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The levée (from the French word lever, meaning "getting up" or "rising") has traditionally been a daily moment of intimacy and accessibility to a monarch or leader. It started out as a royal custom, but in America, it later came to refer to a reception by the King’s representatives and, even later, by the president.
In Einhard's Life of Charlemagne the author recounts the Emperor's practice, when he was dressing and putting on his shoes, to invite his friends to come in, and in case of a dispute brought to his attention, "he would order the disputants to be brought in there and then, hear the case as if he were sitting in tribunal and pronounce a judgement."
By the second half of the sixteenth century, it had become a formal event, requiring invitation. In 1563 Catherine de' Medici wrote in advice to her son, the King of France, to do as his father (Henry II) had done and uphold the practice of lever. Catherine describes that Henry II allowed his subjects, from nobles to household servants, to come in while he dressed. She states this pleased his subjects and improved their opinion of him.
This practice was raised to a ceremonial custom at the court of King Louis XIV. In the court etiquette that Louis formalized, the set of extremely elaborated conventions was divided into the grand lever, attended by the full court in the gallery outside the king's bedchamber, and the petit lever that transpired in degrees in the king's chamber, where only a very select group might serve the king as he rose and dressed. In fact the king had often risen early and put in some hours hunting before returning to bed for the start of the lever. Louis's grandson King Philip V of Spain and his queen typically spent all the morning in bed, as reported by Saint-Simon, to avoid the pestering by ministers and courtiers that began with the lever.
The king's retiring ceremony proceeded in reverse order and was known as the coucher.
The successors of Louis XIV were not as passionate about the Sun King's daily routine and over time the frequency of the lever and coucher decreased, much to the dismay of their courtiers.
When the court of Charles II of England adopted the custom, first noted as an English usage in 1672, it was called a levée. In the 18th century, as the fashionable dinner hour was incrementally moved later into the afternoon, the morning reception of the British monarch, attended only by gentlemen, was shifted forward towards noon. The practice of holding court levées was continued by the British Monarchy until 1939. These took the form of a formal reception at St James's Palace at which officials, diplomats and military officers of all three armed services were presented individually to the sovereign. Full dress uniform or court dress was worn by all participants, who formed a queue in the Throne Room before stepping forward when their names and ranks were called and bowing to the King who was seated on a dais with male members of his family, officials of the Royal Household and senior officers behind him. Similar ceremonies were held by the viceroy in India and the lord-lieutenant in Ireland, acting as royal representatives. Today the ceremonial events of the Canadian Governor General's New Year's Day reception is still called his levée.
By the 1760s the custom was being copied by the King's representatives in British America, the colonial governors. Following American independence the levée became a social gathering, i.e., the presidential levée—established by President George Washington. Washington opened the presidential mansion weekly to the public, allowing Washington to greet and meet the public. The presidential levée was carried forward by John Adams and subsequently ended by Thomas Jefferson.
Louis XIV's lever
The ceremony at Versailles has been described in detail by Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon. Louis XIV was a creature of habit, and the inflexible routine that tired or irritated his heirs served him well. Wherever the king had actually slept, he was discovered sleeping in the close-curtained state bed standing in its alcove, which was separated from the rest of the chambre du roi by a gilded balustrade. He was woken at eight o'clock by his head valet de chambre—Alexandre Bontemps held this post for most of the reign—who alone had slept in the bedchamber. The chief physician, the chief surgeon and Louis' childhood nurse, as long as she lived, all entered at the same time, and the nurse kissed him. The night chamberpot was removed.
Then the curtains of the bed were drawn once again, and at a quarter past eight the Grand Chamberlain was called, bringing with him the nobles who had the privilege of the grande entrée, a privilege that could be purchased, subject to the king's approval, but which was restricted in Louis' time to the nobles. The King remained in bed, in his nightshirt and a short wig. The Grand Chamberlain of France, or in his absence the Chief Gentleman of the Bedchamber, presented holy water to the king from a vase that stood at the head of the bed and the king's morning clothes were laid out. First the Master of the Bedchamber and the First Servant, both high nobles, pulled the king's nightshirt over his head, one grasping each sleeve. The Grand Chamberlain presented the day shirt, which, according to Saint-Simon, had been shaken out and sometimes changed, because the king perspired freely. This was a moment for any of those with the privilege of the grande entrée to have a swift private word with the king, which would have been carefully rehearsed beforehand to express a request as deferentially but in as few words as possible. The King was given a missal, and the gentlemen retired into the adjoining chambre du conseil (the "council chamber") while there was a brief private prayer for the King.
When the King had them called back, now accompanied by those who had the lesser privilege of the première entrée, his process of dressing began: Louis preferred to dress himself "for he did almost everything himself, with address and grace", Saint-Simon remarked. The King was handed a dressing-gown, and a mirror was held for him, for he had no toilet table like ordinary gentlemen. Every other day the King shaved himself. Now other privileged courtiers were admitted, a few at a time, at each stage, so that as the King was putting on his shoes and stockings "everyone"—in Saint-Simon's view—was there. This was the entrée de la chambre, which included the king's readers and the director of the Menus Plaisirs, that part of the royal establishment in charge of all preparations for ceremonies, events and festivities, to the last detail of design and order. At the entrée de la chambre were admitted the Grand Aumônier and the Marshal of France and the king's ministers and secretaries. A fifth entrée now admitted ladies for the first time, and a sixth entrée admitted, from a privileged position at a cramped backdoor, the king's children, legitimate and illegitimate indiscriminately—in scandalous fashion Saint-Simon thought—and their spouses.
The crowd in the chambre du Roi can be estimated from Saint-Simon's remark of the King's devotions, which followed: the King knelt at his bedside "where all the clergy present knelt, the cardinals without cushions, all the laity remaining standing".
The King then passed into the cabinet where all those who possessed any court office attended him; he now announced what he expected to do that day and was left alone with those among the royal bastards that he had publicly recognized and legitimated, who were his favorite children, and a few favourites, with the valets. These were less pressing moments to discuss projects with the King, who parceled out his attention with strict regard for the current standing of those closest to him.
With the entry of the King into the Grande Galerie, where the rest of the court awaited him, the petit lever was finished, and with the grand lever the day was properly begun, as the king proceeded to daily Mass, sharing brief words as he progressed and even receiving some petitions. It was of these occasions that the King habitually remarked, in refusing a favour asked for some noble, "We never see him", meaning that he did not spend enough time at Versailles, where Louis wanted to keep the nobility penned up, to prevent them interesting themselves in politics.
For the aristocracy
Among the aristocracy the levée could also become a crowded and social occasion, especially for women, who liked to put off the donning of their uncomfortable formal clothes, and whose hair and perhaps make-up needed prolonged attention. There is a famous depiction of the levée of an 18th-century Viennese lady of the court in Richard Strauss's later opera Der Rosenkavalier, where she has her hair dressed while surrounded by a disorderly crowd of tradesmen touting for work or payment, and other petitioners, followed by a visit from a cousin. The second scene of William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress shows a male equivalent in 1730s London.
In the French engraving Le Lever after Freudenberg, of the 1780s (illustration, right), gentle social criticism is levelled at the lady of the court; that she slept without unlacing her stays, apparently, perhaps can be seen as artistic licence. Her maids dress her with deference, while the wallclock under the hangings of her lit à la polonaise reads noon.
- "levee". Dictionary.com. Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. Accessed January 10, 2013.
- Einhard, Life of Charlemagne, §24.
- Elliott, J.H. Europe Divided 1559-1998, Fontana History of Europe (New York: Harper Torchbooks 1968) p.70
- Letter to the King (8 September 1563?) LCM. Vol. II, p. 90, cited in Potter, David, The French Wars of Religion: Selected Documents (New York 1997) p. 14
- Official website of the Palace of Versailles
- Oxford English Dictionary: "Levée".
- Sherrie McMillan, "What Time is Dinner?" History Magazine on-line).
- Niven, David. The Moon's a Balloon. pp. 118–120. ISBN 0-340-15817-4.
- Levee at the Executive Mansion, retrieved November 26, 2009.
- The ceremonies were abbreviated when the king was at Marly or one of his other occasional retreats, providing a sense of intimacy that was only comparative but engendering struggles among courtiers to be invited on such occasions, precisely the kind of competition Louis fostered.
- The comparison with the communion rail that separated the sanctuary in a church was not unintentional. The chambre du roi marked the center of the château de Versailles.
- These eventually were five in all.