The Diary Of A Master Of The Ceremonies by Isaac Disraeli

Story type: Essay

Of court-etiquette few are acquainted with the mysteries, and still fewer have lost themselves in its labyrinth of forms. Whence its origin? Perhaps from those grave and courtly Italians, who, in their petty pompous courts, made the whole business of their effeminate days consist in punctilios; and, wanting realities to keep themselves alive, affected the mere shadows of life and action, in a world of these mockeries of state. It suited well the genius of a people who boasted of elementary works to teach how affronts were to be given, and how to be taken; and who had some reason to pride themselves in producing the Cortegiano of Castiglione, and the Galateo of Della Casa. They carried this refining temper into the most trivial circumstances, when a court was to be the theatre, and monarchs and their representatives the actors. Precedence, and other honorary discriminations, establish the useful distinctions of ranks, and of individuals; but their minuter court forms, subtilised by Italian conceits, with an erudition of precedents, and a logic of nice distinctions, imparted a mock dignity of science to the solemn fopperies of a master of the ceremonies, who exhausted all the faculties of his soul on the equiponderance of the first place of inferior degree with the last of a superior; who turned into a political contest the placing of a chair and a stool; made a reception at the stairs’-head, or at the door, raise a clash between two rival nations; a visit out of time require a negotiation of three months; or an awkward invitation produce a sudden fit of sickness; while many a rising antagonist, in the formidable shapes of ambassadors, were ready to despatch a courier to their courts, for the omission or neglect of a single punctilio. The pride of nations, in pacific times, has only these means to maintain their jealousy of power: yet should not the people be grateful to the sovereign who confines his campaigns to his drawing-room: whose field-marshal is a tripping master of the ceremonies; whose stratagems are only to save the inviolability of court-etiquette; and whose battles of peace are only for precedence?

When the Earls of Holland and Carlisle, our ambassadors extraordinary to the court of France, in 1624, were at Paris, to treat of the marriage of Charles with Henrietta, and to join in a league against Spain, before they showed their propositions, they were desirous of ascertaining in what manner Cardinal Richelieu would receive them. The Marquis of Ville-aux-Clers was employed in this negotiation, which appeared at least as important as the marriage and the league. He brought for answer, that the cardinal would receive them as he did the ambassadors of the Emperor and the King of Spain; that he could not give them the right hand in his own house, because he never honoured in this way those ambassadors; but that, in reconducting them out of his room, he would go farther than he was accustomed to do, provided that they would permit him to cover this unusual proceeding with a pretext, that the others might not draw any consequences from it in their favour. Our ambassadors did not disapprove of this expedient, but they begged time to receive the instructions of his majesty. As this would create a considerable delay, they proposed another, which would set at rest, for the moment, the punctilio. They observed, that if the cardinal would feign himself sick, they would go to see him: on which the cardinal immediately went to bed, and an interview, so important to both nations, took place, and articles of great difficulty were discussed by the cardinal’s bedside! When the Nuncio Spada would have made the cardinal jealous of the pretensions of the English ambassadors, and reproached him with yielding his precedence to them, the cardinal denied this. “I never go before them, it is true, but likewise I never accompany them; I wait for them only in the chamber of audience, either seated in the most honourable place, or standing till the table is ready: I am always the first to speak, and the first to be seated; and besides, I have never chosen to return their visit, which has made the Earl of Carlisle so outrageous.”[1]

Such was the ludicrous gravity of those court etiquettes, or punctilios, combined with political consequences, of which I am now to exhibit a picture.

When James the First ascended the throne of his united kingdoms, and promised himself and the world long halcyon days of peace, foreign princes, and a long train of ambassadors from every European power, resorted to the English court. The pacific monarch, in emulation of an office which already existed in the courts of Europe, created that of MASTER OF THE CEREMONIES, after the mode of France, observes Roger Coke.[2] This was now found necessary to preserve the state, and allay the perpetual jealousies of the representatives of their sovereigns. The first officer was Sir Lewis Lewknor,[3] with an assistant, Sir John Finett, who at length succeeded him, under Charles the First, and seems to have been more amply blest with the genius of the place; his soul doted on the honour of the office; and in that age of peace and of ceremony, we may be astonished at the subtilty of his inventive shifts and contrivances, in quieting that school of angry and rigid boys whom he had under his care–the ambassadors of Europe!

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Sir John Finett, like a man of genius in office, and living too in an age of diaries, has not resisted the pleasant labour of perpetuating his own narrative.[4] He has told every circumstance, with a chronological exactitude, which passed in his province as master of the ceremonies; and when we consider that he was a busy actor amidst the whole diplomatic corps, we shall not he surprised by discovering, in this small volume of great curiosity, a vein of secret and authentic history; it throws a new light on many important events, in which the historians of the times are deficient, who had not the knowledge of this assiduous observer. But my present purpose is not to treat Sir John with all the ceremonious punctilios, of which he was himself the arbiter; nor to quote him on grave subjects, which future historians may well do.

This volume contains the rupture of a morning, and the peace-makings of an evening; sometimes it tells of “a clash between the Savoy and Florence ambassadors for precedence;”–now of “questions betwixt the Imperial and Venetian ambassadors, concerning titles and visits,” how they were to address one another, and who was to pay the first visit!–then “the Frenchman takes exceptions about placing.” This historian of the levee now records, “that the French ambassador gets ground of the Spanish;” but soon after, so eventful were these drawing-room politics, that a day of festival has passed away in suspense, while a privy council has been hastily summoned, to inquire why the French ambassador had “a defluction of rheum in his teeth, besides a fit of the ague,” although he hoped to be present at the same festival next year! or being invited to a mask, declared “his stomach would not agree with cold meats:” “thereby pointing” (shrewdly observes Sir John) “at the invitation and presence of the Spanish ambassador, who, at the mask the Christmas before, had appeared in the first place.”

Sometimes we discover our master of the ceremonies disentangling himself and the lord chamberlain from the most provoking perplexities by a clever and civil lie. Thus it happened, when the Muscovite ambassador would not yield precedence to the French nor Spaniard. On this occasion, Sir John, at his wits’ end, contrived an obscure situation, in which the Russ imagined he was highly honoured, as there he enjoyed a full sight of the king’s face, though he could see nothing of the entertainment itself; while the other ambassadors were so kind as “not to take exception,” not caring about the Russian, from the remoteness of his country, and the little interest that court then had in Europe! But Sir John displayed even a bolder invention when the Muscovite, at his reception at Whitehall, complained that only one lord was in waiting at the stairs’-head, while no one had met him in the court-yard. Sir John assured him that in England it was considered a greater honour to be received by one lord than by two!

Sir John discovered all his acumen in the solemn investigation of “Which was the upper end of the table?” Arguments and inferences were deduced from precedents quoted; but as precedents sometimes look contrary ways, this affair might still have remained sub judice, had not Sir John oracularly pronounced that “in spite of the chimneys in England, where the best man sits, is that end of the table.” Sir John, indeed, would often take the most enlarged view of things; as when the Spanish ambassador, after hunting with the king at Theobalds, dined with his majesty in the privy-chamber, his son Don Antonio dined in the council-chamber with some of the king’s attendants. Don Antonio seated himself on a stool at the end of the table. “One of the gentlemen-ushers took exception at this, being, he said, irregular and unusual, that place being ever wont to be reserved empty for state!” In a word, no person in the world was ever to sit on that stool; but Sir John, holding a conference before he chose to disturb the Spanish grandee, finally determined that “this was the superstition of a gentleman-usher, and it was therefore neglected.” Thus Sir John could, at a critical moment, exert a more liberal spirit, and risk an empty stool against a little ease and quiet; which were no common occurrences with that martyr of state, a master of ceremonies!

But Sir John,–to me he is so entertaining a personage that I do not care to get rid of him,–had to overcome difficulties which stretched his fine genius on tenter-hooks. Once–rarely did the like unlucky accident happen to the wary master of the ceremonies–did Sir John exceed the civility of his instructions, or rather his half-instructions. Being sent to invite the Dutch ambassador and the States’ commissioners, then a young and new government, to the ceremonies of St. George’s day, they inquired whether they should have the same respect paid to them as other ambassadors? The bland Sir John, out of the milkiness of his blood, said he doubted it not. As soon, however, as he returned to the lord chamberlain, he discovered that he had been sought for up and down, to stop the invitation. The lord chamberlain said Sir John had exceeded his commission, if he had invited the Dutchmen “to stand in the closet of the queen’s side; because the Spanish ambassador would never endure them so near him, where there was but a thin wainscot board between, and a window which might be opened!” Sir John said gently, he had done no otherwise than he had been desired; which however the lord chamberlain, in part, denied, (cautious and civil!) “and I was not so unmannerly as to contest against,” (supple, but uneasy!) This affair ended miserably for the poor Dutchmen. Those new republicans were then regarded with the most jealous contempt by all the ambassadors, and were just venturing on their first dancing-steps, to move among crowned heads. The Dutch now resolved not to be present; declaring they had just received an urgent invitation, from the Earl of Exeter, to dine at Wimbledon. A piece of supercherie to save appearances; probably the happy contrivance of the combined geniuses of the lord chamberlain and the master of the ceremonies!

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I will now exhibit some curious details from these archives of fantastical state, and paint a courtly world, where politics and civility seem to have been at perpetual variance.

When the Palatine arrived in England to marry Elizabeth, the only daughter of James the First, “the feasting and jollity” of the court were interrupted by the discontent of the archduke’s ambassador, of which these were the material points:–

Sir John waited on him, to honour with his presence the solemnity on the second or third days, either to dinner or supper, or both.

The archduke’s ambassador paused: with a troubled countenance inquiring whether the Spanish ambassador was invited. “I answered, answerable to my instructions in case of such demand, that he was sick, and could not be there. He was yesterday, quoth he, so well, as that the offer might have very well been made him, and perhaps accepted.”

To this Sir John replied, that the French and Venetian ambassadors holding between them one course of correspondence, and the Spanish and the archduke’s another, their invitations had been usually joint.

This the archduke’s ambassador denied; and affirmed that they had been separately invited to Masques, etc., but he had never;–that France had always yielded precedence to the archduke’s predecessors, when they were but Dukes of Burgundy, of which he was ready to produce “ancient proofs;” and that Venice was a mean republic, a sort of burghers, and a handful of territory, compared to his monarchical sovereign:–and to all this he added, that the Venetian bragged of the frequent favours he had received.

Sir John returns in great distress to the lord chamberlain and his majesty. A solemn declaration is drawn up, in which James I. most gravely laments that the archduke’s ambassador has taken this offence; but his majesty offers these most cogent arguments in his own favour: that the Venetian had announced to his majesty that his republic had ordered his men new liveries on the occasion, an honour, he adds, not usual with princes–the Spanish ambassador, not finding himself well for the first day (because, by the way, he did not care to dispute precedence with the Frenchman), his majesty conceiving that the solemnity of the marriage being one continued act through divers days, it admitted neither prius nor posterius: and then James proves too much, by boldly asserting, that the last day should be taken for the greatest day!–as in other cases, for instance in that of Christmas, where Twelfth-day, the last day, is held as the greatest.

But the French and Venetian ambassadors, so envied by the Spanish and the archduke’s, were themselves not less chary, and crustily fastidious. The insolent Frenchman first attempted to take precedence of the Prince of Wales; and the Venetian stood upon this point, that they should sit on chairs, though the prince had but a stool; and, particularly, that the carver should not stand before him. “But,” adds Sir John, “neither of them prevailed in their reasonless pretences.”

Nor was it peaceable even at the nuptial dinner, which closed with the following catastrophe of etiquette:–

Sir John having ushered among the countesses the lady of the French ambassador, he left her to the ranging of the lord chamberlain, who ordered she should be placed at the table next beneath the countesses, and above the baronesses. But lo! “The Viscountess of Effingham standing to her woman’s right, and possessed already of her proper place (as she called it), would not remove lower, so held the hand of the ambassadrice, till after dinner, when the French ambassador, informed of the difference and opposition, called out for his wife’s coach!” With great trouble, the French lady was persuaded to stay, the Countess of Kildare and the Viscountess of Haddington making no scruple of yielding their places. Sir John, unbending his gravity, facetiously adds, “The Lady of Effingham, in the interim, forbearing (with rather too much than little stomach) both her supper and her company.” This spoilt child of quality, tugging at the French ambassadress to keep her down, mortified to be seated at the side of the Frenchwoman that day, frowning and frowned on, and going supperless to bed, passed the wedding-day of the Palatine and Princess Elizabeth like a cross girl on a form.

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One of the most subtle of these men of punctilio, and the most troublesome, was the Venetian ambassador; for it was his particular aptitude to find fault, and pick out jealousies among all the others of his body.

On the marriage of the Earl of Somerset, the Venetian was invited to the masque, but not the dinner, as last year the reverse had occurred. The Frenchman, who drew always with the Venetian, at this moment chose to act by himself on the watch of precedence, jealous of the Spaniard newly arrived. When invited, he inquired if the Spanish ambassador was to be there? and humbly beseeched his majesty to be excused, from indisposition. We shall now see Sir John put into the most lively action by the subtle Venetian.

“I was scarcely back at court with the French ambassador’s answer, when I was told that a gentleman from the Venetian ambassador had been to seek me, who, having at last found me, said that his lord desired me, that if ever I would do him favour, I would take the pains to come to him instantly. I, winding the cause to be some new buzz gotten into his brain, from some intelligence he had from the French of that morning’s proceeding, excused my present coming, that I might take further instructions from the lord chamberlain; wherewith, as soon as I was sufficiently armed, I went to the Venetian.”

But the Venetian would not confer with Sir John, though he sent for him in such a hurry, except in presence of his own secretary. Then the Venetian desired Sir John to repeat the words of his own invitation, and those also of his own answer! which poor Sir John actually did! For he adds, “I yielded, but not without discovering my insatisfaction to be so peremptorily pressed on, as if he had meant to trip me.”

The Venetian having thus compelled Sir John to con over both invitation and answer, gravely complimented him on his correctness to a tittle! Yet still was the Venetian not in less trouble: and now he confessed that the king had given a formal invitation to the French ambassador,–and not to him!

This was a new stage in this important negotiation: it tried all the diplomatic sagacity of Sir John to extract a discovery; and which was, that the Frenchman had, indeed, conveyed the intelligence secretly to the Venetian.

Sir John now acknowledged that he had suspected as much when he received the message; and not to be taken by surprise, he had come prepared with a long apology, ending, for peace sake, with the same formal invitation for the Venetian. Now the Venetian insisted again that Sir John should deliver the invitation in the same precise words as it had been given to the Frenchman. Sir John, with his never-failing courtly docility, performed it to a syllable. Whether both parties during all these proceedings could avoid moving a risible muscle at one another, our grave authority records not.

The Venetian’s final answer seemed now perfectly satisfactory, declaring he would not excuse his absence as the Frenchman had, on the most frivolous pretence; and farther, he expressed his high satisfaction with last year’s substantial testimony of the royal favour, in the public honours conferred on him, and regretted that the quiet of his majesty should be so frequently disturbed by these punctilios about invitations, which so often “over-thronged his guests at the feast.”

Sir John now imagined that all was happily concluded, and was retiring with the sweetness of a dove, and the quietness of a mouse, to fly to the lord chamberlain, when behold the Venetian would not relinquish his hold, but turned on him “with the reading of another scruple, et hinc illae lachrymae! asking whether the archduke’s ambassador was also invited?” Poor Sir John, to keep himself clear “from categorical asseverations,” declared “he could not resolve him.” Then the Venetian observed, “Sir John was dissembling! and he hoped and imagined that Sir John had in his instructions, that he was first to have gone to him (the Venetian), and on his return to the archduke’s ambassador.” Matters now threatened to be as irreconcileable as ever, for it seems the Venetian was standing on the point of precedency with the archduke’s ambassador. The political Sir John, wishing to gratify the Venetian at no expense, adds, “he thought it ill manners to mar a belief of an ambassador’s making,” and so allowed him to think that he had been invited before the archduke’s ambassador!

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This Venetian proved himself to be, to the great torment of Sir John, a stupendous genius in his own way; ever on the watch to be treated al paro di teste coronate–equal with crowned heads; and, when at a tilt, refused being placed among the ambassadors of Savoy and the States-general, etc., while the Spanish and French ambassadors were seated alone on the opposite side. The Venetian declared that this would be a diminution of his quality; the first place of an inferior degree being ever held worse than the last of a superior. This refined observation delighted Sir John, who dignifies it as an axiom, yet afterwards came to doubt it with a sed de hoc quaere–query this! If it be true in politics, it is not so in common sense, according to the proverbs of both nations; for the honest English declares, that “Better be the head of the yeomanry than the tail of the gentry;” while the subtle Italian has it, “E meglio esser testa di Luccio, che coda di Storione;” “better be the head of a pike than the tail of a sturgeon.” But before we quit Sir John, let us hear him in his own words, reasoning with fine critical tact, which he undoubtedly possessed, on right and left hands, but reasoning with infinite modesty as well as genius. Hear this sage of punctilios, this philosopher of courtesies.

“The Axiom before delivered by the Venetian ambassador was judged upon discourse I had with some of understanding, to be of value in a distinct company, but might be otherwise in a joint assembly!” And then Sir John, like a philosophical historian, explores some great public event–“As at the conclusion of the peace at Vervins (the only part of the peace he cared about), the French and Spanish meeting, contended for precedence–who should sit at the right hand of the pope’s legate: an expedient was found, of sending into France for the pope’s nuncio residing there, who, seated at the right hand of the said legate (the legate himself sitting at the table’s end), the French ambassador being offered the choice of the next place, he took that at the legate’s left hand, leaving the second at the right hand to the Spanish, who, taking it, persuaded himself to have the better of it; sed de hoc quaere.” How modestly, yet how shrewdly insinuated!

So much, if not too much, of the Diary of a Master of the Ceremonies; where the important personages strangely contrast with the frivolity and foppery of their actions.

By this work it appears that all foreign ambassadors were entirely entertained, for their diet, lodgings, coaches, with all their train, at the cost of the English monarch, and on their departure received customary presents of considerable value; from 1000 to 5000 ounces of gilt plate; and in more cases than one, the meanest complaints were made by the ambassadors about short allowances. That the foreign ambassadors in return made presents to the masters of the ceremonies from thirty to fifty “pieces,” or in plate or jewels; and some so grudgingly, that Sir John Finett often vents his indignation, and commemorates the indignity. As thus,–on one of the Spanish ambassadors-extraordinary waiting at Deal for three days, Sir John, “expecting the wind with the patience of an hungry entertainment from a close-handed ambassador, as his present to me at his parting from Dover being but an old gilt livery pot, that had lost his fellow, not worth above twelve pounds, accompanied with two pair of Spanish gloves to make it almost thirteen, to my shame and his.” When he left this scurvy ambassador-extraordinary to his fate aboard the ship, he exults that “the cross-winds held him in the Downs almost a seven-night before they would blow him over.”

From this mode of receiving ambassadors, two inconveniences resulted; their perpetual jars of punctilio, and their singular intrigues to obtain precedence, which so completely harassed the patience of the most pacific sovereign, that James was compelled to make great alterations in his domestic comforts, and was perpetually embroiled in the most ridiculous contests. At length Charles I. perceived the great charge of these embassies, ordinary and extraordinary, often on frivolous pretences; and with an empty treasury, and an uncomplying parliament, he grew less anxious for such ruinous honours.[5] He gave notice to foreign ambassadors, that he should not any more “defray their diet, nor provide coaches for them,” etc. “This frugal purpose” cost Sir John many altercations, who seems to view it as the glory of the British monarch being on the wane. The unsettled state of Charles was appearing in 1636, by the querulous narrative of the master of the ceremonies; the etiquettes of the court were disturbed by the erratic course of its great star; and the master of the ceremonies was reduced to keep blank letters to superscribe, and address to any nobleman who was to be found, from the absence of the great officers of state. On this occasion the ambassador of the Duke of Mantua, who had long desired his parting audience, when the king objected to the unfitness of the place he was then in, replied, that, “if it were under a tree, it should be to him as a palace.”

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Yet although we smile at this science of etiquette and these rigid forms of ceremony, when they were altogether discarded a great statesman lamented them, and found the inconvenience and mischief in the political consequences which followed their neglect. Charles II., who was no admirer of these regulated formalities of court etiquette, seems to have broken up the pomp and pride of the former master of the ceremonies; and the grave and great chancellor of human nature, as Warburton calls Clarendon, censured and felt all the inconveniences of this open intercourse of an ambassador with the king. Thus he observed in the case of the Spanish ambassador, who, he writes, “took the advantage of the license of the court, where no rules or formalities were yet established (and to which the king himself was not enough inclined), but all doors open to all persons; which the ambassador finding, he made himself a domestic, came to the king at all hours, and spake to him when, and as long as he would, without any ceremony, or desiring an audience according to the old custom; but came into the bed-chamber while the king was dressing himself, and mingled in all discourses with the same freedom he would use in his own. And from this never-heard-of license, introduced by the French and the Spaniard at this time, without any dislike in the king, though not permitted in any court in Christendom, many inconveniences and mischiefs broke in, which could never after be shut out.”[6]

[Footnote 1:
La Vie de Card. Richelieu, anonymous, but written by J. Le Clerc, 1695, vol. i. pp. 116-125. ]

[Footnote 2:
“A Detection of the Court and State of England,” vol. i. p. 13. ]

[Footnote 3:
Stowe’s Annals, p. 824. ]

[Footnote 4:
I give the title of this rare volume. “Finetti Philoxensis: Some choice Observations of Sir John Finett, Knight, and Master of the Ceremonies to the two last Kings; touching the reception and precedence, the treatment and audience, the punctilios and contests of forren ambassadors in England. Legati ligant Mumdum. 1656.” This very curious diary was published after the author’s death by his friend James Howell, the well-known writer; and Oldys, whose literary curiosity scarcely anything in our domestic literature has escaped, has analysed the volume with his accustomed care. He mentions that there was a manuscript in being, more full than the one published, of which I have not been able to learn farther.–British Librarian, p. 163. ]

[Footnote 5:
Charles I. had, however, adopted them, and long preserved the stateliness of his court with foreign powers, as appears by these extracts from manuscript letters of the time:

Mr. Mead writes to Sir M. Stuteville, July 25, 1629.

“His majesty was wont to answer the French ambassador in his own language; now he speaks in English, and by an interpreter. And so doth Sir Thomas Edmondes to the French king; contrary to the ancient custom: so that altho’ of late we have not equalled them in arms, yet now we shall equal them in ceremonies.”

Oct. 31, 1628.

“This day fortnight, the States’ ambassador going to visit my lord treasurer about some business, whereas his lordship was wont always to bring them but to the stairs’ head, he then, after a great deal of courteous resistance on the ambassador’s part, attended him through the hall and court-yard, even to the very boot of his coach.”–Sloane MSS. 4178.

[Footnote 6:
Clarendon’s Life, vol. ii. p. 160. ]

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