Derived from the Anglo-Norman corteiour and the Old French cortoyeur, the term courtier was used to identify 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, playwrights, or clergymen. The court was therefore a magnet for ambitious young members of the nobility, gentry, or graduates from Oxford, Cambridge, and the Inns of Court, who sought opportunities to serve the crown or relevant courtier in order to increase their prospects by gaining prestigious patrons and offices. The route to become a courtier or member of the royal apparatus was, however, 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 for important in a competitive atmosphere, was one of the main concerns of early modern works like Baldassare Castiglione’s seminal Il Cortegiano (1528). Castiglione’s tract served as a manual that outlined the 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 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 attenuate the disturbing effects caused by the competition for posts, prestige and notoriety between courtiers.
Essential for the archetypical courtier proposed by Castiglione was the concept of sprezzatura, which was the skill of making graceful, sophisticated conduct look effortless. Translated by Hoby as ‘recklessness’, sprezzatura was a skill that all courtiers should develop to achieve their aims and be recognised members of a courtly elite. In Hoby’s translation, sprezzatura consisted in an ‘Affectation 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 wythout pain, & (as it were) not myndyng 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 favour 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 to not 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 his Discourse of Civil Life, 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 to be ‘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 ‘Spruce silken face Courtier, that stands every morning two or three howres learning how to looke by his Glasse, how to speake by his Glasse, how to sigh by his glasse, how to court his Mistris by his Glasse’.
In their pursuit of sprezzatura, early modern 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. Elizabethan courtiers such as William Cecil, Thomas Sackville or Francis Walsingham adhered to the courtly and intellectuals models inspired by the models of conduct proposed by Italian humanism which were 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’.
The efforts made by James I and Charles I to restore diplomatic relations with Catholic Europe 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’ adhesion to foreign cultural models and fashions, as well as the rapid promotion of a group of the king’s Scottish favourites. The presence of Spanish, French and Italian ambassadors at the Jacobean and Caroline court and their regular — and at time intimate — contacts with royal officials and courtiers generated a new interest on the cultural and intellectual life of the continental courts. At the same time, the embassies sent by James I or Charles I to Madrid or Paris offered to some courtiers involved in the early Stuart diplomatic apparatus a rare experience of continental courtly practices.
The early Stuart courtier became therefore as a privileged agent for the introduction of foreign novelties, and the image of the courtier became increasingly associated to one of 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, for example, spent most of his formative years at the household of the Count Duke of Olivares, the prime minister of Philip IV of Spain, and Francis Cottington lived for more than a decade at the Spanish royal court. Other relevant Caroline courtiers like Kenelm Digby and Thomas Howard, the twenty-first earl of Arundel, made several ‘grant tours’ of Europe and were fluent in Italian and French. Influential Stuart courtiers such as Robert Cecil, earl of Salisbury, Robert Carr, earl of Somerset, George Villiers, duke of Buckingham, and Thomas Howard regularly commissioned English diplomats stationed in the Low Countries or the Italian peninsula to commission painters or acquire artwork and ancient manuscripts to promote their own political positions at home and abroad. This investment on practices of patronage aimed not only to enhance the status of leading courtiers, but also the reputation of the English court as a relevant European international artistic and intellectual centre. Writing about his experience in England, Peter Paul Rubens commented that ‘[T]his 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 … confess I have never seen anything in the world more rare.’
The cosmopolitanism of Stuart courtiers was often criticised as a dangerous openness to foreign influences and cultural trends that could undermine English social and religious harmony. In 1612, Henry Wotton described the Jacobean court as a ‘market of noise and novelties’ evoking both the fashions, gossips and political manoeuvrings of the Jacobean court. Also in the same year, Josuah Sylvester, suggested that the lavishness of the Jacobean court and the increasing influence of continental fashion could determine the direction of the country’s religious and political apparatus: ‘Wee Courtiers next, who French-Italianate,/ 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 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 was also evoked by other authors. John Donne, based in his experiences at the Elizabethan and Jacobean courts, for example, perceived the court as place for intrigue and opportunism stating 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 dichotomy between the London-based courtier and the English countryman, who 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 criticise governmental measures or members of the political and social elite. The negative stereotypes of the urbanite aristocrats and arrivistes who frequented the court became a recurrent useful literary topic to launch veiled or direct critics to the political, religious and cultural developments of Stuart England. Many of these works presented courtiers as intrinsically corrupt and arrogant characters who failed to embody the true virtuous values of courtliness. The character of the countryman in Nicholas Brenton’s The court and country, for instance, is extremely sceptical about the virtues of many courtiers vis-à-vis the country gentry and other 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 folk vis-à-vis courtiers was a recurrent topic of Dudley Lord North’s A Forest of Varieties (1648), a work which stated that ‘Country life is assuredly most naturall, pleasant, setled, and profitable to the English breed and course’ and censored the court for ‘the Parrat heartlesse complements, Gossipping discourse, Petty censures of this mans seate, house, habit, estate, and the others last action, Lawsuite, child, marriage, entertainment, purchase, sale and bargaine’. London and other urban centres 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 years of the English civil wars. For many parliamentarians and puritans, courtiers and the court became a symbol of absolutism, suspicious foreign influences and Catholic sympathies. Between 1642 and 1660, parliamentary and puritan propaganda depicted courtiers as corrupt and oppressing characters. 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’.
These recurrent negative portraits of courtiers as morally corrupt individuals played with the idea of a profound opposition between those who lived at 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 to English traditions or the daily life of other Englishmen. Aristocrats and courtiers also seemed to share this perception of having a unique or distinct position that made them an integral part of English social landscape, albeit separated from the rest of the population. Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle, argued 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’.