Rank and Seating at Versailles: It’s Complicated

I have a thing for crowns, and I’m fine with the notion of an aristocracy as long as I’d be assured a part of it. I’d never be happy a land where there were a nobility from which I were excluded, and for that reason it’s probably best that I was born and bred an American. Monarchy is fine with me as long as the crown is on my head.

American to the core, I was always more concerned with inclusion, but never gave much thought to rank–until I found out about the tabourets. It turns out no one ranked lower than a duchess could sit on one. This is just one of many rules about who could sit where, and in whose presence, at Versailles. I find this intersection between etiquette and decorative arts completely fascinating.

The rules start simply enough: only the queen and king could sit on a fauteuil. When foreign monarchs visited the French court, they, too, were given fauteuils.


One of a set of eight fauteuils commissioned by Marie Antoinette


A pretty blue fauteuil at Versailles.

When the king and queen were present, the king’s brothers, sisters, and children, could sit on a chair without arms.


Princess Elizabeth of France, sister of Louis XIV


A pretty combination of chairs in the Grand Trianon

The duchesses of the court used tabourets.


A tabouret was a small armless stool with no back


Duchesse de Polignac, a good friend of Marie Antoinette


This room is ready for a gathering of duchesses


The grandly named Louis Jean Marie de Bourbon, Duc de Penthievre, still wasn’t permitted to sit in most cases

The complicated protocol changed slightly depending on who was in the room. A Cardinal was not permitted to sit in the presence of the king. When only the queen was present, Cardinals were allowed a simple seat. Everything shifted when the Dauphin was present; the children of France, or brothers and sisters of the Dauphin, were permitted the use of a fauteuil. Grandchildren of France, princesses of the blood, cardinals, and duchesses were allowed the use of a tabouret. It gets more confusing when the grandchildren of France are the highest ranking people in the room (they’re given fauteuils), and other high ranking nobles move up to armless chairs.

The minutiae of this is starting to make my head hurt. The point is that in every social setting, in every combination of people, the system served to remind everyone of his or her rank, everyone else’s rank, and his or her rank in comparison to everyone else. This was a world of jealously guarded social standing, and the seating rules were a constant physical reminder of exactly where everyone ranked.

Can you imagine the frustrating logistics involved when everyone got comfortable with a Dauphin seating arrangement, the queen walked in and everyone in fauteuils had to move to armless chairs, and everyone in armless chairs had to move to taboruets, and everyone in tabourets had to stand? And then the king walked in and the cardinal had to jump up? This sounds so exhausting to remember, not to mention the sheer volume of fauteuils, armless chairs, and tabourets that needed to be ready at any time, and the servants it would have taken to accommodate the constantly changing seating arrangements.

This knowledge does give new meaning to images like the one below.


A Little Princess in the Gardens at Versailles by Raimundo de Madrazo y Garreta