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Medieval Travel Guide

Medieval Kings

In France, as early as the Merovingian Era, the Medieval Kings had amassed huge fortunes,  possessed immense properties, and had palaces in almost all the large towns. According to Gregory of Tours, when Frédégonde, wife of Chilpéric, gave the hand of her daughter Rigouthe to the son of the Gothic king, fifty chariots were required to carry away all the valuable objects which composed the princess’s dower. All the royal residences were built on the same plan. High walls surrounded the palace. The Roman atrium, was placed in front of the hall of reception, where visitors were received. The consistorium, or great circular hall surrounded with seats, served for legislation, councils, public assemblies, and other solemnities, at which the kings displayed their royal pomp. The trichorium, or dining-room, was generally the largest hall in the palace; two rows of columns divided it into three parts; one for the royal family, one for the officers of the household, and the third for the guest who were always very numerous. No person of rank visiting the King could leave without sitting at his table, or at least drinking a cup to his health. The Medieval Kings hospitality was magnificent, especially on great religious festivals such as Christmas and Easter.

The royal apartments were divided into winter and summer rooms. In order to regulate the temperature, hot or cold water was used, according to the season; this circulated in the pipes of the hypocauste, or the subterranean furnace which warmed the baths. The rooms with chimneys were called epicaustoria (stoves). In the same manner as the Gallo-Roman houses, the palaces of the Frank kings and principal nobles of ecclesiastical or military order had thermes, or bathrooms: to the thermes were attached a colymbum, or washhouse, a gymnasium for bodily exercise, and a hypodrome, or covered gallery for exercise, which must not be confounded with the hippodrome, a circus where horse-races took place.

Philip le Bel
King Philip IV le Bel (the Fair) in War Dress

As the life at the Royal Court became more sophisticated, Emperor Charlemagne tried to promote more the science and letters, and less the material luxury. However, his personal example of simple dress, was not enthusiastically followed by his subjects.

One of the greatest Medieval Kings, Philip Augustus, followed the same path of simplicity. Although his domains and revenues had always been on the increase, this monarch never displayed, in ordinary circumstances at least, much magnificence. The accounts of his private expenses for the years 1202 and 1203 have been preserved, bearing witness to the extreme simplicity of the court at that period.

The household of the King or royal family was still very small: one chancellor, one chaplain, a squire, a butler, a few Knights of the Temple, and some sergeants-at-arms were the only officers of the palace. The king and princes of his household only changed apparel three times during the year. The children of the King slept in sheets of serge, and their nurses were dressed in gowns of dark-colored woolen stuff, called brunette. The royal cloak, which was of scarlet, was jeweled, but the King wore it only at great ceremonies. At the same time enormous expenses were incurred for implements of war, arrows, helmets with visors, chariots, and for the men- at-arms whom the King kept in his pay.

Louis IX personally kept up almost similar habits. The Sire de Joinville, in his “Chronicles,” is mentioning that the holy King, on his return from his first crusade, in order to repair the damage done to his treasury by the failure of this expedition, would no longer wear costly furs nor robes of scarlet, and contented himself with common stuffs trimmed with hare skin. However, he did not reduce the number of officers of his household, and honored the royal magnificence whenever required. Under the two Philip, his successors, this magnificence increased, and descended to the great vassals, who were soon imitated by the knights “bannerets.”

Queen Anne of Brittany
Court of the Ladies of Queen Anne of Brittany

Philip IV le Bel (the Fair) was not satisfied with making laws against the extravagances of his subjects, but himself kept a strict economy in his own household, which recalled the austere times of Philip Augustus. Thus, the Queen, Jeanne de Navarre, was only allowed two ladies and three maids of honor in her suite, and she had only two four-horse carriages, one for herself and the other for these ladies. The regulations required that a butler, specially appointed, “should buy all the cloth and furs for the king, take charge of the key of the cupboards where these are kept, know the quantity given to the tailors to make clothes, and check the accounts when the tailors send in their claims for the price of their work.”

After the death of Jeanne de Navarre, who had a major contribution in implementing these rules, the expenses of the royal household increased, especially on the occasions of the marriages of the three young sons of the King, from 1305 to 1307. Gold, diamonds, pearls, and precious stones were used, both for the King’s garments and for those of the members of the royal family. The accounts of 1307 mention considerable sums paid for carpets, counterpanes, robes, worked linen. A chariot of state, ornamented and covered with paintings, and gilded like the back of an altar, is also mentioned.

Under Philippe le Bel and his sons the royal household had become considerable. Under Charles VI., the household of Queen Isabella of Bavaria alone amounted to forty-five persons, without counting the almoner, the chaplains, and clerks of the chapel, who must have been very numerous, since the sums paid to them amounted to the large amount of four hundred and sixty francs of gold per annum. Under Charles VIII., Louis XII., and Francis I., the service of the young nobility, which was called “apprenticeship of honor or virtue,” had taken a much wider range. Anne of Brittany particularly gave special attention to her female attendants. This queen, who became successively the wife of Charles VIII. and of Louis XII., had taken care to establish a strict discipline amongst the young men and women who composed her court. As long as she lived, her court was renowned for purity and politeness, noble and refined gallantry.

Unfortunately, the moral influence of this worthy princess died with her. Although the Court of France in the 16th Century was maybe the most polished of European courts, the last Medieval Kings could not prevent the laxity of morals, and the vice and corruption descended from class to class, contaminating the society.

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