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English Court Festivities


Americans have an impression that the English think it a considerable distinction to be presented at court. But the ceremony of presentation has entirely ceased to have any social significance in England. Any young gentleman who imagines that the door of English society will be thrown open to him on the publication of his appearance at a drawing-room had better save the expense of a dress and carriage and stay at home. If a lady be ambitious of a social success, the money which a robe will cost might be expended to equal advantage anywhere else in London. However, a lady's dress may be worn again, and men may hire a court-suit for the day at a very small cost. Your tailor, if you get a good deal of him, will patch you up something tolerable for very little; so that sartorial expenses are comparatively light. One can get for the afternoon a two-horse brougham, with a coachman and footman, for a sum less than ten dollars. Still, going to court costs something, and its only possible advantage is that the spectacle is a fine and an interesting one. One has therefore to consider whether the sight is worth the fee.

A presentation at court is of quite as little advantage to an Englishman as to a foreigner coming to England. Almost anybody can be presented, and of those who are precluded from presentation, a great many occupy higher positions than many of those who have the privilege of going to court. Any graduate of a university, any clergyman, any officer in the army, is entitled to go. A merchant, an attorney, even a barrister, cannot; and yet in England a barrister, or, for that matter, a successful merchant, is apt to be a person of more consequence than a curate or a poor soldier. The court has scarcely any social significance in England. I once asked a young barrister if presentation would help him in the least in making his way in society. He said, "Not a bit."

In England the position of everybody is so well fixed that people cannot well change it by wishing it to be changed. Thus, for a poor East London curate to go to court would simply make him ridiculous. The parsons in the West End do present themselves, but there is no part of the British empire where clergymen are of such slight consequence as in the West End of London. The clergymen, as they file in along with the gayly-accoutred young guards-men, have a meek and gentle air which makes one feel that they had better have stayed away. They do not look half defiant enough. No person who is not already in such a position as to need no pushing could becomingly make his appearance at court. I remember in Shropshire to have heard a family who went down to London to be presented made the target for the ridicule of the whole neighborhood.

On a visit to London some years ago the writer was presented in the diplomatic circle, went to several of the drawing-rooms and levees at Buckingham and St. James's Palaces, and was invited to the court balls and concerts. Invitations to the court festivities are given only to those persons presented in the diplomatic circle. It must be understood that there is at every court in Europe a select and elegant and exclusive entrance, by which the diplomatists come in. Along with them enter also the ministers of state and the household officers of the Crown. The general circle, as it is called, includes everybody else. Another entrance and staircase are provided for it, and in that way all of British society, from a duke to a half-pay captain, gains admittance to the sovereign. When one is in the inside of Buckingham or St. James's Palace the same distinction exists. The room in which the members of the royal family receive the public is occupied during the entire ceremony by the diplomatic circle. Other persons, after bowing to the queen, pass into an antechamber.

Though I say it is of but small social advantage to an Englishman to be presented, yet undoubtedly the greatest people in the empire attend court, and are to be seen at the ceremonials and festivities at Buckingham and St. James's Palaces. At present the queen holds drawing-rooms and levees at Buckingham Palace, and the prince of Wales at St. James's Palace. The latter are attended only by gentlemen, and, though not so grand as the queen's, are pleasanter. Trousers are allowed, instead of the knee-breeches and stockings which must be worn at all court ceremonials where there are ladies. At two o'clock—for the prince is very punctual—the doors of the reception-room are thrown open, and the diplomatists begin to file in. First come the ambassadors. It must be remembered that there is a wide difference between an ambassador and an envoy or minister plenipotentiary. The original difference was that the ambassador was supposed, by a sort of transubstantiation, to represent the person of his sovereign. He had a right at any time to demand an audience with the king. An envoy must see the foreign secretary. This, of course, has ceased to have any practical significance in countries which have constitutions; and no doubt a minister can at any time demand an interview of the sovereign. It is still true, however, that an ambassador is accredited to the king, while an envoy is accredited to the foreign secretary. Practically, the difference is that an ambassador represents a bigger country, has better pay, lives in a finer house, and gives more parties and grander dinners. An ambassador has precedence of everybody in the country in which he resides, except the royal family.

There are five countries which send ambassadors to England—Russia, France, Germany, Austria and Turkey. These ambassadors enter the reception-room at the prince's levee in the order of seniority of residence. The Turkish ambassador, Musurus, who had been twenty years in London, came first on the occasions I speak of, the others following, I forget in what order. They were all persons of distinguished appearance. One, in particular, was singularly wise and dignified-looking, with an aspect which was either bland or severe, one could scarcely say which. Another resembled strikingly the typical diplomatist of romance, having a manner suave and infinitely deferential, but oh! so under-handed and insidious and diabolical! The duc de Broglie was the French ambassador in London at the time of my visit, and of all the corps his person and countenance possessed much the most distinction. His was a distinction of spirit and intellect: the distinction of the other continental "swells" was usually one of stomach and whiskers.

Behind each ambassador march the secretaries of the embassy. After the ambassadors come the ministers. The whole diplomatic corps moves from an anteroom into an apartment in which the prince of Wales awaits them. The prince and several of his brothers, his cousins, the duke of Cambridge and the prince of Teck, stand up in a row like an old-fashioned spelling class. Next to the prince, on his right, stands Viscount Sidney, the lord chamberlain, who calls off each detachment as it approaches—"Austrian ambassador," "the Spanish minister," "the United States minister," etc. The prince shakes hands with the head of the embassy or mission, and bows to the secretaries. When the diplomatists, cabinet ministers and household officers have all made their bow, it is the turn of British society. The diplomatic circle, and such as have the entree to it, remain in the room: the Englishmen pass out. The lord chamberlain in a loud voice calls off the name of each person as he appears, so that each comer is, as it were, labeled and ticketed. The observer learns quite as much as if the lord chamberlain was the verger and was showing off his collection.

One may often guess the rank or importance of the courtier by the manner of his reception. If he shakes hands with the prince, you may know he is somebody—if he shakes hands with all five or six of the princes, you may know he is a very great person. But if he gives the princes a wide berth, bows hastily and glances furtively at them, and runs by skittishly, then you may know that he is some half-pay colonel or insignificant civil servant. Something, too, may be inferred from the length of time the lord chamberlain takes to decipher the name of the comer on the slip of paper which is handed him. If he scans it long and hard, and holds it a good way from him and says "Major Te—e—e—bosh—bow," then in a loud voice, "Major Tebow," you will be safe in thinking that Major Tebow is not one of the greatest of warriors or largest of landed proprietors.

The ceremony lasts an hour and a half or two hours, and during the whole of it the talk and hand-shaking among the diplomatists go on very pleasantly. There is a great deal of esprit de corps among them, and perfect equality. Attachés, secretaries and ministers walk about through the room and exchange greetings. The ambassadors are rather statelier: these do not mix themselves with the crowd of diplomatists, but stand up apart, all five in a row, leaning against the wall, chatting easily, looking quite like another row of princes, a sort of after-glow of the royalties.

At all other court entertainments ladies are present. Of course there are a great many very pretty ones, and their brilliant toilets increase the magnificence of the spectacle. The queen's levees are very much longer than those of the prince of Wales. Then, at all ceremonials where there are ladies, men are compelled to wear, as I have said, silk stockings and knee-breeches, slippers and shoe-buckles. One can support this costume in tolerable comfort in a warm room, but in getting from the carriage to the door it is often like walking knee-deep in a tub of cold water. A cold hall or a draught from an open door will give very unpleasant sensations. In many of the large rooms of the palaces huge fireplaces, with great logs of wood, roar behind tall brass fenders. Once in front of one of these, the courtier who isn't a Scotchman feels as if he would never care to go away. Fortunately, most of these ceremonials are in summer, but the first of them come in February, and London is often cool well up into June.

The ceremony of a presentation to the queen is quite the same as that at a prince of Wales's levee. The spelling-class of royal ladies stand up in a rigid row. On the queen's right is the lord chamberlain, who reads off the names. Next to the queen, on her left, is Alexandra, then the queen's daughters and the Princess Mary of Cambridge. Next to them stand the princes, and the whole is a phalanx which stretches entirely across the room. Behind this line, drawn up in battle array, stand three or four ranks of court ladies.

The act of presentation is very easy and simple. Formerly—indeed, until within a few years—it must have been a very perilous and important feat. The courtier (the term is used inaccurately, but there is no noun to describe a person who goes to court for a single time) was compelled to walk up a long room, and to back, bowing, out of the queen's presence. For ladies who had trails to manage the ordeal must have been a trying one. Now it has been made quite easy. There is but one point in which a presentation to the queen differs from that already described at the prince of Wales's levee. You may turn your back to the prince, but after bowing to the queen you step off into the crowd, still facing her. There (if you have had the good luck to be presented in the diplomatic circle) you may stand and watch a most interesting pageant. To the young royalties, perhaps, it is not very amusing, though they evidently have their little joke afterward over anything unusual that occurs. It is natural enough that they should, of course, and the fatigue which they sustain entitles them to all the amusement they can get out of what must be to them a very monotonous and familiar spectacle. There is plenty in it to occupy and interest the man who sees it for the first or second time. You do not have to ask "Who is this?" and "Who is that?" The lord chamberlain announces each person as he or she appears. You hear the most heroic and romantic names in English history as some insignificant boy or wizened old woman appears to represent them. They are not all, by any means, insignificant boys and wizened old women. Many of the ladies are handsome enough to be well worth looking at, whether their names be Percy or Stanhope or Brown or Smith. The young slips of girls who come to be presented for the first time, frightened and pale or flushed, one admires and feels a sense of instinctive loyalty to.

The name of each is called out loudly by the lord chamberlain: "The duchess of Fincastle," "The countess of Dorchester," "Lady Arabella Darling on her marriage," etc. The ladies bow very low, and those to whom the queen gives her hand to kiss nearly or quite touch their knee to the carpet. No act of homage to the queen ever seems exaggerated, her behavior being so modest and the sympathy with her so wide and sincere; but ladies very nearly kneel in shaking hands with any member of the royal family, not only at court, but elsewhere. It is not so strange-looking, the kneeling to a royal lady, but to see a stately mother or some soft maiden rendering such an act of homage to a chit of a boy or a gross young gentleman impresses one unpleasantly. The curtsy of a lady to a prince or princess is something between kneeling and that queer genuflection one meets in the English agricultural districts: the props of the boys and girls seem momentarily to be knocked away, and they suddenly catch themselves in descending. It astonished me, I remember, at a court party, to see one patrician young woman—"divinely tall" I should describe her if her decided chin and the evidently Roman turn of her nose and of her character had not put divinity out of the question—shake hands with a not very imposing young prince, and bend her regal knees into this curious and sudden little cramp. I saw her, this adventurous maid, some days afterward in a hansom cab (shade of her grandmother, think of it!), directing with her imperious parasol the cabby to this and that shop. It struck me she should have been a Roman damsel, and have driven a chariot with three steeds abreast.

The levees and the drawing-rooms may be called the court ceremonials. There are besides the court festivities, the balls and concerts at Buckingham Palace. There are four or five of these given in a season—two balls and two concerts. The balls are the larger and less select, but much the more amusing. The ball-room of the palace is a large rectangular apartment. At one end is the orchestra—at the other a raised dais on which the royalties sit. On each side, running the length of the hall, are three tiers of benches, which are for ladies and such gentlemen as can get a seat. The tiers on the left of the dais are for diplomatists. English society has the tiers upon the other side. By ten the ball-room is usually filled with people waiting for the appearance of the royalties. The band strikes up, and the line of princes and princesses advances down the long hall leading to the ball-room. The queen and Prince Albert used formerly to preside at these balls. The queen does not come now: the prince and princess of Wales take her place.

First enters a line of gentlemen bearing long sticks. Behind them come the princesses, bowing on each hand. The princess of Wales advances first, with a naïve, faltering, hesitating step, a strange and quite delicious blending of timidity and child-like confidence in her manner. Then come, walking by twos, some daughters of the queen. Then approaches the princess of Teck (Mary of Cambridge), a large and very jolly-looking person, with vast good-nature and a profuse smile, which she seems to throw all over everybody. A German duchess or two follow her. The curtsies of these German princesses are indeed quite wonderful. After entering the hall one of them will espy (such, I suppose, is the fiction) some persons to whom she wishes to bow, and she then proceeds to execute a performance of some minutes' duration. Before curtsying, she stops and seems to "shy," and looks at the ladies as a frightened horse examines intently the object which alarms him: she then sinks slowly backward almost to the ground, and recovers herself with the same slowness. It would seem that such a genuflection must be, of necessity, ridiculous. But it is not so in the least: it is quite successful, and rather pleasing. After the ladies come the prince of Wales and his suite. The royalties then all go upon the stage, and after music the ball begins.

There are two sets of dancers. The princes and princesses open the ball with the diplomatists and some of the highest nobility on the space just in front of the dais. The rest of the hall is occupied by the other dancers, who later in the evening find their way into the diplomatic set. The dancing in the quadrilles and Lancers is of a rather stately and ceremonious sort. In waltz or galop the English always dance the same step, the deux temps, and the aim of the dancing couple is to go as much like a spinning-top as possible. They make occasional efforts to introduce puzzling novelties like the trois temps, the Boston dip, etc., but, I am glad to say, without any success. The result is, that once having learned to dance in England, you are safe.

The great hall during the waltz is a brilliant spectacle. There are many beautiful women, the toilets are dazzling, and all the men are "flaming in purple and gold." There is every variety of magnificent dress. Officers of a Russian body-guard are gold from head to foot. Hungarians wear purple and fur-trimmed robes of dark crimson of the utmost splendor. The young men of the Guards' clubs in gold and scarlet coats, and in spurred boots which reach above their knees, clank through the halls. Scotch lords sit about, and exhibit legs of which they are justly proud. Here, with swinging gait, wanders the queen's piper, a sort of poet-laureate of the bagpipes, arrayed in plaid and carrying upon his arm the soft, enchanting instrument to the music of which, no doubt, the queen herself dances. The music of the orchestra is perfect, and he must be a dull man who does not feel the festivity, the buoyancy and the elation of the scene.

Besides the ball-room, many handsome apartments are thrown open, through which people promenade; and if you will but push aside the curtains there are balconies where one can look down, by moonlight, on the lakes and fountains of the gardens, "the watery ways of palaces." I do not think the balconies are much occupied: they are a trifle too romantic for British mammas. But there is plenty of flirting in the halls and alcoves. One room I remember very pleasantly, the refreshment-room, which was kept open during the evening till supper-time. There one could get sandwiches, cold coffee, champagne, sherry, etc., without having to hurry or be greedy in the least. I can't say so much for the supper, though by waiting a little one could always get something. The princes went first, then the diplomatists, and then everybody else. The jostling was such that when young ladies asked for a plate of soup you wished they had wanted ham and chicken. A young American, I think, would very much dislike to go up to a table and eat a solitary supper with ladies looking on, and young and pretty ones, too. But I have seen a young guardsman, with an enormous helmet and boots as big as himself, stand up at the table and "solitary and alone" work his jaws with such effect as to shake and set trembling the whole of his paraphernalia. Behind him pressed other hungry courtiers, whom his gigantic helmet shut out from even the possibility of supper, and who revenged themselves by sarcastic congratulations aside upon the length and heartiness of his meal.

"Concert" is an expression which to a hungry man has a strong suggestion of tea and maccaroons. But a court concert gives you such a supper as only a night's dancing is ordinarily supposed to entitle you to. The concerts are given in the ball-room of the palace, and are much more select than the balls. The royalties occupy very slight gilt chairs placed just before the orchestra. There they sit with grace and an appearance of comfort through the whole of it, while happier and humbler mortals may walk about and whisper, or seek the refreshment-room, or look at the pictures. They have very good music, the best singers are provided, and some pretty familiar songs, like "Home, sweet home," are sung.

Before the royalties lead the way to supper they step forward to the bar which divides the orchestra from the audience and say a few civil things to each of the prominent artists, who in their turn bow and look very much delighted. I wonder that singers who are almost queens when they come to American cities, who have here any amount of praise and attention entirely free from patronage, and who even in European capitals may have excellent society, should be willing to put themselves in such a position. While the social status of musical artists has not been raised relatively in the last quarter of a century, and while that of the theatrical profession has been indeed, in London at least, relatively lowered, reason is gradually curing the old societies of Europe of many of their savage and silly notions. The cord stretched between the guests and the performers used to be a feature of musical entertainments at private houses. Grisi went once to sing at a concert given by the duke of Wellington at his country-seat. The old man asked her when she would dine. "Oh, when you do," she said. He saw her mistake and did not correct it; so it happened that she dined at the same table with the guests, and the incident, it is said, excited considerable horror among people of the old sort. Think how barbarous, how savage, how utterly uncivilized, is such an instinct! Women, of course, persecute each other, but it seems inconceivable that a man and a gentleman could have entertained such a sentiment.

Of course, a supper at a concert is just the same as at a ball, only there are fewer people and more leisure. The prince of Wales, and to a less degree the other royalties, move among the throng and make a point of speaking to any one to whom they wish to be civil. "The Prince," as he is commonly called, takes advantage of the suppers at balls and parties to make himself agreeable. The rule is, let me remind the reader, to wait until the prince addresses you before speaking, and to wait also for him, when in conversation, to turn away: it would be considered very rude to terminate the interview yourself. A subject in talking with the prince is always expected to call him "Sir." The queen is addressed as "Ma'am." It is not understood in this country that to call a man "sir" is a confession of your inferiority to him. But it is so in England, and the fact illustrates the strong hold these absurd and uncomfortable egotisms have upon the British mind. No gentleman in England says "sir" to another, unless it be a very young person to an old one. [A] A subordinate in an office might "sir" a superior, but he would not "sir" a man of the same rank as his superior with whom he had no connection. "Sir" is the term applied by any Englishman of whatever rank to a member of the royal family. Our committees, when princes visit America, usually address them in notes as "Your Royal Highness." But "Your Royal Highness" is not a vocative: it can be used only in the third person. However, the princes are then in America, and perhaps we are under no obligation to know everything of their ways at home. Should the reader ever meet a prince in that prince's country, I should advise him to do just as other people do there. He will probably question, and not unreasonably, if he should accept the implied inferiority; but the best of all principles for extempore action is to do what seems the usual thing, unless we have previously decided from mature consideration to do the unusual thing. It is not the prince's fault that he is a prince: he means to be civil to you, and you can do no good by making him and yourself uncomfortable. Indeed, a truculent person does not succeed in asserting his equality. The prince has been so long in that kind of life that he probably has thought through the mistake under which the republican stranger is laboring, and considers him a goose. Moreover, an American may reflect that he will probably have very little in life to do with princes, and that his interview with a prince has been an "experience." It would be about as foolish to assert one's dignity with the Mammoth Cave or the Matterhorn.

Besides these balls and concerts there are yet the queen's and prince of Wales's breakfasts or garden-parties, which come off about 3 P.M. These are the most exclusive and unattainable of all the court entertainments. There are two or three of these in a season, and out of all London society only a couple of hundred are invited. There are certain persons who are always invited, and others who are eligible and are invited occasionally. A large part of the diplomatic corps are always present. Each ambassador or minister, with one or two secretaries of legation, is invariably among the guests; but a queen's breakfast is the highest point which a secretary of legation can touch. No secretary ever dines with the queen: the minister himself only goes once a year, and he "not without shedding of blood."

The dress worn by gentlemen at these breakfasts is a curious one, and anything but pretty: it consists of a dress-coat and light trousers. The dress which our diplomatic representatives are now compelled to wear at the other court ceremonies and festivities needs a word of mention. Our people in America are somewhat conceited, somewhat prone to be confident, upon questions of which they know very little. Congress, at a distance of many thousand miles from courts, thought itself competent to decide what sort of court dress an American diplomatist should wear. An able though crotchety man brought forward a measure, and, once proposed, it was certain to go through, because to oppose its passage would have been to be aristocratic and un-American. Mr. Sumner's bill required Americans to go in the "ordinary dress of an American citizen." There was no attempt to indicate what that should be. Up to that time our diplomatists had worn the uniform used by the non-military diplomatists of other countries. This consists of a blue coat with more or less gold upon it, white breeches, silk stockings, sword and chapeau.

An attempt or two had been made before by the State Department to interfere with the trappings of its servants abroad. Marcy issued a circular requesting American diplomatists to go to court without uniform. This afforded James Buchanan an opportunity of making one of the best speeches attributed to him. The circular of Mr. Marcy threw consternation into the breasts of certain ancient functionaries of the European courts, for shortly after its appearance the lord high fiddlestick in waiting called upon Mr. Buchanan, who was then the United States minister in London, and said that a certain very distinguished person had heard of the recent wish which the American government had expressed with regard to the costume of its agents, and that while she would be happy to see Mr. Buchanan in any dress in which he might choose to present himself, she yet hoped he would so far consult her wishes as to consent to carry a sword. "Tell that very distinguished personage," said Mr. Buchanan, "that not only will I wear a sword, as she requests, but, should occasion require it, will hold myself ready to draw it in her defence." This strikes me as in just that tone of respectful exaggeration and playful acquiescence which a gentleman in this country may very becomingly take toward the whole question. Neither Mr. Buchanan nor any one else, I believe, heeded the request of the Department, and Mr. Marcy himself, it is said, subsequently repudiated it.

But what was only a request of the State Department in Mr. Marcy's time is now a law. I had good opportunities to observe how very uncomfortable our poor diplomatists were made by this piece of legislation. Its object was, of course, to give them a very unpretending and subdued appearance. The result is, that with the exception of Bengalese nabobs, the son of the mikado of Japan, and the khan of Khiva, the American legations are the most noticeable people at any court ceremony or festivity in Europe. When everybody else is flaming in purple and gold the ordinary diplomatic uniform is exceedingly simple and modest; but the Yankee diplomats are the most scrutinized and conspicuous persons to be seen. One of the secretaries said to me: "I am afraid to wander off by myself among these ladies: they inspect me as the maids of honor in the palace of Brobdingnag did Gulliver. I feel toward Columbia as a cruel mother who won't dress me like these other little boys." It would require more than ordinary courage to attempt to dance in this rig. I should think that our representatives would huddle together in the most unconspicuous portion of a room, and never leave it. Said the secretary above quoted: "I always feel here that I am of some use to my chief: I am one more pair of legs with which to divide the gaze of British society."

The dress in which our diplomats attend court at present is a plain dress-coat and vest, with knee-breeches, black silk stockings, slippers, etc. It is difficult to see in what sense this is the "ordinary dress of an American citizen." The dress is not so ugly as it would seem to be; indeed, with the help of a white vest and liberal watch-chain, it might be made quite becoming were it not so excessively conspicuous. An English cabinet minister at a party given in his own house usually wears it, and all persons invited to the Empress Eugenie's private parties came got up in that manner. But in London it was not till recently that American diplomatists were allowed to go to court even thus attired. Everywhere else in Europe the legations were admitted in evening dress, the concession of knee-breeches not having been required. But at Buckingham Palace there are two or three very old men who were courtiers when Queen Victoria was a baby, and who still control the court etiquette. These aged functionaries, who can very well remember Waterloo, and whose fathers remembered the American Revolution, put down their foot, and would admit no Americans without the proper garments. The consequence was, that our legation was compelled to stay at home. This state of things continued until Reverdy Johnson came out, who arranged what was called "the Breeches Protocol." Owing to the unreasonable state of the public mind during his term of office, this was the only measure which that good and able man succeeded in accomplishing. The compromise which Mr. Johnson's good-humor and the friendly impulse of the British public toward us at that time wrung from these ancient chamberlains and gold-sticks (for you may say what you will, public opinion is irresistible), was to allow the minister and the two secretaries of legation to appear in the breeches above described. Americans who are presented at court, and who get invitations to the festivities, are all required to wear a court dress. Of what good compelling the poor diplomatists to make scarecrows of themselves may be I do not know. Mr. Sumner's proposition was just one of those absurdities to which men are liable who have considerable conscience and no sense of humor. Senators and Congressmen fell in with it because they feared to be un-American, and because it is not their wont to be very dignified or (in matters of this sort) very scrupulous.