Monday, April 23, 2012

English Ladies in Waiting

by Sandra Byrd
Having close friends is an important part of most women's lives from girlhood through womanhood. These friends might be especially valuable when the woman's position is exalted, public, and potentially treacherous - such friendships take on an even more important role. When Oprah Winfrey started her empire she brought along Gayle King. When Kate Middleton was preparing to become Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge her sister Pippa was her constant companion. And when Anne Boleyn went to court to stay she took her friends, too. Among them was her longtime friend, who would ultimately become her Chief Lady and Mistress of Robes, Meg Wyatt.

Ladies in waiting were companions at church, at cards, at dance, and at hunt. They tended to their mistress when she was ill or anxious and also shared in her joys and pleasures. They did not do menial tasks - there were servants for that - but they did remain in charge of important elements of the Queen's household, for example, her jewelry and wardrobe. They were gatekeepers; during the reign of Elizabeth I small bribes were offered for access to Her Majesty. The Queen was expected to assist her maids of honor in becoming polished and finding a good match; they in turn were loyal, obedient, and ornaments of the court. Married women had more freedom, better rooms, and usually more contact with the Queen.

In her excellent book, Ladies in Waiting, Anne Somerset quotes a lady-in-waiting to Queen Caroline as saying, "Courts are mysterious places ... Intrigues, jealousies, heart-burnings, lies, dissimulations thrive in (court) as mushrooms in a hot-bed." This is exactly the kind of place where one wants to know whom one can trust. Somerset goes on to tell us that, "At a time when virtually every profession was an exclusively masculine preserve, the position of lady-in-waiting to the Queen was almost the only occupation that an upperclass Englishwoman could with propriety pursue." Although direct control was out of their hands, the power of influence, of knowledge, of gossip, and of relationship networks was within the firm grasp of these ladies.

Appointment was not only by personal choice of the King or Queen, but was a political decision as well. Queen Victoria's first stand took place when her new Prime Minister, Robert Peel, meant to replace some of the ladies in her household to reflect the bipartisan English government and keep an equal political balance. According to Maureen Waller in, Sovereign Ladies, Victoria was adamant. "'I cannot give up any of my ladies,' she told him at their second meeting. 'What ma'am!' Peel queried, 'Does Your Majesty mean to retain them all?' 'All,' she replied."

Keeping a political balance was a concern during the Tudor years, too. Ladies from all of the important households were appointed to be among the Queen's ladies, though she held her personal friends in closest confidence. Queen Katherine of Aragon understandably preferred the ladies who had served her for most of her life right up till her death. Queen Anne Boleyn numbered both Wyatt sisters among her closest ladies as well as Nan Zouche. Henry told his sixth wife, Queen Kateryn Parr, that she may, "choose whichever women she liked to pass the time with her in amusing manners or otherwise accompany her for her leisure."

Many Queens, like Elizabeth I regularly surrounded themselves with family members, in her case, often those through her mother's side, hoping that they could trust in their loyalty and perhaps, like all of us, because they simply enjoyed the company of those they loved best.

Sandra Byrd is the author of the series, Ladies in Waiting, three books which tell the stories of Queen Anne Boleyn, Queen Kateryn Parr, and Queen Elizabeth I from the point of view of one of their ladies. To learn more, please visit my website!  


  1. Great post.

    I've read a fair bit about ladies in waiting and it seems to me they came in 2 flavors: First, long-time family friends and retainers. I think of the ladies who came with Mary of Guise to Scotland when she married James V, whose daughters (and their husbands) later served Mary, Queen of Scots and THEIR sons served James VI/I. Consider the loyalties that rode out those turbulent times (which is the subject of my novel).

    The other flavor is, of course, the social climber - Anne Boleyn to Katherine of Aragon; Jane Seymour to Katherine; and on and on.

  2. Great post Sandra! I love learning more about this time period and I love your series! Thanks for sharing : ) Megan Scott

  3. Good thought, QueenMaryFan. I think that there was definitely the "political" appointment, too. Noble families who could not be overlooked and their wives/daughters also served. And I found some, through research, that started out as one of the three but in the end became true friends! Thank you, Megan. I appreciate your enthusiasm!


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