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Royal Dynasties

Organization into a Status Hierarchy

I begin my expedition from the very pinnacle of power: the royal dynasties who governed states in the heyday of monarchical rule.1 None of these dynasties, of course, started life as royalty. Every dynasty that has ever existed has been created through elevation, sometime in the past. King Louis XVIII’s (r. 1814-24) comment about Jean Bernadotte, the newly installed King of Sweden (r. 1818-44), well illustrates the process of entry into royalty, even though he was not of noble descent and therefore far from a typical case: someone must always be the first in a dynasty (Lindqvist 2009, 420). Medieval kings used to be war lords, mostly feudal nobles from amongst whom the founders of royal dynasties [1]

were selected, according to their deserts in battle, or they simply seized power. Such gains were personal achievements, acclaimed by chroniclers, but these achievers did not content themselves with their own rise to power; they were also keen to transform their personal achievement into a dynastic privilege by making succession to the throne hereditary.

One such nobleman was Gustaf Eriksson, who belonged to the Swedish high nobility. His elevation to kingship owed to Sweden’s liberation from the Danish dominion under his command in 1523, no doubt the ultimate merit for election as king at the time. He ruled as Gustav I Vasa from 1523 to 1560, but by proclaiming in his last will that Sweden was henceforth to be a hereditary kingdom, he also ensured a royal standing for his descendants (Eriksson 2011, 127-30). In England the battle for power was waged between two dynasties, the York, who had held the reins for some generations, and the Tudor, a noble dynasty. After defeating Richard III in 1485, the last king of the York dynasty, Henry (VII) (r. 1485-1509), a Tudor, was proclaimed King of England (Crofton 2008, 116-25). In France, the Valois dynasty descended from Charles, Count of Valois, who was the fourth son of King Philip III of France. The Valois dynasty was in power from the beginning of the fourteenth century to the late sixteenth century, when Henry IV (r. 1589-1610), a Bourbon, was installed as King of France. The rule of the Hohenzollerns dates back to 1417, when Frederick Hohenzollern, burgrave of the small but wealthy territory of Nuremberg, purchased Brandenburg from its sovereign, Emperor Sigismund. The Hohenzollerns were thus castle counts before their elevation to Electors and then Dukes of Brandenburg (Clark 2007, 4; Streidt 1999, 16). The history of the Habsburg is in many ways similar to the Hohenzollerns’, but their rise began earlier. The dynasty’s unschooled beginner was Rudolf I of Habsburg (1218-91), who was elected German king on grounds of his successful expansion of crown lands. Later on, further land acquisitions brought the Habsburgs the title of archduke, a rank that Frederick III, the Holy Roman Emperor, confirmed in 1452 (Sutter Fichtner 2014, 7-8, 21-9). The monarchs of Denmark also originate from a feudal lord, Count Derrick of Oldenburg, whose son, Count Christian, was elected King of Denmark in 1448 ( In Russia, or Muscovy at the time, the struggle for power continued longer than in western parts of Europe, from the death of Tsar Ivan the Terrible’s son, Feodor, in 1598 to the coronation of Michael I in 1613, known as the Time of Troubles. Feodor was the last tsar of the Rurik dynasty, whereas Michael was originally from a notable Boyar dynasty, who came to the throne by virtue of his affinity to Tsar Ivan IV (r. 1547-84) (Hughes 2008, 7-14; Montgomery-Massingberd 1983, 36).

These royal dynasties—the Habsburg in Spain, the Valois in France, the Habsburg in Austria, the Tudor in England, the Vasa in Sweden, the Hohenzollern in Brandenburg/Prussia, the Oldenburg in Denmark and the Romanov in Russia (from 1613 onwards)—were in power at the time our story begins at the dawn of the sixteenth century. This was the time when monarchical reign was established on a firmer basis and the ascent to its heyday began. All the eight monarchies included in my data set were engaged in the making of this heyday, some of them more than others. According to Collins (2009, ix), the early emergence of the modern state in the form of monarchism took place between the sixteenth century and the early eighteenth century or, more precisely, between 1559 and 1725. Many other scholars agree: the sixteenth to eighteenth century was the great age of European monarchs, when the divine right and absolute authority of kings was asserted, and the cult of the monarchy in the arts, dramas and ritual was expanded (Muir 2005, 271). Sabean and Teuscher (2007, 2-3), on the other hand, trace another transition in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. At that time a new emphasis was placed on familial coherence, and there was a growing inclination to formalize patron-client ties through marriage alliance or godparentage. There was, moreover, a tendency to develop and maintain structured hierarchies within lineages, descent groups and clans and among allied families. Such developments in kinship were closely connected to processes of state formation and the formalization of status hierarchies as well as to new innovative patterns of succession and inheritance. In other words there were two significant parallel developments: the emergence of the modern bureaucratic state and the simultaneous strengthening of kinship ties, which merged into each other in royal dynasties. The very character of these dynasties grew out of this fusion, which by consolidating dynas- ticity also instituted high dynasticity.

Royalty as a status was characterized by its standing alone at the pinnacle of power, as if it had no internal hierarchy. Only one family could be royal in a monarchy. But internationally, monarchs’ statuses varied. Their order of precedence was determined by the real power possessed by the states in the European political community, and this power was primarily based on the size of the realm (Sutter Fichtner 2014, 158). This hierarchical order was performed in many ways, including by titles: kingdoms were higher in status than grand duchies, duchies and landgravates (Clark 2007, 74). No wonder many rulers of lesser states were keen to strive for elevation to kingdom. In addition to titles, there was in fact a multitude of other performances of the hierarchical order, and these came to be the essence of monarchism, especially in its heyday. Coronation was one such performance and very important in all its splendour, an ideal presentation of power at the top. But it is worth mentioning one more: the whole material world, which, while manifesting power straight out, was a performance of hierarchical order par excellence. Superb in this respect were royal palaces, built from the end of the sixteenth century to the latter half of the eighteenth century (Borngasser and Toman 1997, 7). The first in the series of magnificent palaces was the Escorial close to Madrid, the new centre of the Spanish crown lands, which was built by King Philip II in 1563-84 (Borngasser 1997, 78; Maltby 2009, 101). For King Louis XIV of France (r. 1643-1715), Escorial was an ideal he dreamt of having himself, and he proceeded to fulfil this dream in his impressive palace of Versailles, which was completed in 1682 (Montgomery-Massingberd 1983, 184; Burke 2009, 85-91).

Several royal palaces modelled on Versailles soon began to spring up. They included Schonbrunn of the Austrian Habsburgs in Vienna, where work began in 1696 (Dewald 1996, 91-2; Kluckert 1997, 263; Ingrao 2003, 101, 122). At around the same time (1695-1717), the 1441-room Charlottenburg Palace in Berlin was built for the Hohenzollern rulers (Montgomery-Massingberd 1983, 58-62; Thierse 1999, 100-6; Clark 2007, 72-3). Construction of the 550-room Royal Palace in Stockholm began under the command of Carl XI (r. 1660-97), but the palace was not completed until 1754 (Montgomery-Massingberd 1983, 162-4). In Denmark, construction of the 400-room Christiansborg Palace in Copenhagen began in 1730, providing Danish monarchs with a new residence that served to demonstrate their power (Balslev Jorgensen et al. 1980, 56-9, 62-3; Montgomery-Massingberd 1983, 154). Russia too had her imperial palace, the 1050-room Winter Palace in St Petersburg, which was completed around 1762 (Hughes 2008, 94; Massie 2012, 523). This boom in palace building coincided with the height of monarchical rule and with the hierarchical order of monarchies, headed by Spain and France, Europe’s first Great Powers of the time. Moreover, the baroque style in which the palaces were built was perfectly suited to demonstrate monarchical power (Borngasser and Toman 1997, 7-10). The baroque’s theatrical monumentalism, pomp and extravagance also sat well with the Catholic Church and its performance of power. The most magnificent instance is St Peter’s Basilica, built in Rome in the sixteenth century (Norman 2007, 105).

The palace interiors were designed to match their exteriors. Monarchs employed the most prominent architects and artists of the day to design the staircases, halls, galleries, salons and rooms. This meant an abundance of gilt ornaments, statues, mirrors, cut-glass chandeliers, ceiling paintings and tapestries and portraits of the royal family. Paintings were commissioned to celebrate the monarch’s (supposed) heroic feats on the battlefield. Art was thus harnessed to the service of power, to the making and glorification of great men (Burke 2009, 2-4). King Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715) was portrayed as the sun king in hundreds of paintings and statues (Burke 2009). In the same spirit, Joseph I of Austria (r. 1705-11) commissioned an artist to paint a huge fresco in Klosterneuburg, one of his palaces, portraying him as a Habsburg sun god (Ingrao 2003, 122). Military triumphs were dramatized by flamboyant motifs and allegorical figures from ancient mythologies to add a further aura of grandeur. This gave rise to a specific genre: the imperial style, as it was known in Austria (Ingrao 2003, 122), or the royal style that involved unrestrained idealization (Burke 2009, 19-29). The style is recognizable in all royal palaces built in the heyday of monarchism. Artists who were the best at expressing this style won the ruler’s favour (Ingrao 2003, 101; Sutter Fichtner 2014, 109), but art was also harnessed to the king’s service at an institutional level. The Academie Royale de Peinture et Sculpture, for example, established in France in 1648, constituted a body of artists most of whom worked for the king. In 1663 the Academy began to hold competitions with prizes for the best painting or statue representing the king’s ‘heroic actions’ (Burke 2009, 51). This enthusiasm for art, originally intended to perform the monarch’s own power, gave rise to huge art collections, which eventually became measures of the monarch’s prestige as such: the larger the collections, the more prestige they conferred on the monarch. Moreover, many monarchs appreciated works of art as human achievements, conspicuously apparent in the launching of Renaissance art as great art. But even in this case, the monarchs who managed to collect these works in abundance gained increased prestige. These splendid material performances of power were complemented by imitation baroque parks with fine plants, statues, temples, ponds, bridges and fountains (Mukerji 1997, 258). All this monumentalism was fabricated to glorify the ruler and the state under his or her reign.

What was all this rage for excessive pomp? And was it really necessary for those who already were in power? Following Agamben (2011, 214), we can think of this pomp as a performance of the monarch’s power in state governance, the power that the monarch exercised by virtue of the office. According to Agamben, performances—his example is ceremonies—established the order of precedence in the same way as the operation of offices. However, it is better to distinguish operative actions from performances, because they were not identical with their capacity to establish a hierarchical order. In accordance with Weber’s (1978a) notion of status, we can suggest that offices laid the foundation for the hierarchical order, but performances such as ceremonies and palaces—their pomp—were meant to add prestige to the office and the officeholder, but only if they were more or less equivalent with the monarch’s top-ranking office. This equivalence, so important at the time, made it difficult or even impossible for contemporaries to imagine a king living in a small cottage. And vice versa, if a humble man had acquired a palatial house, this would have been regarded as improper because it was inappropriate to pretend to be of higher rank than one actually was. From the beginning of the fifteenth century, sumptuary laws decreed that this kind of conduct was illegal (Bemborad 2011, 81-3). Thus, the monarch was a prisoner of his status and hence compelled to performances congruent with that status.

Just as palaces tended to be immediate reflections of the political power of rulers, so, I think, the same applied to marriages. In their case, the identical coincidence of conjugal performance with the monarch’s standing as a royal manifested itself in the prevalence of endogamous royal-to-royal marriages. Central to marriage as a performance of status was not how married life was conducted, but the choice of spouse and the imperative of status equivalence. If this is true, marriages were analogous to palaces in their capacity to manifest hierarchical order. However, I would only consider this applicable to royalty in the heyday of monarchical reign between circa 1500 and 1800. Status equivalence, on the other hand, was a more complex matter in the royal marriage market than the imperative verbatim suggests. Status equivalence was never complete.

  • [1] Eight monarchies were selected for the analysis of royal dynasties: England (subsequently GreatBritain and the United Kingdom), France, Sweden, Russia, Denmark, Spain, Austria and Germany(first Brandenburg, then Brandenburg-Prussia, Prussia and finally Germany). England, France,Sweden, Spain, Russia and Denmark existed as monarchies from the beginning of the sixteenthcentury. The Archduchy of Austria, the customary source of Holy Roman Emperors, is comparableto monarchies, as is Prussia, although it did not attain the status of monarchy until 1701. Thesemonarchies have been central powers in Europe, not necessarily throughout the time period underscrutiny, but sometime in their history. They have also been sovereign monarchies long enough towarrant generalizations about royal dynasties. © The Author(s) 2017 19 R. Jallinoja, Families, Status and Dynasties, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-58073-3_2
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