The court of Louis XIV was ordered according to a very strict hierarchy. At the very top was, naturally, the monarch himself, and right below him “the children of France”; i.e. the children of a monarch. These included the legitimate children of the king, as well as his brother the Duke of Orléans, aka Monsieur, who was the son of the former king, Louis XIII, and therefore also a “fils de France” (son of France). Next were the “grandchildren of France” – the children of the children of France. Around 1700, this included the three sons of the Grand Dauphin (the only legitimate son of Louis XIV) the dukes of Bourgougne, Anjou and Berry as well as the children of Monsieur. That the latter would be given this status wasn’t obvious, but Louis, by granting them such privileges as were associated with that rank, made it clear that the rights of blood extended over several generations.
Outside of the actual family and right below the petit-fils de France (the grandsons of France as described above) were les princes de sang (the princes of the blood), who were of a cadet branch of the Bourbon family. Below them were the royal bastards. The highest ranks of the nobility therefore ranked right below the illegitimate children of the king.
This fact infuriated several members of the nobility, most notably the Duke de Saint-Simon whose Memoirs are one of the most quoted sources on Louis’ reign. You might say he had a bit of a thing against bastardy in all forms and he was more or less obsessed with rank, always rating different families according to titles and the ancientness of their blood, and jealously guarding his own privileges.
So why did matter? Well, rank was expressed all the time, in every little trifling activity. For example, it decided where and how you might celebrate mass in the presence of the king, if you might ride in the king’s or queen’s coach etc. The most obvious thing, however, was the seating arrangements.
In the presence of the monarch, the children of France and the grandchildren of France were allowed to sit, but only on a stool. Princes of the blood had to stand, but princesses and duchesses were allowed a stool. Cardinals had to stand in the presence of the king but were allowed a stool in the presence of the queen. The importance attached to the stool is expressed in an anecdote by Madame de Sévigné, regarding Madame de Ventadour (who would later become the governess of the future Louis XV). At only 17 she married the much older, ugly and sexually debauched Duke de Ventadour. During a visit to the queen there was a bit of a delay before they brought her the stool, and Madame de Sévigné turned to the Grand Master and said: ‘Oh, just give it to her. It certainly cost her enough.’
In the presence of the Dauphin (the Crown Prince), the children of France could sit in an armchair, while grandchildren of France, cardinals, princesses of the blood and duchesses were allowed stools. In the presence of a grandchild of France, their equals were granted armchairs, while princes and princesses of the blood, cardinals and duchesses were given chairs with backs. Dukes were allowed to sit in their presence, but only on a stool. In the presence of princes and princesses of the blood, cardinals, dukes and duchesses could sit in armchairs, and even men and women of quality were allowed to sit down.
The matter was not made less complicated when the court of Versailles interacted with the exile Stuart court at Saint-Germain. After James II took up residence in France after the Glorious Revolution, the contacts between his family and that of Louis XIV were many and great care was taken to express regard for James’s position as the true monarch of England (which was Louis’s stance). James II and his wife Mary of Modena were given precedence over the Dauphin, and as there was no French queen or Dauphine after 1690, Mary of Modena was treated as the first lady of the French court and was always seated between Louis and James. The Prince of Wales was given precedence over the sons of the Dauphin, and after James II died, as James III, he was granted the same proofs of respect that his father had enjoyed.
One of the problems were that English court customs differed somewhat from French. When the English first arrived, Mary asked Louis if she should treat the French courtiers who visited Saint-Germain in the French or English custom – in England, the queen would kissed the princesses of the blood but did not let them sit, while in France, she allowed them a seat, but did not kiss them. This led to confusion, until it was decided to apply French customs. As there were initially no English duchesses, there were more French ladies who were allowed to sit in Mary’s presence than English. However, Mary had extended a personal exception to her childhood friend Donna Vittoria Davia, which led to some resentment as her rank was really lower than several ladies who were forced to stand. The seating arrangements may actually have been the reason for some of the dukedoms created in the Jacobite peerage!
During the exile of the 1640s, Queen Henrietta Maria had given an armchair both to Gaston, the brother of Louis XIII (and herself) and to Philippe, the brother of Louis XIV (Duke of Orléans from 1660). Mary used this precedence to give a chair to the Dauphin and the Duke d’Orléans, as well as the Dauphin’s sons. This privilege was not extended to the Duke of Chartres (the son of the Duke of Orléans and the nephew of Louis XIV), not even after he had inherited his father’s title. It was a fact that clearly irked him.
In order not to offend, James II always made sure he greeted the Dauphin standing up, and when both he and the queen were present and the Dauphin could not be granted an armchair, the Stuarts both sat on stools themselves. The illegitimate children of James II and his brother Charles II were treated as princes and princesses at the English court and allowed to sit; in the case of the Dukes of Berwick and Albermarle because they were dukes, but in the case of Lady Sussex (daughter of Charles and the Duchess of Cleveland) and Lady Waldegrave (daughter of James and Arabella Churchill) simply due to their relation to the royal family (and the fact that there very few English duchesses and more seated English ladies were needed for the sake of balance).
Complicated? Yes, it was. On informal occasions, exceptions were naturally made (or the conceiving of bastards would have been somewhat awkward) but it was a matter treated with utmost seriousness. You didn’t just plop down. Like Madame de Ventadour, if you wanted a stool, you had to earn it!
The Memoirs of Louis XIV, His Court and The Regency, by the Duke of Saint-Simon
Saint-Simon and the Court of Louis XIV, by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie
A Court in Exile: The Stuarts in France, 1689 – 1718, by Edward Corp
The Jacobite Court at Saint-Germain-en-Laye: Etiquette and the Use of the Royal Apartments, by Edward Corp in The Stuart Courts, ed. by Eveline Cruickshanks