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A courtier (//; French: [kuʁtje]) is a person who is often in attendance at the court of a king or other royal personage. Historically the court was the centre of government as well as the residence of the monarch, and the social and political life were often completely mixed together. A female courtier was called a courtesan, although today this name has come to be associated with female entertainers who served the upper classes (with or without sexual connotations).
Monarchs very often expected the more important nobles to spend much of the year in attendance on them at court. Not all courtiers were noble, as they included clergy, soldiers, clerks, secretaries, and agents and middlemen of all sorts with regular business at court. Those personal favorites without business around the monarch, sometimes called the camarilla, were also considered courtiers. Promotion to important positions could be very rapid at court, and for the ambitious there was no better place to be. As social divisions became more rigid, a divide, barely present in Antiquity or the Middle Ages, opened between menial servants and other classes at court, although Alexandre Bontemps, the head valet de chambre of Louis XIV was a late example of a "menial" who managed to establish his family in the nobility. The key commodities for a courtier were access and information, and a large court operated at many levels - many successful careers at court involved no direct contact with the monarch.
The largest and most famous European court was that of the Palace of Versailles at its peak, although the Forbidden City of Beijing was even larger and more isolated from national life. Very similar features marked the courts of all very large monarchies, whether in Delhi, Topkapı Palace in Istanbul, Ancient Rome, Byzantium, or the Caliphs of Baghdad or Cairo. Early medieval European courts frequently traveled from place to place following the monarch as he traveled. This was particularly the case in the early French court. But, the European nobility generally had independent power and was less controlled by the monarch until roughly the 18th century, which gave European court life a more complex flavour.
In modern literature, courtiers are often depicted as insincere, skilled at flattery and intrigue, ambitious and lacking regard for the national interest. More positive representations of the stereotype might include the role played by members of the court in the development of politeness and the arts.
In modern English, the term is often used metaphorically for contemporary political favourites or hangers-on.
Examples of famous courtiers in fiction
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from William Shakespeare's Hamlet
- Sir Lancelot from Arthurian legend
- Count Hasimir Fenring from Frank Herbert's Dune
- Gaius Helen Mohiam from Frank Herbert's Dune
- Petyr Baelish from George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire
- Ivan Vorpatril from Lois Bujold's series Vorkosigan Saga.
- Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington from J. K. Rowling's series Harry Potter
Examples of famous British and French courtiers
- Anne Boleyn
- Alessandro Cagliostro
- John Dee
- Anne Hungerford
- Princess Marie Louise of Savoy
- The Dukes of Luynes
- Henri Coiffier de Ruzé, Marquis of Cinq-Mars
- Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon
- The Count of St. Germain
- Cardinal de Rohan
- Madame de Pompadour
- Walter Raleigh
- William Tallon
- The Book of the Courtier, by Baldassare Castiglione
- Éminence grise
- Royal mistress
- Courtly love
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