Ladies in Waiting

Ladies in Waiting

Having close friends is an important part of the female  experience 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 joy 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 her clothing. They were gatekeepers, and during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I small bribes were often offered to her ladies for access to Her Grace. The Queen was expected to assist her maids of honor in becoming polished and finding a good match, and they were in turn to be loyal and obedient. Married women had more freedom, better rooms, and usually, closer 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 (courts)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 the personal choice of the queen or the king, but 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 even 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 the political balance in mind 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 closest personal friends in closest confidence. Of course Queen Katherine of Aragon understandably preferred the ladies who had served her for most of her life right till her death. 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.” Parr chose like-minded friends when she could. Queens often surrounded themselves with family members, hoping that they could trust in their loyalty because as the queen gained more influence, so advanced her family.

Sadly in Queen Anne Boleyn’s case, family seems to have been less than worthy of her generosity and trust. Among those thought to have betrayed her in the end were her sister-in-law, Jane Parker, Lady Rochford, and some of her Howard relatives. Among those better deserving of her friendship were the Wyatt sisters and Nan Zouche, all of whom shared Anne’s joie de vivre and reformist sympathies, and remained true friends to her till the end.