Reviewed by R. O. Bucholz (Department of History, Loyola University of Chicago)
Published on H-Albion (December, 2000)
Mapping the World of the Favorite
Mapping the World of the Favorite
Rulers have always had their favorites. And yet, we still find ourselves shocked to learn that any particular ruler has friends, lovers and personal servants; talks to same; and may be influenced by one or all of them. Despite several millennia of evidence to the contrary, we continue to delude ourselves with the pious belief that government is a completely public process, carried out in the cold light of day, according to uniform procedures scripted by constitutions and traditions and implemented by chains of command known to all, as laid out for us in our youth by the flow charts in school government textbooks. Even scholars of government, including historians, have tended not to examine too closely the informal, unscripted power of those who stand behind the throne. There are many reasons for this. Some are ideological: for example, a reluctance to admit that great events can be so contingent on private dealings. Others are more practical, such as the methodological difficulties of divining the precise nature of those dealings -- or even who was undertaking them.
If scholars are to explode our delusions and make amends for past omissions, they will have to move beyond the genre of biography, royal or ministerial, to examine the phenomena of favor, influence, access and the unscripted power to which they lead, as manifested across reigns, terms and national boundaries. Fortunately, historians are beginning to do this. The present collection of nineteen essays is based on a conference which took place at Magdalen College, Oxford in 1996. Its title is somewhat misleading. "Favourite" is herein defined to mean "minister-favorite"; that is, the book does not address favorites without ministerial portfolio.
Despite Antonio Feros's reminder that early-modern observers saw little distinction among different types of favorites (p. 206), the political, social and cultural significance of consorts, mistresses, bedchamber attendants, confessors and boon companions is herein very largely ignored. Rather, the collection's primary focus is on the apparent rise, apogee and fall of a new kind of royal confidante whose star flashed across the European sky from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-seventeenth century: the all powerful valido, who combined royal friendship with supremacy in government and control of patronage a la Olivares, Richelieu or Buckingham.
In his opening essay, J.H. Elliott argues that the figure of the minister-favorite and the issue of favoritism figured more prominently in the political discourse of Europe during this period than ever before or since. This was perhaps because, according to L.W.B Brockliss' wide-ranging concluding essay, these favorites did not fit the usual stereotype of the breed. First, Buckingham apart, they did not depend for their favor on their monarch's personal attraction for them. Second, though venal, they were also hard working, more determined to control patronage in order to advance particular policies than to amass personal wealth. Third, far more than the traditional favorite, they all seem to have had minds of their own. The article by J.-F. Dubost on the career of Concino Concini illustrates the type nearly in reverse: for much of his career, Concini was the tool of rival aristocratic factions. At first, his goal seems to have been the mere accumulation of wealth and power for their own sake; only towards the end of his ascendancy does he seem to have used that power to promote particular policies. Finally, he failed, miserably, to cultivate the ultimate source of power and favor for one with his ambitions -- the king, Louis XIII. Subsequent minister-favorites would use their favor with the king to rise above faction in pursuit of a specific program.
Traditionally, the rise of this new kind of favorite at the turn of the seventeenth century has been explained by the limited personal energy and capacity of the monarchs in question, especially Louis XIII, Philip III, Philip IV, James I and Charles I. In contrast, this book attempts, as much as any such compilation can do, to build on the rather different lead offered in a seminal article from 1974 by Jean Berenger, which argued that the peculiar conditions faced by European monarchs during the period in question, not the personal quirks of these men, led to the necessity for a new kind of favorite, who was also a chief minister. Specifically, the expansion of the state, and the concomitant rise in the amount of royal business and the complexity of royal bureaucracy temporarily strained the capacity of these monarchs to govern. Brockliss's essay advances the argument by asserting that European monarchs had still during this period to fulfill traditional Medieval expectations of the courtly ceremonial and honor culture, including good lordship, military endeavor and perambulation through their realms. Rulership was also made more difficult at this time by religious change and religious difference in a way that was true neither before nor after. These circumstances required the creation of a sort of shadow king, someone whom the monarch could trust to perform many of his duties, while shielding him from criticism of his policies and resentment at the distribution of his patronage. That is, the real king needed a "fall guy" (p. 296). The collection's first full chapter, by I.A.A. Thompson, on the institutional background of the phenomenon, amplifies this, arguing that the period witnessed the brief opening of a "window of transition between a private and a public bureaucracy" (p. 23), first in Spain, then in France and the rest of Europe. As the patronage associated with that bureaucracy grew, monarchs needed a patronage manager who could check and channel the ambitions of magnates in the countryside and free those monarchs to take part in the continuing -- indeed growing -- ceremonial life of the court.
Subsequent essays address particular aspects of this phenomenon. Articles by Ronald G. Asch, Jean Berenger, J.M. Boyden, Manque M. Fumaroli and Knud J.V. Jesperson emphasize the tenuousness of the favorite's position, his utter dependence on his royal master and his vulnerability to sniping from offended aristocrats at court. Indeed, as both Asch and Antoni Maczak argue in their essays on German and Polish court favorites, the minister-favorite's great enemy was the old aristocracy, who resented his supplanting their accustomed role as advisors to kings and enforcers of royal policy. This was not the only reason that sovereign-favorite relations tended to end badly. Drawing mainly upon Spanish examples, Boyden reminds us of the unequal nature of such "friendships": often, they began as mentoring relationships between a lonely child prince and an older aristocrat who might be worshiped as a hero. Over time, as the prince matured and grew in confidence, he could not help but acquire a more realistic -- and perhaps resentful -- estimation of his favorite's character and achievements. This often led to the downfall of the spent favorite, who became a sort of Falstaff figure in the eyes of his master.
Assailed on all sides, the minister-favorite was forced, according to Jonathan Brown, to maintain a constant defensive posture, often evidenced in the preemptive cultivation of an image at once commanding, yet always subservient to the monarch. Articles by Brown, Antonio Feros and Blair Worden, the first two drawing upon the collection's rich fund of illustrations, assess the public image and propaganda strategies of favorites. Feros raises the question of why their portrayal in Spain was so much more positive than it was in either France or, especially, England -- a distinction borne out by Worden's comprehensive treatment of the favorite's almost uniformly negative portrayal on the English stage. Feros's best answer is that the Spanish view was the legacy of Philip II's hard work and judicious (that is, limited) employment of favorites. In France, the development of the minister-favorite came later, but without the strong emphasis on the monarch's personal friendship. Here, too, the legacy of the past, in this case the scandals of the Valois court combined with Henry IV's determination to rule without favorites, was decisive in framing a negative view. Even the most powerful favorite portrayed in this book, Cardinal Richelieu, who so assiduously cultivated a monopoly of power and propaganda, was unable to fully eradicate this view. In England, the sexual connotations of favor apparent under both Elizabeth I and James I, combined in the former instance with the vexed question of female sovereignty, precluded a more positive portrayal from the start.
One might also add a countervailing (if intermittent) tradition of conciliar government and Charles I's and Buckingham's general ineffectiveness as political leaders or administrators. The fact that Rubens's The Glorification of the Duke of Buckingham was completed in the winter of 1627, just in time for the disaster at the Isle of Re, reminds us of the limits of propaganda: as Jonathan Brown admits, the defeat made Rubens's effort "seem an empty, desperate gambit" (p. 226). In the end, however, the enterprise was usually doomed not because of any specific success or failure of the individual favorite, but because the contemporary ethos of monarchy was antithetical to the very idea: any person or institution with even the potential to dim the king's luster or eclipse his power was suspect and, sooner or later, subject to elimination in the monarchical system of early modern Europe.
The articles dealing with English favorites, in particular, argue for an English exceptionalism in this as in so much else. As indicated above, Feros traces the hostile seventeenth-century English view of the favorite to the legacy of Elizabeth's anomalous Queenship. In fact, according to P.E.J. Hammer, the majority of the Queen's favorites -- Hatton, Ralegh, even Leicester and Essex -- do not qualify as classic minister-favorites at all, in that they were never allowed to monopolize either power or control of patronage. By this measure Burghley and his son Robert Cecil might seem to better fit the definition advanced by the collection, but in neither case did their power originate at court; nor did it ever entirely circumvent either the Council or the aristocracy. Elizabeth kept her head and her heart compartmentalized, thus preventing a complete engrossment of her favor. Hammer modifies this rather traditional picture by emphasizing the degree to which she was constrained by her court and by political realities in bestowing that favor: Leicester might have been a true minister-favorite had he become consort, but that outcome was clearly unacceptable to the court and political nation. Pauline Croft argues in a shrewd article that, in the next reign, Cecil came close to being a valido of James I. However, for all his power and slavish devotion to duty, he was never the sole conduit of influence to or patronage from the King. Moreover, and rather sadly for all his hard work, his period of supremacy was rather short. Linda Peck also emphasizes the failure of England to fit the patterns identified above for other European monarchies: while it is true that opportunities for patronage and the traffic in monopolies increased during the first half of the seventeenth century, James I hardly seems a weak king and his administration experienced no pressure from war until the end of his reign. Charles I, after his experiment with Buckingham, never again entrusted his regime to a single minister favorite. Occasional references to Laud, Strafford and (one might add) Clarendon as minister-favorites (see pp. 65, 104, 163, 173, 281, 284) either betray a fundamental misunderstanding of their position -- none had the unqualified relationship with the monarch or command of his government associated with the minister-favorite as defined above --or require an expansion of definition which would render the term meaningless. Finally, David Wootton's article on the politics of gift-giving and friendship in Bacon's essays illustrates just how complex the relationship between a monarch and his favorite and that favorite and his clients could become. He argues that the changes in Bacon's views over the course of writing these essays occurred in direct response to the shifting realities of patronage, clientage, favor and friendship at court over the course of his career there.
In the end, and, perhaps inevitably, this collection raises more questions than it answers. First, as indicated in the discussion of English favorites, the argument for the widespread appearance of a unique type of favorite in this period is not entirely convincing. The articles by Arch and Maczak seem to offer a similar qualification about Eastern Europe. There had, of course, always been over-mighty subjects who monopolized both the royal ear and control of his government: in the English context one thinks of Gavestan, Despenser, John of Gaunt, the Beauforts, Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell prior to this period; and the Churchills, Walpole, and Bute afterwards. This raises the question of whether this period is really unique; and whether, in fact, the phenomenon did end in the late seventeenth century. Jean Berenger, in a follow-up to the afore-mentioned article, believes that it did, and that the key moment was Louis XIV's decision to take over the reins of government himself in 1661. However, apart from his analysis of Austrian developments and the similar information on Denmark contained in Jesperson's article on the fall of Griffenfeld, very little evidence is offered about other countries. The English examples offered above would seem to be significant counter-instances, as would Fleury, Potemkin, and Metternich elsewhere.
Assuming, for the moment, that other monarchs did copy the Sun King in abandoning the office of minister-favorite, why did they do so? Why, if the authors are correct that the phenomenon of the minister-favorite suddenly became extinct after about 1660, did this happen? Brockliss argues that kingship itself may have become more manageable at the end of the seventeenth century, as monarchs were no longer required to lead their armies in the field or their courts on progress: "Princes in the age of Louis XIV, then, were no longer expected to expend their energies in a constant round of travelling, fighting, drinking and whoring" (p. 294). But one might object that some of these practices were on the wane long before the rise of the minister-favorite: after all, how often did Elizabeth I, James I, Charles I, Philip IV or Louis XIII lead their armies in the field? On the other hand, the great amount of business taken on by later monarchs such as Louis XIV, William III and Frederick the Great suggests that the need for a favorite minister was as great as ever; but that some monarchs simply refused to surrender the reins. Suddenly, the issue of royal personality seems altogether relevant again. In other reigns, the functions of the minster-favorite were simply divided among several individuals who remained loyal to each other's policies and interests: think of the Churchill-Godolphin circle or Walpole and Queen Caroline. Once again and, as Brockliss notes, one could argue that the Churchills, Cardinal Fleury, Potemkin, Kaunitz, Metternich, etc. represent variations on a central theme which went on and on.
A second flaw of this collection, also admitted by Brockliss in his probing conclusion, is that there is little on the mechanics of favor: how did these relationships actually work? How did favorites maintain their holds on their respective rulers? How did they use patronage? How did they control the court? The failure of most of these essays to engage with the new court history is surprising. For example, Asch, Jesperson and M czak are compelling on the constitutional and structural factors in their favorites' respective rise and fall, but one never learns much about their personal relationships with their masters.
Elliott on Olivares is a provocative, if partial, exception: men like Olivares and Richelieu were accused by their critics of bewitching their masters. Elliott argues that this was figuratively true, in that they knew how to cultivate, how to humor, how to argue respectfully, how to grovel when necessary and, ultimately, how to mold their masters into shape to play their part on the world stage. The successful favorite's secret knowledge was not magical or demonic, but psychological. This left him in an ironic and exposed situation: so often accused of overweening pride, greed and ambition, the true minister-favorite had to learn how to lose himself in the service of his sovereign, not only by emphasizing constantly the king's greatness or by portraying himself as secondary to the king, but also by denying, even privately, his own feelings. Elliott seems to miss the obvious parallel here with the lives of clergymen; it is perhaps no accident that the most successful minister-favorite of them all was Cardinal Richelieu. Orest Ranum's article on Richelieu's and Mazarin's use of the language of finance -- not to mention duty, obedience, discipline and authority -- is especially useful in understanding how these favorites understood and rationalized the acquisition of immense power and wealth in the face of contemporary expectations of clerical poverty and humility. These two articles come closest to providing an understanding of the necessary mind-set and implied interior life of the minister-favorite.
In the end, this collection is most useful in opening lines of inquiry rather than in closing them. This is probably inevitable given that its subject is far less amenable to historical inquiry than, say, a legislative body, town council or commercial enterprise because so much of the business of royal favor and influence was --and is -- secret, intangible and unrecorded. Jesperson is certainly correct when he argues that "there will always remain a grey zone in its uppermost strata where the process of political decision-making escapes all rules or tends to obey the basic rule of the law of the jungle, the right of the strongest" (p. 276). Observers of the present, no less than historians of the past, would be well advised to remember this truth. In short, we are all still living in the world of the favorite.
. Until recently, only Spain might be said to have had a historiography on favorites as a type, as opposed to a historiography on individual favorites. See, esp. F. Tomas y Valiente, Los validos en la monarquia espanola del siglo XVII (Madrid, 1963; rev. ed., 1982; 2nd rev. ed., 1990); A. Feros, "Twin Souls: Monarchs and Favourites in Early Seventeenth-Century Spain" in R.L. Kagan and G. Parker, eds., Spain, Europe and the Atlantic World: Essays in Honour of J.H. Elliott (Cambridge, 1995). Studies of individual Spanish favorites also treat of the general phenomenon of favor or the valimiento : see J.H. Elliott, The Count-Duke of Olivares: The Statesman in an Age of Decline (New Haven, Conn., 1986); R.A. Stradling, Philip IV and the Government of Spain 1621-1665 (Cambridge, 1988); P. Williams, "Lerma, Old Castile and the Travels of Philip III of Spain", History LXXIII (1988), pp. 379-97.
. J. Berenger, "Pour une enquete europeene: le probleme du ministeriat au XVIIe siecle," Annales XXIX (1974), pp. 166-92.
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R. O. Bucholz. Review of Elliott, J.H.; Brockliss, L.W.B., ed., The World of the Favourite.
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