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The client system and getting ahead at court in Renaissance France

Unless you’re a newcomer to historical fiction, you know that one of the mainstays of court intrigue is the system of obtaining allies through marriage or even more torturous forms of allying with other nobles. It took several centuries before France developed a system of civil service or even a standing army to do the King’s wishes. During the Renaissance and even before then, a noble’s power depended on how many allies, relative and clients he could call upon to aid him.

Louis Bourbon, Prince de Conde

A noble’s primary function for the King was to aid him in military manners, and in the 1560s, Louis, the Prince de Conde rode across France with about 500 noblemen. Anne de Montmercy once arrived at Fontainebleau with eight hundred. With such a large retinue of fighting men of noble blood, men like these usually became governors of the provinces. Who better to keep a watch out for invasions by the Spanish?

Leading French nobles and their clients

Power filtered down, and these men who served as governors came with large households within their provinces that needed staff. Local and lesser noblemen came to those households not only for employment but to educate their children and set up betrothals that would bind the families for generations. This is how the clientage system sprang up across France. The Guise were absolute masters at the clientage system, ensuring that each client under their protection was well taken care of. That care ensured their loyalty, helping the Guise expand their influences across Northern France. This influence was what caused Catherine de Medici and her son, Henri III to fear Guise influence for generations.

These clients came from across the social structure of France, rich and poor benefitted from the relationship. The greater noble often spoke to the King on their client’s behalf, and when a noble was unable to come to court of their own account, the client would spend time at court representing him.

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