A short history of etiquette
Written by Diana MatherThe English Manner, The UK’s Leading Etiquette and Protocol Training Institute 310 310
Read it in 4 minutes
Today, the difference between good manners and etiquette is that having good manners means treating others with kindness, consideration and respect. If we study the history of etiquette, however, we can see that it wasn’t always the case.
Every culture and society has its own form of etiquette, which has changed over the years. England has a long history of strict social codes, but the history of the etiquette we use today really derives from the court of Louis XIV of France because at that time France was the ‘centre of the universe’ and all the courts of the known world followed where the French led. The latest fashions, the best food, the most beautiful furniture and elegant manners all originated in France.
Known as Louis the Great or the Sun King, Louis XIV was from the House of Bourbon and ruled as King of France and Navarre from 1643 until his death in 1715, making him one of the longest rulers in European history. He brought absolute monarchy to its height, established a glittering court at Versailles, and fought most of the other European countries in four wars.
The Sun King loved to give parties. He wanted to be seen and admired by everyone who mattered and invited the nobility and aristocracy to festivities at Versailles. Until certain rules of behaviour were introduced, the nobles were often careless regarding good manners.
Louis got so fed up with people tramping over his beautifully manicured lawns and flower beds that he put up labels advising them to ‘Abstain from walking on the grass’ or ‘Do not step on the flowers’. When this didn’t work, he delivered an official decree that no one could go beyond the signs. Later, the name etiquette was given to a ticket for court functions that included rules concerning where to stand and what to do, which was the birth of what we know as ‘etiquette’ today.
Louis had long been aware of plots against him. He succeeded in destroying the power of the aristocracy by encouraging them to come to Versailles to enjoy an idle lifestyle dependent on pensions and privileges so that he could keep an eye on them.
The King constantly commanded a series of fêtes, balls, ballets, comedies, concerts, promenades and hunts so the nobles were more than happy to leave their country estates to fend for themselves whilst they enjoyed themselves at court – sowing the seeds of the French Revolution in 1789.
After the Revolution those aristos who hadn’t been parted from their heads made for England and joined the courts of either King George III or his son, The Prince Regent. Thus, French manners and behaviour became part of the English way of life and developed into a code of manners that has survived until today.
The next great change was caused by The Industrial Revolution, which reached its height in the reign of Queen Victoria in the 19th century. This meant that the old regime was shifting due to a huge influx of wealth from the growing middle classes. Until then, the only people with real money were those with very large estates and the landed gentry.
These forms of wealth were considered ‘respectable’ whereas money coming from ‘trade’ was not. But as many of the landed ruling classes were beginning to feel the pinch due to being absentee landlords and neglecting to run their massive estates profitably, they began to view the increasingly affluent merchant class with slightly different eyes.
They deigned to allow their sons and daughters to marry into this ‘lower’ class to get much-needed money to maintain their crumbling houses and estates. However, it was essential they knew the correct etiquette.
As the new textile magnates and the owners of mills, mines and canals were mostly from a class that hadn’t had exposure to the court or courtly manners, they needed to marry their children into good families with good connections for them to move up the social ladder.
As their prosperity grew, so did their aspirations. They wanted their children to have a chance, so they put their sons’ names down to go to the best schools they could afford in the hope they might become gentlemen; their daughters were sent to finishing schools to be taught how to be young ladies.