Der Günstling global? Favourites and Faction at Early Modern Courts

(Beitrag zur Artikelreihe “Aufstieg und Fall an den europäischen Höfen des Mittelalters“)

Dynastic courts mixed activities familiar for any household with decision-making and the distribution of honours. Where the dynasty was sovereign, the inner sphere around the ruler and his kin was a pivot of the political machinery. Councils and administrative services may have moved ‘out of court’, yet deliberation still involved the domestic core of government. Household dignitaries were not necessarily admitted to the council; neither did they always have a say in key political choices. Nevertheless, their presence around the ruler, and particularly their role in the organisation of access to the ruler, made their offices essentially political.1

Proximity to the ruler always entailed the possibility of preferment and recommendation. Servants at all levels of the court hierarchy could at times move from day-to-day proximity to confidence and friendship. Once such affective ties became strong and exclusive they could cause political upheaval. Male and female companions might act as brokers of the ruler’s patronage: if they chose to shower rewards on their friends only, their actions were likely to provoke discontent. Rivals were on the lookout for the first signs of royal disenchantment, ready to step in for the final push. Favourites rapidly ascending to power were also likely to fall swiftly and deeply. Both rise and downfall were typical for the Fall des Günstlings.2

This paper draws on my comparative study of dynasties, and focuses on the variants of favourites and factions in pre-modern court societies.3 Did the favourite come to the fore particularly in certain periods? In 1974 Jean Bérenger suggested that the rise of government-by-paper and the increase of ritual demands placed on rulers’ shoulders led to the rise of powerful favourite-ministers in Spain, France and England: Lerma and Olivares, Richelieu and Mazarin, Buckingham and Strafford.4 Others pointed to frequent, outspoken favourites before and after this phase, and highlighted the role of types other than the male minister-favourite: mistresses, but also lesser servants. The great seventeenth-century favourites have a reputation as ‘state-builders’; yet the high profile of this phase of favouritism may be explained in part by the fact that its end was broadcast loudly by Louis XIV in 1661.5 Louis himself did not, after Mazarin’s death, cultivate a first minister-favourite; yet he would rely on several ministers and their clans, on friends among high courtiers, and, most notably, on his morganatic spouse Madame de Maintenon.6 Mistresses and cardinal-ministers were prominently present in eighteenth-century France. The early seventeenth century may offer a special case in the long history of favour, but it neither initiated nor ended the history of court favourites.

Particular conditions may have exacerbated the universal mechanism of favour. Several characteristics traditionally attributed to ‘Oriental’ courts seem to fall in this category. The massive concentration of power in the hand of the ‘despot’, the relative seclusion of these despots in an inner domain populated by women and eunuchs, and the ‘servile’ nature of elites figure in numerous European accounts of Asia. Do these images represent more than orientalist fancies? Did the favourites at courts in Islamicate West and South Asia or in East Asia differ from their European counterparts?

All dynasties outside of Christian Europe practiced polygyny – concubinage or concubinage combined with marriage. Hence there was no close parallel here for two characters notably present in the history of European favourites, the mistress and the bastard.7 Yet among the concubines, there would be a small group of favourites frequently sharing the prince’s bed. Once one of these women gave birth to a son, she became a potential queen-mother. Rivalry among competing mothers, pushing their sons’ candidacy, could be fierce. Polygyny changed the contours of favour and competition; yet it did not necessarily entail the rise of a single powerful favourite. A recent study of Chinese polygyny explains that tradition strongly censured sexual excess as well as any special infatuation for one woman: the emperor should respect his main wife and divide his attention among concubines without developing any exclusive attachment.8 Of course, these guidelines were no more successful in dictating practice than were European norms forbidding extramarital love and reviling the mistress. Every now and then a favourite sexual partner managed to gain pervasive power: most often as a mistress in Europe, as a favourite with a full or near monopoly over the ruler’s sexual attention elsewhere – Hürrem Sultan and Nur Jahan are examples often mentioned in the West-South Asian context. Most strong women found in global dynastic history, however, appear to have wielded power as mothers rather than as the preferred sexual partners of the ruler.9

Household and government drifted apart gradually in European history, but their separation was never as strong as at harem-based courts; this did not necessarily reduce or increase favour, but it created different positions. Strong male favourites could arise in the inner or in the outer domain, but it was not possible for a single person to serve as minister in the outer court and at the same time hold domestic office in the inner court. In Topkapı palace, after Murad III moved his quarters into the harem in 1578-79, grand viziers communicated with the sultan through written reports or through intermediaries rather than in person. Outer court staff could not as a rule move beyond the audience chamber in the inner court and were certainly not admitted into the harem. Typically, Murad III tried to reduce the sway of Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, the grand vizier who had served under Süleyman I and Selim II before serving him, by promoting inner-court favourites.10 In Ming China, access into the inner court likewise was restricted; late Ming emperors, too, showed reluctance in their engagement with outer court officials and notoriously relied on eunuch confidants.11 The Qing dynasty conquering Beijing in 1644 was more mobile and interactive. Eunuchs were less prominently present than under the Ming, with an inner circle of Manchu conquest elite bondservants taking over their managerial tasks.12 Yet in 1669 under the Kangxi emperor, Louis XIV’s contemporary, the con­solidation of the court also entailed the withdrawal of the imperial sleeping quarters into the inner court.13 In the Ottoman and in the Chinese contexts, outer-court ministers – grand viziers, grand secretaries—were confronted with a mixed group of inner-court favourites, including eunuchs, mothers, consorts, and concubines. Chinese literati administrators often complained about the bad influences of the inner court. They would have appreciated the statement of a Byzantine chronicler that ‘… when a viper bit a eunuch, it was the viper that died’.14

Variants of the literati complaint, with similar social and gender biases, can be found in Europe. However, the presence of women took a very different shape here. The ruler’s household was largely male, and women were present only in the following of queens, mothers, and princesses. The consort was usually located in the same palace as her husband, with adjoining sleeping quarters connecting the two apartments. Decision-making was never necessarily relegated to the outside quarters: the privy council met in or close to the ruler’s apartment. European male favourites, typically, ensured their position by combining office in the domestic sphere with a place in the council.

Queens and their female retinue of court ladies and servants in the chamber were isolated to some extent from male incursions, but there were moments of interaction for the Frauenzimmer, usually under the careful supervision of a matron-chaperon. The measure of freedom in male-female interaction differed widely from court to court, but tended to grow over the course of the early modern age. The chastity of the court ladies rather than dynastic reproduction was at stake here: unmarried noble teenage girls ideally concluded their stay at court with a marriage. Kings at times disturbed this arrangement by their fancy for a lady-in-waiting at court: many mistresses arose from these circles; few came from outside the court.

The relevance of polygyny for the inner-outer divide and the limited accessibility of the ruler cannot be denied. What about the servile status of elites? Ottoman elites, recruited through devshirme (Knabenlese) as boy-slaves in the Balkans, the peripheries of empire, and during campaigns, are no easy match for European nobles. The same can be said for the mansabdars (officeholders) tied to the carrousel of offices, ranks, and payments in the hands of the Mughal emperor. Safavid Shi’ite disciples of their master Shah Ismail, organised into artificial tribes and usually named ‘redhats’ (qizilbash) after their headgear, likewise, enjoyed far from hereditary status. Finally, Ming and Qing elite recruitment proceeded mostly through the three-tiered civil service examinations: exam success and state magistracies distributed by the ruler determined status more than any other criterion – although under the Qing the conquest elite held hereditary privileged status. The ruler’s favour, in a general sense, determined their position to a larger extent than was the case in Europe, a conclusion phrased in remarkably positive terms in the 1550s by the Habsburg ambassador at the Ottoman court, Busbecq:

… no single man owed his dignity to anything but his personal merits and bravery; no one is distinguished from the rest by his birth, and honour is paid to each man according to the nature of the duty and offices which he discharges … The Sultan himself assigns to all their duties and offices, and in doing so pays no attention to wealth or to the empty claims of rank, and takes no account of any influence or popularity which a candidate may possess; he only considers merit, and scrutinises the character, natural ability, and disposition of each. Thus each man is rewarded according to his deserts, and offices are filled by men capable of performing them.15

However, in the Ottoman, Mughal, and Safavid cases, the same patrimonial tendencies that were so prominent in European history rapidly turned loyal and ‘servile’ groups into vested, semi-hereditary power elites. The examinations in the Chinese case did prevent hereditary office at the personal level, but they confirmed and prolonged the status of the literati gentry as a group.16 The language of hierarchy, fidelity, and service was strong in Europe, but hereditary status was proudly presented by elites as part of their legitimacy. This practice was the exception in the main empires of Asia: only the Japanese warrior class matched the European stress on hereditary status. The powerful expression of servitude and deference in other traditions, however, could easily go together with towering political ambition. The sultan’s slaves at times decided the fate of their master on the throne and frequently acted as kingmakers. These various mechanisms of elite recruitment, power, and justification were relevant for faction in at least one way. European nobles regarded favourites rising from la lie du people with an aversion that matches the Chinese literati loathing of eunuchs. Yet among elites that styled themselves as exam licentiates or the creatures of their ruler, rapid social ascent was not in itself necessarily a cause for indignation.17

How did these different elites relate to the ruler as a person? What were the occasions and locations where trust, friendship, and love could flourish? Or did the omnipotence of the ruler make impossible true friendship? In his surprisingly rich and exceedingly unbalanced study of oriental despotism, Karl Wittfogel described the predicament of the ruler and his servants as ‘total terror, total submission, total loneliness’.18 Trust was impossible here, favour and friendly words were causes for suspicion. Wittfogel describes a very real problem: how can trust develop in a context where all parties are well aware of the instrumental aspects of their relationship? Only very incidentally can we glimpse this problem from the perspective of the ruler. In his memoirs, Louis XIV noted that the closest confidants were necessarily also the persons first noticing the ruler’s weaknesses and were likely to use this knowledge in their own advantage. In 1665 Emperor Leopold I confided to his friend and ambassador in Spain that the death of his mentor and Obersthofmeister Johann Ferdinand Portia left him bereaved as well as disoriented. Sharing his sorrows with any of his courtiers was impossible: this would be read as the transfer of Portia’s position of favour to a next candidate.19 Leopold now wanted to make clear his intention to rule as well as reign, and so was forced to swallow his grief.

Did their predicament differ fundamentally from that of sultans and emperors of Asian polities? Positions of dynastic leaders varied immensely. I suggest, however, that we should start considering the similarities. The lifecycles of rulers show that certain patterns of favour were likely to occur everywhere. Princes growing up under their mother’s wings were often fed by wetnurses; they shared their childhood experiences with other boys, companions or ‘foster brothers’ whose affection was not contaminated by dynastic rivalry.20 Somewhere between their fifth and eighth year, boys moved to the ‘male’ education. The governor-tutor stepped in: a figure of trust and authority, at the service of the ruling king and not invariably a confidant of the boy. Growing up, princes would have shared first experiences of governing and fighting with their comrades. Mothers, wetnurses, youth companions, and mentors were the likely favourites of young princes ascending the throne.21

In the first one or two decades of a sovereign’s rule, the authoritative figures of his youth, mothers and tutors, were likely to see their positions dwindle, a process that could lead to serious clashes. This was the moment for young princes to grab the reins of power – a passing opportunity they did not universally appreciate. With the approach of old age, most kings experienced increasing vulnerability: they tended to reduce the circle of their contacts and were more likely to develop a strong reliance on one or two figures, male or female. These lifecycle-events, it appears to me, proceeded in a similar way across the globe. There are more parallels. Trust at the heart of power, among relatives, was complicated by dynastic rivalry – siblings were rarely carefree companions. Neither did the most powerful groups, leading nobles or magistrates, offer the best chance of uncomplicated friendship. Lesser-ranking figures and outsiders presented opportunities for harmless friendship: they could not abuse their position as easily as the others. However, the rise of social outsiders and foreigners at court, whether stemming from the ruler’s hope for friendship and support, or from his attempt to counterbalance elite power, was likely to annoy vested elites. Relying on a favourite could be a premeditated strategy as well as an emotional escape.

What about the whims and fancies of the despot? All rulers were constrained to some extent by tradition, by the advice of their leading servants, and by the political constellations of their courts. All histories include rulers who failed to listen to wise counsel, transgressed rules, and became tyrants. This was one of the returning problems of political thinking: how to deal with a bad ruler? Notoriously violent or suspicious figures, such as the Ming founder Zhu Yuanzhang, remain the exception, but the limitations that could legitimately be enforced by institutions or by vested elites against the violence and lawlessness of princes were probably stronger in European than in Asian polities. This is a highly debatable theme that needs further research, differentiating between various interacting traditions, regions and periods, and moving beyond static East-West typologies. The Chinese mandate of heaven, a major component of dynastic legitimacy, was connected to the well-being of the people, and made room for rebellion against rulers who jeopardised their mandate through exploitation, wrongdoings, and the neglect of proper rites. Zhu Yuanzhang, notwithstanding his great force and harsh actions, was deeply imbued with the need to protect his people’s well-being and maintain the mandate.22

The nominal omnipotence of rulers could easily transmute into impotence. Engelbert Kaempfer, visiting the Persian Safavid court before moving to Tokugawa Japan, reported about the competition of the ‘day council’ and the ‘night council’ in Isfahan.23 The women and eunuchs overruled during the night decisions that had been agreed upon by the formal council the day before. Shah Suleiman was the object of sharp rivalry between inner and outer court contestants, rather than the mastermind playing off groups and individuals. This was a wild contest for the confidence and favour of a ruler who had lost control, while still holding his position as arbiter.

Faction would arise in opposition to an all-powerful favourite dominating the distribution of honours at court. More often than not, however, favourites were connected to longer-lasting interest groups at court. Such interest groups, moreover, played a role when no conspicuous favourite was present. What was the basis of alliance at court? Kinship, households, institutional connections, regional networks all played a role. Who were the main rivals: leaders of the different institutional components of the court, inner-outer, household-government? Surely conflict at times took this form, whenever the collective rights of European noble courtiers vis-à-vis social climbers in government service were at stake, when eunuch power in the Ming inner court challenged literati magistrates, or when Sultan Murad III sought to diminish the outer-court dominance of Sokollu Mehmed Pasha.

More often key rivals were to be found in the same status group, at the same level of the hierarchy, among competitors who hoped for the same honours and nominations. Mothers pushing their sons towards the throne, eunuchs competing in the inner court, leading viziers hoping for the grand vizierate, high magistrates protecting their nominees, ministers placing their friends and followers in the state apparatus, and high noble domestic dignitaries battling for the most prestigious tasks. Competition with near-equals made it imperative to cross the line and seek the alliance of the others.

The transformations between hierarchies based on rank, decision-making, and access complicate the study of conflict at court, which never consistently followed one logic only. Major political or religious challenges could break apart family networks and bring together former rivals. In most conflicts at court, dominated by the distribution of favour, hierarchical networks based on kinship, regional, and institutional affiliations, persisted. The contestants knew that bridging institutional and social gaps would work to their advantage in the micropolitics of the court.24



  1. This argument was made by David Starkey in several contributions challenging Geoffrey Elton’s view of the ‘Tudor Revolution in Government’; see David Starkey, ‘Representation Through Intimacy. A Study in the Symbolism of Monarchy and Court Office in Early-Modern England’, in: Symbols and Senti­ments. Cross-Cultural Studies in Symbolism, Ioan Lewis, ed. (London 1977) 187-224; David Starkey, The English Court from the Wars of the Roses to the Civil War (London, New York 1987).[]
  2. See Der Fall des Günstlings. Hofparteien in Europa vom 13. bis zum 17. Jahrhundert. 8. Symposium der Residenzen­kommission der Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, Jan Hirschbiegel, Werner Paravicini, ed. (Ostfildern 2004). The rise and fall of favourites was a theme elsewhere; Süleyman I’s favourite Ibrahim Pasha is commonly called ‘makbul’ (favourite) to ‘maktul’ (executed), see Ebru Turan, ‘The Marriage of Ibrahim Pasha (Ca. 1495―1536): The rise of Sultan Süleyman’s favorite to the grand vizierate and the politics of the elites in the early Sixteenth-Century Ottoman Empire’, Turcica, 41 (2009) 3-36.[]
  3. Jeroen Duindam, Dynasties. A Global History of Power 1300-1800 (Cambridge 2015).[]
  4. Jean Bérenger, ‘Pour une enquête européenne: le problème du ministériat au XVIIe siècle’, Annales ESC, 29, 1 (1974) 166-92.[]
  5. Leonhard Horowski ‘Das Erbe des Favoriten. Minister, Mätressen und Günstlinge am Hof Ludwigs XIV’, in: Der Fall des Günstlings, 77-125; Marc Fumaroli,‘Nicolas Fouquet, the Favourite Manqué‘, in: The World of the Favourite, J.H. Elliott, L. W. B. Brockliss, ed. (New Haven, London 1999) 239-55.[]
  6. Horowski ‘Das Erbe des Favoriten’; Christine Adams, ‘”Belle comme le jour”: Beauty, Power, and the King’s Mistress’, French History, 29, 1 (2015) 1-21; Mark Bryant, Sharing the Burdens of Monarchy: Louis XIV & Mme de Maintenon, 1669-1715 (forthcoming Boydell & Brewer).[]
  7. Ellen Widder, ‘Konkubinen und Bastarde. Günstlinge auf Zeit oder Außenseiter an Höfen des Spätmittelalters?, in: Der Fall des Günstlings, 417-80 underlines the structural presence of ‘illegitime’ though not necessarily as favourites.[]
  8. Keith McMahon, ‘The Institution of Polygamy in the Chinese Imperial Palace’, The Journal of Asian Studies, 72, 4 (2013) 917–36; Keith McMahon, Women shall not rule: Imperial Wives and Concubines in China from Han to Liao (Lanham 2013) 14-15.[]
  9. Anne Walthall, ed., Servants of the Dynasty: Palace Women in World History (Berkeley, Los Angeles 2008); Duindam, Dynasties, 89-127 on women.[]
  10. Börekci, Günhan, Şefik Peksevgen, ‘Court and Favorites’, in: Encyclopedia of the Ottoman Empire, Gábor Ágoston, Bruce Alan Masters, ed. (New York 2009) 151–54; see also Börekci’s unpublished PhD dissertation ‘Factions and Favorites at the court of Sultan Ahmed I and his immediate predecessors’ (Ohio State University, 2010).[]
  11. Keith McMahon, ‘The Potent Eunuch: The Story of Wei Zhongxian’, Journal of Chinese Literature and Culture, 1 (2014) 1-28; Benjamin Elman, ‘Imperial Politics and Confucian Societies in Late Imperial China: The Hanlin and Donglin Academies’, Modern China, 15, 4 (1989) 379-418.[]
  12. Evelyn S. Rawski, The Last Emperors: A Social History of Qing Imperial Institutions (Berkeley, London 1998) 166-71; on the gradual return of eunuchs in positions of trust see Norman A. Kutcher, ‘Unspoken Collusions: The Empowerment of Yuanming Yuan Eunuchs in the Qianlong Period’, Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 70, 2 (2010) 449-95.[]
  13. Rawski, Last Emperors, 31.[]
  14. Constantine Manasses cited by Paul Magdalino, ‘In Search of the Byzantine Courtier: Leo Choirosphaktes and Constantine Manasses’, in: Byzantine Court Culture from 829 to 1204, H. Maguire, ed., (Washington, D.C., 1997), 141-65 at 163.[]
  15. The Turkish letters of Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, imperial ambassador at Constantinople, 1554-1562, E. Seymour Forster, ed. (Baton Rouge 2005), 59-60.[]
  16. Benjamin Elman, ‘Political, Social, and Cultural Reproduction via Civil Service Examinations in Late Imperial China’, The Journal of Asian Studies, 50 (1991) 7-28; Joseph W. Esherick, Mary Backus Rankin, ed., Chinese Local Elites and Patterns of Dominance (Berkeley 1990).[]
  17. In the Ottoman case, there was a relatively fixed cursus honorum, and exceptional cases of favour, such as the rapid rise of Ibrahim Pasha under Süleyman I, did give rise to remarks. See e.g. Turan, ‘The Marriage of Ibrahim Pasha (Ca. 1495―1536)’. For outer-court officials in China a highly detailed ranking and order of promotion was the norm, see Duindam, Dynasties, chapter 4.[]
  18. Karl August Wittfogel, Oriental Despotism: a Comparative Study of Total Power (New Haven, London 1957), Chapter 5. 137-57, particularly at 155.[]
  19. See Mémoires de Louis XIV pour l’instruction du Dauphin, Charles Dreyss, ed.  (Paris 1860) I-II,  II, 404; Privatbriefe Kaiser Leopold I an den Grafen F.E. Pötting 1662-1673, A.F. Pribram, M. Landwehr von Pragenau ed., I-II (Vienna 1903-4) I, 104-7.[]
  20. I concentrate on males here, see Duindam, Dynasties, for extended discussions of female rule, regencies, princesses and their alliances.[]
  21. These categories can be gleaned from many books, e.g. Nicolas Le Roux, La faveur du roi. Mignons et courtisans au temps des derniers Valois (vers 1547 – vers 1589) (Paris 2000) ; Munis D. Faruqui, The Princes of the Mughal Empire, 1504-1719 (Cambridge 2012); see Duindam, Dynasties, chapter I on princely education.[]
  22. Hok-lam Chan. Chan, ‘Ming Taizu’s Problem with His Sons: Prince Qin’s Criminality and Early-Ming Politics’, Asia Major, 20, 1 (2007) 45–103.[]
  23. Engelbert Kaempfer am Hofe des persischen Grosskönigs 1684-1685, Walther Hinz, ed. (Leipzig 1940) 30-33; Rudi Matthee, Persia in Crisis: Safavid Decline and the Fall of Isfahan (London, New York 2012) 62. On the intervention of a eunuch during the interregnum before Suleiman’s accession, see Kaempfer, Am Hofe des persischen Grosskönigs, 37–38, and a detailed version with speeches and letters in Jean Chardin, Voyages du chevalier Chardin en Perse, et autres lieux de l’Orient, Louis Langlès, ed., (Paris, 1811) I-X, IX, 397–573, with the key speech of the eunuch-tutor at 435-37.[]
  24. On Mikropolitik see the powerful and provocative analysis by Wolfgang Reinhard, ‘Die Nase der Kleopatra. Geschichte im Lichte mikropolitischer Forschung. Ein Versuch’, Historische Zeitschrift, 293, 3 (2011) 633-66 and recently the synthesis by Jens Ivo Engels, Die Geschichte der Korruption (Frankfurt 2014).[]

Jeroen Duindam

Jeroen Duindam is Professor for Early Modern European History at Leiden University.

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