Literally, "sovereign's court," a hierarchical institution made up of the ruler's elite servitors during the late twelfth through seventeenth centuries.
Courts of east Slavic princes usually included close members of the retinue, service cavalrymen, and household officials. Members of boyar families with established ties to the prince of Moscow formed the basis of the Muscovite court during the fourteenth century. The growing political power of the Muscovite ruler attracted numerous distinguished newcomers, including members of the Lithuanian and Tatar ruling families, to his court in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries. Muscovite rulers also incorporated the princes of territories annexed by Moscow into their court, although some of them, known as service princes, retained some organizational autonomy within the court until the end of the sixteenth century.
As a result of the reforms of the 1550s, the sovereign's court functioned on the basis of a mixture of hierarchical and territorial principles. During the second half of the sixteenth century, the court acquired a clear hierarchy of ranks: boyars, okolnichie, counselor cavalrymen, counselor secretaries, the household ranks and chancellery secretaries, the ruler's personal guard (stolniki, stryapchie, zhiltsy ), service princes, and the lowest ranks (dvorovye deti boyarskie, later vybornye dvoryane ). Service relations between courtiers were subject to rules of precedence (mestnichestvo ), a complex system that defined the status of a courtier on the basis of the prominence and service appointments of his ancestors and relatives. Territoriality was crucial to the court's lowest strata, which included members of collateral branches of boyar families, people who had advanced through faithful service, and newcomers of lower status. The people who held the lowest court ranks were leading members of local cavalrymen communities and were listed by the town where they had service lands. They served in Moscow on a rotating basis. Secretaries entered the court thanks to their literacy and the patronage of the ruler or influential courtiers. A servitor's career at court thus dependent on his pedigree, his position in the local cavalrymen community, his personal skills and merits, and the favor of his patrons.
The princes of Moscow used a variety of means to secure the integrity of their court. Members of the court swore an oath of allegiance and received land grants on condition that they served the prince. Muscovite rulers secured the loyalty of distinguished newcomers by granting them superior status over the boyars, manipulating their land possessions, encouraging marriages with members of the royal family and the local elite, and subjecting the disloyal to disgrace and executions. Ivan IV's reign saw the climax of repressions against members of the court, which was divided in two parts during the Oprichnina. The social and genealogical composition of the court, however, remained stable until the middle of the seventeenth century, when people of lower origin began entering the court's upper strata. At the same time, the leaders of local cavalrymen communities were excluded from the court. Peter I stopped making appointments to the upper court ranks during the early 1690s.
The sovereign's court included the most combat-worthy Muscovite troops and provided cadres for administrative and diplomatic tasks. An efficient military and administrative institution, the sovereign's court was vital to the victory of the princes of Moscow over their opponents and to the functioning of the Russian state during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
See also: boyar; chancellery system; ivan iii; ivan iv; oprichnina
Poe, Marshall T. (2003). The Russian Elite in the Seventeenth Century, 2 vols. Helsinki: The Finnish Academy of Science and Letters.