Levée (ceremony)  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Lever ("rising"), adopted in English as levée— initially the simple act of getting up in the morning— was raised to a ceremonial custom at the court of Louis XIV. In the court etiquette that Louis formalized, the set of extremely elaborated conventions was divided into the grand lever, attended by the full court in the gallery outside the king's bedchamber, and the petit lever that transpired in degrees in the king's chamber, where only a very select group might serve the king as he rose and dressed.

The king's retiring ceremony proceeded in reverse order and was known as the coucher.

When the court of Charles II of England adopted the custom, first noted as an English usage in 1672, it was called a levée, with the same pronunciation. In the eighteenth century, as the fashionable dinner hour was incrementally moved later into the afternoon, the morning reception of the British monarch, attended only by gentlemen, was shifted forward towards noon. By the 1760s the custom was being copied by the King's representatives in British America, the colonial governors. Today the ceremonial events of the Canadian Governor General's New Year's Day reception is still called her Levée.

In the French engraving Le Lever after Freudenberg, of the 1780s, (illustration, right), gentle social criticism is levelled at the lady of the court; that she slept without unlacing her stays, apparently, perhaps can be seen as artistic licence. Her maids dress her with deference, while the wallclock under the hangings of her lit à la polonaise reads noon.

In early American history the Levee was a social gathering i.e. The Presidential Levee - established by President George Washington. Washington opened the Presidential mansion weekly to the public - allowing Washington to greet and meet the public. The Presidential Levee was carried forward by John Adams and subsequently ended by Thomas Jefferson.

Detail of Louis XIV's lever

The ceremony at Versailles has been described in detail by Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon. Louis XIV was a creature of habit, and the inflexible routine that tired or irritated his heirs served him well. Wherever the king had actually slept, he was discovered sleeping in the close-curtained state bed standing in its alcove, which was separated from the rest of the chambre du Roi by a gilded balustrade. He was woken at eight o'clock by his head valet de chambreAlexandre Bontemps held this post for most of the reign— who alone had slept in the bedchamber. The chief physician, the chief surgeon and Louis' childhood nurse, as long as she lived, all entered at the same time, and the nurse kissed him. The night chamberpot was removed.

Then the curtains of the bed were drawn once again, and at a quarter past eight the Grand Chamberlain was called, bringing with him the nobles who had the privilege of the grande entrée, a privilege that could be purchased, subject to the king's approval, but which was restricted in Louis' time to the nobles. The King remained in bed, in his nightshirt and a short wig. The Grand Chamberlain of France, or in his absence the chief gentleman of the bedchamber, presented holy water to the king from a vase that stood at the head of the bed and the king's morning clothes were laid out. First the Master of the Bedchamber and the First Servant, both high nobles, pulled the king's nightshirt over his head, one grasping each sleeve. The Grand Chamberlain presented the day shirt, which, according to Saint-Simon, had been shaken out and sometimes changed, because the king perspired freely. This was a moment for any of those with the privilege of the grande entrée to have a swift private word with the king, which would have been carefully rehearsed beforehand to express a request as deferentially but in as few words as possible. The King was given a missal, and the gentlemen retired into the adjoining chambre du conseil (the "council chamber") while there was a brief private prayer for the King.

When the King had them called back, now accompanied by those who had the lesser privilege of the première entrée, the king's process of dressing began: Louis preferred to dress himself "for he did almost everything himself, with address and grace", Saint-Simon remarked. The King was handed a dressing-gown, and a mirror was held for him, for the king had no toilet table like ordinary gentlemen. Every other day the King shaved himself. Now other privileged courtiers were admitted, a few at a time, at each stage, so that as the King was putting on his shoes and stockings "everyone" — in Saint-Simon's view — was there. This was the entrée de la chambre, which included the king's readers and the director of the Menus Plaisirs, that part of the royal establishment in charge of all preparations for ceremonies, events and festivities, to the last detail of design and order. At the entrée du chambre were admitted the Grand Aumônier and the Marshal of France and the king's ministers and secretaries. A fifth entrée now admitted ladies for the first time, and a sixth entrée admitted, from a privileged position at a cramped backdoor, the king's children, legitimate and illegitimate indiscriminately— in scandalous fashion Saint-Simon thought— and their spouses.

The crowd in the chambre du Roi can be estimated from Saint-Simon's remark of the King's devotions, which followed: the King knelt at his bedside "where all the clergy present knelt, the cardinals without cushions, all the laity remaining standing"

The King then passed into the cabinet where all those who possessed any court office attended him; he now announced what he expected to do that day and was left alone with those among the royal bastards that he had publicly recognized and legitimated, who were his favourite children, and a few favourites, with the valets. These were less pressing moments to discuss projects with the King, who parceled out his attention with strict regard for the current standing of those closest to him.

With the entry of the King into the Grande Galerie, where the rest of the court awaited him, the petit lever was finished, and with the grand lever the day was properly begun, as the king proceeded to daily Mass, sharing brief words as he progressed and even receiving some petitions. It was of these occasions that the King habitually remarked, in refusing a favour asked for some noble, "We never see him", meaning that he did not spend enough time at Versailles, where Louis wanted to keep the nobility penned up, to prevent them interesting themselves in politics.




Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Levée (ceremony)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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