Valet de chambre (French pronunciation: [val? d? b?]), or varlet de chambre, was a court appointment introduced in the late Middle Ages, common from the 14th century onwards. Royal households had many persons appointed at any time. While some valets simply waited on the patron, or looked after his clothes and other personal needs, itself potentially a powerful and lucrative position, others had more specialized functions. At the most prestigious level it could be akin to a monarch or ruler's personal secretary, as was the case of Anne de Montmorency at the court of Francis I of France. For noblemen pursuing a career as courtiers, like Étienne de Vesc, it was a common early step on the ladder to higher offices.
For some this brought entry into the lucrative court business of asking for favours on behalf of clients, and passing messages to the monarch or lord heading the court. Valets might supply specialized services of various kinds to the patron, as artists, musicians, poets, scholars, librarians, doctors or apothecaries and curators of collections. Valets comprised a mixture of nobles hoping to rise in their career, and those--often of humble origin--whose specialized abilities the monarch wanted to use or reward.
In the English Royal Household the French term was used, whilst French was the language of the court, for example for Geoffrey Chaucer in the 1370s; but subsequently titles such as Groom of the Chamber, Groom of the Stool, and Groom of the Robes were used for people with different responsibilities. The "Grooms of the Privy Chamber" and of the "Stool" were more important posts, because involving closer access, and usually held by the well-born, often knights. The "Groom-Porter"'s job was to "regulate all matters to do with gaming" at court, providing the cards, and settling disputes.
Other countries used other terms: in Italian usually cameriere, in German-speaking courts Kammerjunker or Hofjunker were the usual titles, though it was Kammerer in the Austrian Habsburg court, and Kammerherr in Bavaria. In Russia Stolnik was broadly equivalent, until Peter the Great introduced new titles in 1722, after which the - or kammerjunker came 11th out of 14 in the Table of Ranks. "Valet de chambre" also became used outside courts to refer to normal manservants.
The title of valet enabled access to the monarch or other employer; the "chambre" originally referred to rooms such as the throne room, or the Privy chamber where the ruler conducted his more private meetings, but services extended to the bedroom as well. Sometimes, as in Spain and England, different bodies of valets were responsible for the bedroom and the daytime rooms. Often, the moment the ruler went outdoors a whole new division of staff took over.
From the late 14th century onwards the term is found in connection with an artist, author, architect, or musician's position within a noble or royal circle, with painters increasingly receiving the title as the social prestige of artists became increasingly distinct from that of craftsmen. The benefits for the artist were a position of understood status in the court hierarchy, with a salary, livery clothes to wear (in the early period at least), the right to meals at the palace, often in a special mess-room, and benefits such as exclusion from local guild regulations, and, if all went well, a lifetime pension. The valet would frequently be housed, at least when working in the palace, but often permanently. Lump-sums might be paid to the valet, especially to provide a dowry for a daughter; sons were often able to join the court as well.
The patron retained the services of the valet de chambre-artist or musician, sometimes exclusively, but often not. The degree to which valets with special skills were expected to perform the normal serving tasks of valets no doubt varied greatly, and remains obscure from at least the earlier records. Probably many were expected to be on hand for service on major occasions, but otherwise not often. The appointment gave the artist a place in the court management structure, under such officials as the Lord Chamberlain in England, or the Grand Master of France, usually via an intermediate court officer. In turn the valets were able to give orders to the huissiers or ushers, footmen, pages, and other ordinary servants.
There were some female equivalents, such as the portrait miniaturist Levina Teerlinc (daughter of Simon Bening), who served as a gentlewoman in the royal households of both Mary I and Elizabeth I, and Sofonisba Anguissola, who was court painter to Philip II of Spain and art tutor with the rank of lady-in-waiting to his third wife Elisabeth of Valois, a keen amateur artist. During the Renaissance, the regularly required artistic roles in music and painting typically began to be given their own offices and titles, as Court painter, Master of the King's Music and so forth, and the valets mostly reverted to looking after the personal, and often the political, needs of their patron. In fact Jan van Eyck, one of the many artists and musicians with the rank of valet in the Burgundian court, was already described as a painter as well as a valet.
In England the artists of the Tudor court, as well as the musicians, had other dedicated offices to fill, so that artistic valets or Grooms were mainly literary or dramatic. But these included whole companies of actors, who in practice seem to have gone their own way outside their performances, except for being drafted in to help on specially busy occasions. In August 1604 the King's Men, presumably including Shakespeare, were "waiting and attending" upon the Spanish ambassador at Somerset House, "on his Majesty's service", no doubt in connection with the Somerset House Conference, then negotiating a treaty with Spain -- but no plays were performed. Over the previous Christmas, the whole company had been housed at Hampton Court Palace, several miles outside London, for three weeks, in the course of which they gave seven performances.
Some courtier artists took their courtly careers very seriously. Geoffrey Chaucer held a number of roles as a diplomat and what we would now call a civil servant. Diego Velázquez was appointed "King's painter" in 1623, at the age of 24, and held this position until his death at the age of 61. In addition, he progressed through the hierarchy of courtiers as "usher in the royal chamber" in 1627 (equivalent to valet de chambre), "Assistant in the Wardrobe" (1636) and "Assistant in the Privy Chamber" (ayuda de cámera) in 1643. These appointments put him in the "select group" of some 350 top royal servants, out of about 1,700 in total, and probably used up much of his time. In fact Velázquez perhaps saw more of the King than any other servants, as Philip spent long hours in his studio watching him paint. Finally, after the King's first application on his behalf was rejected, and some probable falsification of his family background and career, Velázquez managed in 1659 to obtain entry to the chivalric Order of Santiago, the pinnacle of his courtly ambitions.
When Jean Poquelin arranged for his 18-year-old son, better known as the dramatist Molière, to follow in his footsteps as one of the eight "Tapissiers ordinaires de la chambre du Roi", with a valet de chambre's rank, he had to pay 1,200 livres. But the title required only 3 months' work a year, looking after the royal furniture and tapestries, for a salary of 300 livres, with the opportunity to take commission on a number of lucrative contracts. Poquelin senior ran his successful shop in Paris when not on royal duty. Molière retained the office of valet until his death. The court duties of many valets, specialized or otherwise, followed regular cycles, rotating every quarter between four holders.
Alexandre Bontemps, head of the thirty-six functional ordinary valets de chambre of Louis XIV of France, was a powerful and feared figure, in charge of the troops guarding the royal palaces, and an elaborate network of spies on courtiers. Major courts had a higher layer of courtier attendants, always from the upper nobility, whose French version was the Gentleman of the bedchamber (four, rotating annually), and in England Lord of the Bedchamber. At the increasingly formalized ceremony of the Levée the clothes of the monarch would be passed by the valet to the Gentleman, who would pass it to, or place it on, the monarch himself. Especially in France, several other members of the royal family had their own households, with their own corps of valets.
During the Baroque age the role of valet largely ceased to be a career step for noble courtiers aiming for the highest offices, although the Premier Valets of the Kings of France, now a role usually passing from father to son, were themselves ennobled and wealthy. Livery clothes and the right to meals were converted into extra cash payments by several courts. Constant, valet de chambre to Napoleon I, was one of many who published their memoirs, from the 18th century on. Especially in German lands, honorary titles as kammerer and the variants were now given, mostly to noblemen, with great freedom, but with no payment or services being exchanged; both Vienna and Munich had over 400 by the 18th century.
Mainly painters, unless otherwise stated.
In fact the majority of valets fell under this category in the earlier period. All these appear to have had functional, rather than purely honorary, positions.