So You Want to Be a … Lady-in-Waiting?
For a young woman of noble birth who wished to be at the center of court life, an appointment as Lady-in-Waiting to a princess, duchess or queen was highly coveted.
To be selected as a Lady-in-Waiting was considered a mark of high social standing and an honor for the family. These ladies were not servants, but more like companions. They were mostly unpaid. After all, it was a privilege to be chosen.
They did get free room and board, as did their horses. They were also given the proper clothes befitting the status of whom they were waiting upon. (So cool! Free clothes.) And if they were of noble birth, these ladies had servants of their own, who were also given board.
But it wasn’t for wages that noble and high-ranking families jostled to have their wives and daughters selected … especially to be in the Queen’s service. It was the close and intimate proximity to power and status. To be able to whisper a favor in a royal ear, or to gain the confidence and trust of your mistress, or to petition on behalf of one’s family or kinsmen, these were the perks of a Lady-in-Waiting.
Do You Have the Proper Skills?
So what exactly does a Lady-in-Waiting do besides keep the Queen company? The skills required to be a Lady-in Waiting are not difficult and certainly not far afield of the skills already taught to young noblewomen at the time. Embroidery appears to be at the top of the list. Ladies spent a great deal of time on their needlework and sewing. They made undergarments and shifts for themselves, others, their queen or princess.
For instance, Katherine of Aragon made Henry VIII’s shirts. She continued doing so even when Henry had taken up with Anne Boleyn. It’s reported that when Anne found out that Katherine still performed this wifely duty, she threw a fit. To appease Anne, Henry no longer sent cloth to Katherine.
During the reign of her daughter, Elizabeth I, a story was circulated that Anne, while Queen, instructed her ladies to sew shirts as well. But they were not for the King, instead these handcrafted shirts were to be given to the poor. How pious and charitable of Anne – if true.
Anne and her ladies filled Hampton Court Palace with their embroidery and gave their works as gifts to the family and friends. Anne embroidered entwined H and A’s on nearly every work. (HA, HA, HA)
Ladies-in-Waiting were also expected to be musical, to play instruments and to dance. Many an hour was spent planning plays and other court entertainments. And of course, a knowledge of games, especially games of chance, came in enormously handy to keep your queen or princess amused.
So not too terribly difficult – fair of face, noble enough of birth, skilled with a needle, ability to dance well and play a good game of cards!
In return for this daily access to the very heart of ruling power, you are gone from home for long stretches of time. You did not get to see your own family or, if you were married raise your children. Your time was not your own. You put your mistress’ needs before your own – always!
It’s said Queen Elizabeth would get quite cross with a Lady-in-Waiting who fell in love or got pregnant. She expected complete and utter devotion to her service.
Which Lady-in-Waiting are You?
Since we’re at court, there is of course a hierarchy to being a Lady-in-Waiting. The most noble women in England are on the top rung. They are the Ladies of the Privy Chamber. The Privy Chamber is the queen’s private rooms. In the case of Queen Elizabeth, she would receive honored guests and ambassadors here, conduct business with her counsellors and in the evening pursue entertainments such as music and games with her ladies. Only the most senior ladies had access to the Privy Chamber.
Four of the Ladies of the Privy Chamber are given the exalted title of “Gentlewomen of the Bedchamber”. These are the most senior ladies – the most favoured. They saw to the more intimate needs of the queen – from bathing to dressing to applying makeup. In the case of Queen Elizabeth, Ladies-in-Waiting may have slept in the Privy Chamber with her. One may have even slept with her in her bed or in a trundle nearby.
The lowest rank, if you will, is Ladies of the Presence Chamber. They are there more for show. The Presence Chamber is a large room, often known as the Throne Room. It was open to the public for those who had business before the court.
An unmarried Lady-in-Waiting was called a Maid of Honor and often dressed in white. She carried the Queen’s train and attended to her in public. Women knew instantly where they ranked by where they were assigned.
There’s a fascinating story of Lady Katherine Grey who technically was Queen Elizabeth’s heir. Henry VIII had stipulated in his Act of Succession that if Elizabeth had no children, then the crown was to go to the heirs of his younger sister, Mary Tudor Brandon. Mary’s granddaughter was the ill-fated, Lady Jane Grey. Lady Jane’s younger sister was Katherine.
When Elizabeth became Queen and as long as she stayed unmarried and childless, Katherine was her heir – according to Henry VIII’s wishes. Needless to say, Katherine was very popular, especially with European princes and English nobles. The attention went straight to silly young Katherine’s head. Elizabeth was not happy with Katherine’s popularity and her proximity to the throne.
Under Mary I, Katherine had been appointed Lady of the Bedchamber as befitted her station as cousin to the queen, and great granddaughter of a King. But when Elizabeth came to the throne, she demoted Katherine to Maid of Honor – the lowest level of Ladies. Katherine (silly, silly girl) is said to have complained bitterly. She knew how out of favor she had fallen with her new status. Fortunately for Katherine, the political winds shifted again. Mary, Queen of Scots, became a larger threat than Katherine. To keep Katherine close, Elizabeth restored Katherine (temporarily) to her exalted position as Lady of the Bedchamber.
Queen Elizabeth had 28 Ladies-in-Waiting. Each of Henry’s wives had around 33 each. It’s no wonder the competition for these positions was fierce, especially to be a Lady-in-Waiting to the Queen. The Queen normally chose her ladies, although the King might interfere if a favor was needed of a noble family or a woman had caught his eye.
The Unintended Consequence of Being a Lady-in Waiting
While most noble ladies who are appointed to Lady-in-Waiting serve with piety and discretion, a few ladies have been the source of a great deal of grief for their queen, princess or royal duchess.
That’s because far too often, the King would take special notice of a Lady and seek to have his way with her. The Lady would find it very difficult to thwart the King in these matters. Closeness to the King gave one power at court and the closest one could be is in his bed.
Many were discreet, a pleasant diversion, and made no demands. If they were unmarried and should happen to find themselves with child, they were often married off to a knight or lesser noble quickly with a quiet settlement. Mary Boleyn and Bessie Blount, Maids of Honor to Katherine of Aragon, come to mind, as does Mary Shelton, Lady-in-Waiting to Anne Boleyn.
Some Ladies were not so discreet. Alice Perrers, Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Philippa, became the hated and despised mistress of Edward III. In the King’s final years, as he grew feebler, Alice wielded real power with the King.
Then of course, there were those Ladies-in-Waiting who used their position as a stepping stone to becoming Queen. Anne Boleyn, Lady-in-Waiting to Katherine of Aragon. Jane Seymour, Lady-in-Waiting to Anne Boleyn. Katherine Howard, Maid of Honor to Anne of Cleves. Henry VIII certainly dipped into his wives’ Ladies-in-Waiting when looking for a new diversion or a new wife.
Being a Lady-in-Waiting today is not what is once was. They mostly handle the queen’s correspondence and travel with the queen on her engagements. You often see her holding the many flower bouquets the queen receives or her umbrella. It appears sewing or card-playing are no longer necessary skills.
Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth has nine Ladies-in-Waiting. Diana, Princess of Wales had eight. The Princess Royal has eleven. Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall has three. Sophie, Countess of Wessex has one.
The younger royals, The Princesses of York and the Duchess of Cambridge have no Ladies-in-Waiting. Have we reached the end of a centuries-old tradition, found somewhat antiquated in our more republican and plebeian world?
While the modern royals are cutting back on their Ladies of Waiting, it still remains an unpaid, yet prestigious position.