Standard Court Layout
Almost every formal SCA court I’ve witnessed has had the same standard layout, reminiscent of modern theater seating. The front of the house features the dais or stage, where the thrones of the hosting monarchs and their guests face out into the audience, and behind which the royal retinue and heralds run court. In the center of the house is an aisle which leads directly up to the dais. To either side of the center aisle, the populace sits in rows that face the dais. Usually the seats are set back far enough to leave space between the dais and the audience, though in practice this walkway tends to be pretty narrow.
In this layout, most items of court business work perfectly well. A member of the populace summoned to court walks down the center aisle to the dais and is recognized. The honoree then exits either back the way they came, or (more ideally) via the front walkway, leaving the center aisle clear for the next item of business.
However, for a larger ceremony such as a peerage elevation or a coronation, this layout proves to be woefully inadequate.
A standard peerage elevation typically begins with the peerage order being summoned. The peers make their way up the center aisle or enter through the front walkway. They kneel or stand in front of the dais, often in numbers that clog the front walkway.
Once the Order has settled, the candidate is summoned along with their entourage. The party walks up the center aisle, but once the procession reaches the dais a traffic jam occurs; the procession cannot get through the front walkway because the peers are already there. Their options are to turn and walk back down the aisle, away from the dais and the candidate they support, or (more often) simply stand or kneel in the center aisle.
The result of this layout is a crowded aisle and front walkway, with participants in the ceremony having to wade through peers and procession to make it to the dais. The populace frequently can’t see the ceremony due to the number of people standing between them and the candidate. And, once the ceremony is over, the traffic jam takes a lot of time to clear. The procession, not having been coached about what to do at the end of the ceremony, take their time to turn and leave, while the peers, many of whom have been kneeling on bad knees for twenty minutes or more, pick each other up off the ground before exiting.
This layout is less than ideal. But what if we were to try a different layout, one based on medieval church architecture and focused specifically on accommodating larger ceremonies?
Chancels, Choirs, and Naves
The layout of a medieval chapel did not resemble modern theater seating, but instead had its own structure.
The area immediately before the altar was called the chancel, and was the main space where the clergy would move and work during mass. Seating for the clergy flanked either side of the chancel in stalls, in a seating area known as the choir. These stalls faced the chancel, and each other, with seating perpendicular to the altar.
For the rest of the faithful, seating (or, more often, standing room) was located in a larger area called the nave, separated from the chancel by an open barrier called a chancel screen. Those in the nave would face the altar and had a clear view of both altar and chancel, with the choir framing the area without hindering line of sight.
The diagram below shows a very, very simplified layout of those portions of a medieval church discussed above.
In chapels built specifically for orders of knighthood, such as the Chapel of Saint George at Windsor Castle, knight-companions of the Order had appointed stalls in the choir. Part of the knighting ceremony for these prestigious Orders included being placed into their appointed stall in the choir (from whence we get the term “installation”).
Elevation Court Layout
With this in mind, we can try a different layout in court for when elevations are known to be occurring.
Instead of having the populace seated close to the dais, we can create a larger chancel-like stage area for the ceremony. Framing the stage would be a few rows of seats for the peerage order(s) being summoned, arranged like choirs perpendicular to the dais. In placing the seats, the front walkway can be left wide and uncluttered.
We can see immediate improvements to the court experience with this layout:
- Open front walkway ensures processions flow through the center aisle and ceremonial area
- Traffic jams between peers and procession eliminated
- No visual obstruction due to standing entourage or props
- Expanded stage gives more room for participants
- No delay between speakers or regalia being requested and their presentation
- Greater visual presentation for populace, photographs
- Order members have readily-available seating, which avoids the need to kneel or stand
- Greater accessibility for the peers
- No visual obstruction for the audience due to standing peers
- Fixed seating for peers means that the Order does not need to be summoned or dismissed
- Faster court ceremonies
- New candidate can be “installed” at the end of the ceremony
How This Layout Affects Blocking for Peers
This article focuses on an alternative layout for court, and largely leaves aside the movement of Peers before or within the ceremony. However, the new layout allows for a number of different options for blocking.
Peers may be summoned and dismissed, per standard tradition. If this is done, the provided choir seating still ensures that the walkway will remain clear, and will speed up the entry and exit of the Order by eliminating the time spent finding a place to stand/sit/kneel.
Peers may also make their way into the choir quietly in the items of business prior to the elevation ceremony, and exit just as quietly during the subsequent items of business, or (for shorter courts where only one Order has a scheduled elevation) sit for the duration of court in the choir. With either of these options, the time normally spent to summon the Order is bypassed, leading to even faster and more efficient courts.
A final note
This layout does require a bit more planning and orchestration to ensure that the choir seats are arranged appropriately and the peers know when they need to be in their seats. However, for the rare courts that include one or more elevations, this layout may prove to be worth the benefit to the Crown, candidate, peerage order, and audience.
If you decide to try this layout, please let me know how it goes!