Watching French Royals Eat: The Grand Couvert

The desire to peek into royal lives goes back a long way. In France, people could indulge their curiosity at the “grand couvert,” a ritual in which the king and queen ate their dinner in front of members of the public. The tradition is usually associated with Louis XIV, who dined au grand couvert at Versailles almost every evening, surrounded by his family and a crowd of courtiers. Louis XV disliked the ceremony, which was governed by elaborate rules of etiquette. He took more of his meals in private. By the end of their reign, Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette dined au grand couvert only on Sundays.

Le ci-devant grand couvert de Gargantua modern en famille (How the modern Gargantua and his family once dined), 1791, French satirical print showing Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, the future Louis XVIII and Charles X, and other members of the Bourbon family au grand couvert. Source: French Revolution Digital Archive, Stanford University Libraries & the Bibliothèque nationale de France

Le ci-devant grand couvert de Gargantua modern en famille (How the modern Gargantua and his family once dined), French satirical print from 1791 showing Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette, the future Louis XVIII and Charles X, and other members of the Bourbon family au grand couvert. Source: French Revolution Digital Archive, Stanford University Libraries & the Bibliothèque nationale de France

Napoleon and the grand couvert

When Napoleon became Emperor of the French, he re-introduced the grand couvert.

When their majesties dined en grand couvert, their table was placed under a canopy on a platform elevated one step, and with two armchairs, one on the right for the emperor, the other on the left for Josephine, the former wearing a hat with plumes, and his consort a diadem. Their majesties were informed by the grand marshal when the preparations were completed, and entered the room in the following order: Pages, assistant master of the ceremonies, prefects of the palace, first prefect and a master of the ceremonies, the grand marshal and grand master of the ceremonies; the empress, attended by her first equerry and first chamberlain; the emperor, colonel-general of the guard, grand chamberlain, and grand equerry; the grand almoner, who blessed the meat, and retired, leaving their majesties to a solitary board, unless when guests of kingly rank were present, or humbler ones sat down there by invitation. (1)

Speaking when he was in exile on St. Helena, Napoleon expressed reservations about the ritual.

The Emperor had hesitated for some time, he said, about re-establishing the grand couvert of the kings of France, that is, the dining in public, every Sunday, of the whole Imperial family. He asked our opinion of it. We differed. Some approved of it, represented this family spectacle as beneficial to public morals, and fitted to produce the best effects on public spirit; besides, they said, it afforded means for every individual to see his Sovereign. Others opposed it, objecting that this ceremony involved something of divine right and feudality, of ignorance and servility, which had no place in our habits or the modern dignity of them. They might go to see the Sovereign at the church or the theatre: there they joined at least in the performance of his religious duties, or took part in his pleasures; but to go to see him eat was only to bring ridicule on both parties. The sovereignty having now become, as the Emperor had so well said, a magistracy, should only be seen in full activity; conferring favours, redressing injuries, transacting business, reviewing armies, and above all, divested of the infirmities and the wants of human nature, &c….

‘Well,’ said the Emperor, ‘it may be true that the circumstances of the time should have limited this ceremony to the Imperial heir, and only during his youth; for he was the child of the whole nation; he ought to become thenceforth the object of the sentiments and the sight of all.’ (2)

Louis XVIII and the grand couvert

Louis XVIII ate au grand couvert about every three weeks, a ceremony his court maintained even when he was in exile in England. Here is a description of “the first dinner in the Tuileries at which the public was admitted to admire royalty at table – a sight dear to the Parisians,” after Napoleon’s exile to Elba in 1814.

The table was arranged in the form of a horse-shoe; it was splendidly garnished with the king’s plate; and the celebrated nef was not forgotten. The nef is a piece of plate, of silver gilt, representing in shape the hull of a ship without masts and rigging.… In this vessel, beneath cushions wetted with perfumed water, are kept the napkins for the king’s use…. [T]he usher of the hall, having received orders from the grand-master of the household, went to the door of the hall of the gardes-du-corps, and struck it with a cane, saying at the same time: ‘Gentlemen, to lay the king’s table!’ A guard followed him; they went together to the buttery, where each officer of the place took a piece of plate, and headed by the nef, all proceeded towards the gallery of Diana, where the table was set out, the gardes-du-corps marching beside the nef, and the usher pompously carrying two table-cloths.

The bread, the wine, water, and toothpicks destined for the king’s use were tried: the napkin was laid half hanging down, upon it was placed the plate, and the salver, on which were bread, spoon, knife and fork. The same was done for every thing that the royal family was to use; and the usher, returning to the hall of the guards, again struck the door with his cane, saying: ‘Gentlemen, to the king’s dinner.’ Three guards and a brigadier with shouldered carbines, immediately repaired to the kitchen to escort the king’s dinner; it was brought with not less pomp….

[T]he dishes arrived and were tasted, and the first maître d’hôtel, and the wine-taster…preceded by the usher of the hall, went to apprize the king that dinner was on the table. His majesty, accompanied by his family, walked to the gallery of Diana, to the sound of music performed by the band of the chapel and of the opera….

I fell to studying the figure made by the duchesses who were present, seated on their blessed stools. The old and the new regime were there confronted and reciprocally examining one another…. I had then leisure to enjoy the magnificence of the sight, the splendour of the illumination, and the stupefied look of the good citizens of Paris, put in possession again, after the lapse of so many years, of the right of being present at the king’s dinner. (3)

Charles X and the grand couvert

Louis XVIII’s brother and successor, Charles X (the Count of Artois in Napoleon in America), also kept up the practice of the grand couvert. An American, Nathaniel Carter, witnessed the ceremony on January 1, 1827.

A report had gone forth that whosoever would put on small-clothes, with the usual accompaniments of a full dress, might be admitted into the presence of majesty, and attend the regal banquet. … [A]t 5 o’clock we set out for the Tuileries…. None but the carriages of the nobility were permitted to drive into the court, and the whole plebeian multitude of both sexes were compelled to dash through mud and water, in the same shoes which were destined to trample on royal carpets. On arriving at the door, we found the arcades thronged with ladies and gentlemen from all nations, and jabbering in all languages…. The gates on either side were closed, and there was neither ingress nor egress; otherwise a hasty retreat would have been effected.

In this condition the crowd remained for an hour or more, when the doors were thrown open, and the long processions marched up the grand stair-case, guarded by a line of soldiers, into the chambers of the Tuileries. At the portal, an officer sung out, ‘a bas chapeau!’ – off hats! The ladies were dismantled of their shawls, and directed to drop the arms of their companions, to walk single-file into the presence of his majesty….

The slowness of our march toward head-quarters afforded us a favourable opportunity for examining the king’s apartments at the Tuileries, which were brilliantly illuminated by a full blaze of chandeliers, exhibiting the lofty fresco ceilings, spacious saloons, Gobelin tapestry, Savonniere carpets, silken couches and other splendid furniture up to the throne itself, to the best possible advantage….

We at length reached the dining-room, which is spacious, but was filled to overflowing, even to the windows, with ladies and gentlemen who had been presented at court, and were therefore privileged to remain during the whole banquet – a prerogative which I felt little anxiety to enjoy. Temporary boxes had been erected round the hall, overlooking the table. These were filled with ladies in full dresses, who sat the whole evening, patiently watching all the important movements at the festive board….

The table was in a semi-circular form, on the outer side of which, near the centre, the King was seated, with the Duke d’Angoulême on his right, the Duchess d’Angoulême on his left, and the Duchess de Berry on the extreme right. They all sat at respectable distances, looking cold and unsocial enough, staring at the crowd, and the crowd staring at them. His majesty is a genteel man in his appearance with rather a thin face, and a gray head, with no marks of decrepitude, though now at the age of sixty-nine. There was nothing peculiar in his dress. He seemed less embarrassed by his awkward situation than the rest of the royal group, who sat like statues over their plates, while he handled his knife and fork with a good deal of ease and dexterity….

Our observations were limited in time to a few minutes, occupied in passing through the room, close by the table…. On the whole this was the greatest farce I ever attended. It is converting the palace into a menagerie, and the royal family into so many lions, for the amusement of the multitude. Intelligent Frenchmen consider the show, which recurs annually, in the same light I have done. It is a relic of royalty, at least two centuries behind the age, which the mere progress of reason has rendered ridiculous. (4)

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  1. John S. Memes, Memoirs of the Empress Josephine (New York, 1832), p. 316.
  2. Emmanuel-Auguste-Dieudonné Las Cases, Memoirs of the Life, Exile and Conversations of the Emperor Napoleon, Vol. I (New York, 1855), pp. 385-386.
  3. Étienne-Léon de Lamothe-Langon, Private Memoirs of the Court of Louis XVIII, Volume I (London, 1830), pp. 363-368.
  4. Nathaniel Hazeltine Carter, Letters from Europe, Comprising the Journal of a Tour through Ireland, England, Scotland, France, Italy and Switzerland, in the Years 1825, ’26 and ’27, Vol. I (New York, 1827), pp. 458-461.

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On the whole this was the greatest farce I ever attended. It is converting the palace into a menagerie, and the royal family into so many lions, for the amusement of the multitude.

Nathaniel Hazeltine Carter