Search This Blog

Thursday, August 9, 2018

What Is a Fairy Court?

  It was recently brought to my attention on social media that not everyone may understand exactly what a royal court is or how one functions, and specifically how this relates to the fairy courts. Today I want to address this issue and try to offer some clarity on the subject for anyone who is curious. 

'Riders of the Sidhe' by John Duncan

It's important to understand that when we talk about fairy courts we may be talking about two distinctly different things. This double meaning and usage comes from the Scots language where the word court means both a group attending on royalty and more generally a group or company. Because much of our fairylore about the courts in a general sense comes from the Scots speaking areas of Scotland this double usage of the word has found its way into modern fairylore, but a lack of understanding of the language means the nuance may be lost. 
Firstly the term fairy court is used as a general term to define an entire group of fairy beings, and by that understanding it's nature is very broad. When we talk about the Seelie Court (or it's antithesis the Unseelie Court) we are not talking about a specific royal court, but are using the term in that second general sense for all types of beings who may owe allegiance to the monarchy of that court, the Queen of the Seelie Court or Nicnevin who is reputed to be Queen of the Unseelie. However all beings with such allegiance are no more members of the royal court itself than all people in England are members of the English royal court. When we say they are part of the Seelie court we are using the term very generally, and that is probably the more common usage we find. The idea of this general use of 'Seelie court' started as a euphemism, a way to refer to all fairies in a positive manner which is why it is so intentionally inclusive. 
The second way the word can be used, the first definition, relates to the specific group of beings who would attend or serve a Fairy Queen or King; we see this use in ballad material and in some anecdotes. That gets us into what we are going to be addressing in depth here, the Fairy court as a royal court of Fairy. In that case we are talking about a very specific grouping of individuals around and related to the Fairy royalty of a place. With this use of court we swing from overly broad to very particular, as you shall see. 

A royal court, fairy or mortal, is set up in roughly the same way and represents - effectively - the royal household. The royal court would include the ruling monarch, their immediate family, royal advisors and counselors, courtiers*, court officials (such as the chancellor, purser, and chamberlain), entertainers, body servants and some servants more generally, ladies-in-waiting, courtesans, knights, heralds, doorkeepers, cupbearers, ushers, grooms, huntsmen, and clergy (Pattie, 2011; C& MH, 2014). Ladies-in-waiting were usually the wives of nobles attending court (effectively courtiers) or sometimes widows of such nobles who had the task of keeping the Queen company, entertaining her, and keeping her up on the general goings-on at court as well as what was essential gossip. The Queen would also have maidservants or handmaidens who were not nobility and were servants in truth that would handle her personal needs. Defining who was or wasn't in the court could be somewhat nebulous but effectively anyone who was in regular - usually daily or nearly daily - contact with the royal family and made their home at the royal court may be considered a member of the court. How many people a court was comprised of could vary widely from a relatively small number into the thousands depending on the size and power of a kingdom. 

Being a member of the court did not mean having rank in it, however. Having rank within a court meant having a specific title and duty within that court relating to serving the monarch, and the system of rank as one may assume was hierarchical. Certain titles implied a great deal more power and influence than others, and some positions, like master huntsman or master falconer, where usually held by members of the nobility (C & MH, 2014). To quote the article 'Officers and Servants in a Medieval Castle': "The presence of servants of noble birth imposed a social hierarchy on the household that went parallel to the hierarchy dictated by function." (C & MH, 2014). This is referencing human royal courts however it applies equally to courts in Fairy; rank in a court is a matter equally of birth and function within the court itself, and everything is a matter of rank. 
The court would be subdivided into sections by area of function and these in turn would be overseen by one individual and a series of lesser ranking assistants. Lower ranking members may wear the livery of the royal family to indicate specifically who they serve. Sections included the living quarters of the royals, the royal wardrobe, the stables, the kitchen, and hunting; each one was then subdivided sometimes into many smaller parts. The kitchen at large for example had a variety of very specific domains including: cooking area; buttery, pantry, confectionery, cellar, larder, spicery, saucery, scalding-house, and poultry (C & HM, 2014). A scullery maid would not likely interact with the Queen but would report to other lesser kitchen workers who in turn reported to higher ranking kitchen workers and on up the chain of command. Other sections were similarly complex, although how much or little would depend on the overall size of the household and court. 
If this sounds complicated that's because it is, and no less so for Fairy courts than for human ones. 

If you want a good illustration of a modern human royal court's officials you can look at the royal court of Norway here. For a good list of medieval ranks and positions there is this article, which I quoted and cited above. 

We should note that it is called a court for the same reason our modern legal court bears the name - because the royal court was a place where the Queen or King would make laws and give legal judgements. They would also receive tributes and taxes and generally take any actions to govern their country that was necessary. In this sense a royal court is both a collection of people and a place - it is the sum total of those people closest to the monarch but it is also the place that the monarch rules from. A portion of the officials at court would be people whose jobs would be assisting in overseeing the actual running of the country and implementation of the laws and orders of the monarch. This includes the exercise of military power as well as economic, which would be controlled by the monarch but delegated to court officials to actually handle executing. The location may be one set place, may move between several, or may always be changing. The court is, effectively, the center of government for any monarchy.

The ruling monarch has a court; the members of their court do not have their own courts because only the ruling monarch has the authority to make governmental decisions, military decisions, and judgements of law. So a Fairy Queen would have her court but her children and other close relatives would not have their own courts unless they are ruling monarchs in their own right of their own territory or have been given specific authority to rule as a representative of the Queen in a different location. In the same way, non-royal nobility do not generally have courts although in some rare cases they might depending on the degree of authority they have over their own territory.  

One example of a Fairy court of the type we are discussing comes from the ballad of Tam Lin. When Tam Lin is talking to his lover Janet about how she can rescue him he tells her this:

Then the first company which comes to you
Is published king and queen;
Then next the second company that comes to you,
It is many maidens.
Then next the company that comes to you
Is footmen, grooms and squires;
Then next the company that comes to you
Is knights, and I'll be there.

- Tan Lin 39G (modern English)

What we are seeing described is the Fairy court riding out in procession in groups, with the royalty first, then the queen's ladies-in-waiting, then the more general retinue of servants, then the knights at the rear. This is fully inline with what we might expect of a royal court, although I would imagine other nobles riding along with the king and queen. 

When we see fairy courts portrayed in modern fiction they are often greatly simplified or not well explained which may give people a shallow view of what they are. A fairy court, whether that of the Seelie or Unseelie Queen or any of the Irish Fairy monarchs, would be complex and include a variety of beings that were part of the ruler's household, from close family to servants who waited on the royal family, as well as the same range listed above from advisors to huntsmen. These are usually beings who would be in permanent or near permanent attendance on the royal family, with the exception of knights who may be sent out or assigned specific tasks that took them away from the court. Again we can look to Tam Lin as an example of this, as he was a knight within the Queen's court but had been given the task of guarding a specific well in the forest of Carterhaugh. Courtiers, especially nobles, may also spend part of their time away from court, but would generally be expected to spend most of their time attending to the Queen or King. 

To understand and appreciate the fairy courts we need an understanding of what they are. Human royalty still exists in some places and still has courts, although largely symbolic now, and there is no indication that fairies do not still operate with a monarchy system which would include royal courts. At the least understand that these courts would include the royal household as well as courtiers, and that rank within a court would be an intersecting matter of birth and function. Everyone in a court has a function which ultimately serves the monarch, and the court itself is both representative of the monarch's power and a tool to exercise that power. 

Hopefully this article has helped provide a very basic understanding of what such a court would consist of and include and roughly how one would function. 

*courtiers are almost a topic unto themselves to be honest. A courtier was a person who attended the ruler at court and could include members of the nobility, servants, secretaries, merchants, soldiers, clergy, friends of the ruler, lovers, and entertainers. They may or may not hold actual rank in the court depending on a variety of factors. What defined someone as a courtier was the amount of time they spent hanging around the royal court, whether or not they ever actually even interacted with the ruler. 

Acland, A., (2018) Tam Lin 39 G retrieved from
Heirarchy Structure (2018) The Royal Court retrieved from
Pattie, T., (2011) Medieval People, Titles, Trades, and Classes retrieved from 
C&MH (2014) Castle Life: Officers and Servants in a Medieval Castle retrieved from
Brosius, M., (2007). The Court and Court Society in Ancient Monarchies
Thoms, W., (1884) The Book of the Court: Exhibiting the History, Duties, and Privileges of the English Nobility and Gentry.


  1. Just a question: would we expect all of fairies to be organized by monarchy, or would we expect that there are a wider variety of political organizations to be found in the Otherworld, just as there are in this world? If not, should we assume that there is something peculiar to the nature of fairies that inclines them toward monarchy, or something peculiar to monarchy that makes it more apt for the fairies? Or is it possibly a matter of attempting to use human terms to describe something that likely is, in reality, more alien than we can fully understand (like how we also use the terms of monarchy to describe insect colonies, despite their socialization being so different from our own)? I'm just curious about your thoughts.

    1. I might suspect that their concept of monarchy is at least somewhat different from our own, particularly now, and rather closer to what the way we try to organize other types of spirits by hierarchies. Most of not all Fairy Queens and Kings were/are deities and they are the Queen not by birth but by power. There's really no inheritance, per se, or line of succession or sense of change - Gods don't die as we understand the concept and who is going to overthrown one? There's a lot of intersection between the old sovereignty goddesses and divine kings and the Fairy monarchs.
      Which gets to the second part of your question - I'm sure there are other systems and approaches to organization. When we look at the monarchy specifically we are really looking at the old gods who went into the fairy hills, and who rule still, and to some extensions of that structure elsewhere likely rooted either in lesser known gods or related ones. But the further we get away from those particular beings you'll start to see different variations of things, especially in smaller groups or types. How closely or loosely those smaller groups may be connected to the monarchs is debatable. Also of course outside the Celtic fairies we may see more variations.