Reading in Progress: Ladies in Waiting From the Tudors to the Present Day by Anne Somerset

Ladies in Waiting: From the Tudors to the Present Day - Anne Somerset

If you have the idea that the English court was a hotbed of sex and intrigue - well, yes, it was. But it was also a lot less glittery than that mental image, and a lot more uncomfortable. I'm not getting this solely from Somerset btw [insert obligatory Lucy Worsley moment] - other court histories led me to her book (which I'm enjoying hugely).


A rough idea of the court: imagine something like a college dorm (in the US, as I'm not sure how this compares to elsewhere). Everyone involved lives in the same large building; men and women mostly live in different areas but are still (somewhat) accessible to each other. Forget having any privacy or time to yourself. If you're not attending your betters, then you're stuck waiting in the same room with your peers. Women might use that time to sew, but usually you'll be sitting and talking - and if you're younger the older ladies will be keeping an eye on you, expecting you to get into trouble (usually with men). As a lady "dancing attendance" might be literally what you do sometimes - to divert the queen you and some friends might do a few dances for her enjoyment, in her private chambers. (Depending on which queen this was of course - Henrietta enjoyed this.) If you talk to anyone else outside your usual group - women to men, for instance - usually there will be witnesses listening in. Nothing stays private for long and everyone gossips about everyone and everything because that's what most people do to kill time. Also gossip is usually directly related to your life and your future, so it's vital that you keep up to date. (There might be a quiz later from the queen.)


Everyone is stuck in this same small space, living in close quarters, for years. You may get to travel a bit - that's usually dictated by when the house/palace start to stink. Specifically when the building smells too much like a latrine. [insert moment of praise for modern sewage systems!]


Entertainment completely depends on what the royals want to do, but often you'll find yourself staying up very, very late. No matter how tired you are you're not allowed to go to bed - you have to wait for the word from the royals. Of course you'll still need to be up in the morning (depending on what your duties are).


Now Ladies of the Court - tons of great little history moments in here. (I foresee much quoting in my future.) Here's one I really wish I'd been able to post on New Year's, because it seems fitting.


The setup: It's 1606 and the court of James I is having a masque in honor of the visiting Danish king. Masques were elaborate productions of acting, song and dance - partly an excuse for the court ladies to dress up and show off in fantastic costumes, since they were the ones who usually performed the dancing parts. But because the previous court of Elizabeth I had been very serious and a tad stuffy, this younger court was a lot more wild in comparison. Everyone drank. A lot. And here is what happens when the ladies playing parts in a masque are drunk, and are dressed up as allegorical figures:


p 100:

"The Lady who did play the Queen's part did carry most precious gifts to both their Majesties; but forgetting the steps arising to the canopy overset her caskets into his Danish Majesty's lap, and fell at his feet... Now did appear in rich dress, Hope, Faith, and Charity: Hope did assay to speak, but wine rendered her endeavours so feeble that she withdrew and hoped the King would excuse her brevity; Faith was then all alone...and left the court in a staggering condition. Charity came to the King's feet, and seemed to cover the multitude of sins her sisters had committed; in some sort she made obeisance and brought gifts... She then returned to Hope and Faith, who were both sick and spewing in the lower hall."

[Somerset quotes that bit from John Harington's Nugae Antiquae, Ed. Thomas Park, 2 vols, 1804]


You know you're getting the grittier version when the ladies are spewing in the hall.