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Monarchy in Turmoil.

Princes, Courts, and Politics in Revolution and Restoration, 1780-1830.

Conference at Leiden University, 18-20 May 2022

A conference organised by Jeroen Duindam, Joost Welten, Quinten Somsen (Leiden University), Jos Gabriëls (Huygens ING), Joris Oddens (NL-Lab / Huygens ING).

Background information

Introduction: the court as a political arena


Since the late 1980s, a rapidly expanding literature has reconstituted the court as the heart of patronage and government of Europe’s early modern monarchies. Household staffs and government institutions underwent processes of differentiation, professionalisation, and expansion. The proliferation and separation of responsibilities, however, did not reduce the political relevance of access to the ruler. Thus court dignitaries in the ruler’s proximity, who organised his daily life and allowed or barred access to others, remained potential political actors. Most courtiers dabbled in the ‘micropolitics’ of favour and distribution of graces; only a handful tried their hand at ‘high politics’ and decision-making: ministers, informal advisors, dignitaries, and, repeatedly, mistresses.

Prosopographical and institutional examination of household records has clarified staffs, personnel, hierarchies, activities -- and notably also overlaps between household, executive office, and army command. It has demonstrated not only the political nature of court office and access, but has cast doubt on the solemn order of court life, and the untouchable position of the king at the apex of the court. This was an arena of political contestation, a meeting place for lobbying groups and individuals, who were all interested in maintaining the omnipotent allure of kingship – whether it was a reality or a façade.

Courts were equally important as the locus of royal representation: legitimacy and power were performed here, in a routine daily calendar interspersed with spectacular public highlights. The academic study of court culture, ceremony, and pageantry has been a constant presence in historiography, though it did not always march in step with the ‘new’ institutional-political court history.


This conference adopts the institutional-political perspective of early modern court studies to reassess the royal court in a period characterised by repeated regime change and warfare: 1780-1830. There are various reasons to do so. First, the period itself seems to have largely been forgotten: only a limited number of works outline court personnel and institutions or court activities in this period, and the political dimension is mostly absent. Second, though understudied, the period seems to have been tacitly accepted as a watershed in the relationship between household and government, separating a phase of flourishing and politically active households from a phase of languishing and politically isolated cliques. This largely implicit understanding needs to be tested. Third, increasing numbers of works on post-1848 ‘media-monarchs’ have considered the court and the prince first and foremost as a Bühne and its main performer. They trace changing forms and media of royal representation rather than examining the social context of decision-making around the prince. The political-institutional dimensions of the court for this phase remain blurred.


For every period, it is a challenge to unearth the details of political trafficking; yet the effort needs to include all relevant persons, groups, and institutions – not only those wielding formal responsibilities. We hope to reinvigorate this effort by inviting specialists to present their research on the institutional, social, and political aspects of the court between 1780 and 1830.

Did the court lose its relevance for ‘politics’ even before the onset of the revolution?

In the wake of the Seven Years’ War European monarchies went through a protracted phase of reform. Acute financial crisis pushed governments to rigorously pursue administrative rationalisation. In government as well as in the services around the monarch, respon­sib­ilities were reshuffled. Royal households were reduced, financial management of court staffs was trans­ferred to ministers, and court dignitaries were distanced from political decision-making. While these reforms can be seen as yet another stage in a recurring long-term process of centralisation, differen­tiation, and professionalisation, they now coincided with a distinct change in atmosphere. Forms of courtly display and interaction with popular audiences underwent profound change: monarchy appeared to shed some of its religious and sacred dimensions in these decades.

The French Revolution accelerated and reversed these processes. Revolutionary turmoil instantly marginalised and finally ended monarchy in France; it provoked admiration, fear, and reaction elsewhere in Europe. Soon, the revolutionary experience swamped the continent. Napoleon’s overhaul of France and Europe ended the Holy Roman Empire and redrew the political map of Europe. At the same time, revolutionary France was redesigned as an empire under the authority of a parvenu prince with a reinvented court. In the course of these turbulent decades the machinery of government expanded. Moreover, balances among the components of executive, legislative, and judiciary powers of the state were re-arranged and formalised in constitutions.

The consolidation of Europe after 1815 has been described largely as the age of restoration, a label subsuming the restoration of royal legitimacy as well as the reconfiguration of an international ‘system’ based on the balance of power. The tension between representative bodies and ‘reinvented’ monarchs, leading to the gradual emergence of more liberal constitutions, has formed another persistent theme of research.

To these perspectives our conference adds a largely neglected question: how did royal households adapt to the waves of reform, revolution and restoration? In what ways, if at all, was the household politically relevant in this period? For the period before 1750, reconstructions of court staffs, hierarchies, and activities, as well as examination of career patterns, have made clear that households, government institutions, and army command intertwined, notwithstanding increasing institutional compart­mentalisation. Ancien régime ‘politics’ took shape in the interaction between the prince, courtiers, ministers, military commanders, and, wherever relevant, members of representative assemblies. This conference asks whether and how such routines changed during the period 1780-1830.

Conference layout

We invite papers outlining change and continuity in household institutions; on the careers of court dignitaries moving between household, central government, representative assemblies, the army, and regional administration; on decision-making and political contestation around the prince.


Papers can be proposed for the following sections:


  • Institutions. Household staffs and their connections in ministries, councils, army command, representative assemblies; connections among these institutions and with regional administrations. Who may be seen as the key political players and brokers on the basis of these connections?

  • Activities. Routines of these office holders and institutions; points of contact and sociability. Was there a central meeting point, or do we rather see a series of competing foci of sociability? [ceremony and representation can be addressed if related to these themes, but do not form part of our core conference themes].

  • Politics and decision-making. How did key policy choices take shape? Who were involved, formally and informally? Examples of household— government - parliament - army interaction around princes. Change over time; comparison of processes in various countries.


Europe will be our prime focus; excursions are possible if they show a direct connection to the European-Atlantic-Global wave of revolution as well as to the themes cited here (e.g. the Braganza court in Brazil; Ottoman responses in terms of court organisation and decision-making.)


The organisers have approached a number of institutions and researchers directly. In addition a Call for papers will be placed on internet and can be circulated freely: it is intended to attract the attention of researchers in the field.

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