s The court and country (1618), for instance, is extremely skeptical about the virtues of many courtiers compared to the less extravagant country gentry and rural folk, stating that many courtiers followed only their own interests and ambitions, being ‘no Courtiers, but hangers on upon those that sometimes in great places have an humor to fatten fleas’, while in the countryside ‘we runne no such courses, but are content with what we have’.
The perception of the superiority of rural life was a recurrent topic of Dudley Lord North’s A Forest of Varieties (1648), a work which stated that ‘Country life is assuredly most natural, pleasant, setled, and profitable to the English breed and course’ and censored the court for ‘the Parrat heartless complements, Gossipping discourse, Petty censures of this man's seate, house, habit, estate, and the others last action, Lawsuite, child, marriage, entertainment, purchase, sale and bargain’. London and other urban centers were also the habitat of ‘Professors, Trades-men, Officers, Courtiers, and such as feed on others tables to live in for pleasure and profit’. These negative perceptions of the courtier were often evoked by Puritan and Parliamentary propaganda during the civil wars and Cromwell’s protectorate, where courtiers and the court became a symbol of absolutism, suspicious foreign influences, and Catholic sympathies. One anonymous pamphlet from the 1650s reminded parliament that ‘the corrupt Courtier’ was to be grouped with those who ‘are the taile of the Beast, and sting the poor labouring man’. This presented a convenient, but misleading, dichotomy between aristocrats and members of the gentry, even when the labouring poor were often oppressed by both.
These recurrent negative portraits of courtiers played with the idea of a profound opposition between those who lived in London in the orbit of the court, and the rest of the country. The courtier, due to his social status, proximity to political power, and access to foreign novelties, became a stereotypical figure associated with alternative values or practices that were considered to be remote from English traditions or the daily life of other English men and women. Aristocrats and courtiers seemed to share this belief that they possessed a distinct and privileged position in English social landscape, albeit separated from the rest of the population. Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, though with some playfulness or irony, argued under the guise of an epistle that different social groups ‘should be apart by themselves, like several Commonwealths, Courtiers should only Converse with Courtiers, or Courtly Persons, and Country Gentlemen with Country Gentlemen, Citizens with Citizens, Farmers with Farmers’. Although perhaps not meant to be taken purely in earnest, such sentiments raised attention to the distinct world of the courtier, and the impossibility of understanding the rights, values, and idioms of those whose lived experiences could be so different to one’s own.