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A Duke and the Mistress of the Robes

Fri, 01/12/2018 - 3:05pm -- WCVE

Musings on the Monarchy: Victoria Season 2, Episode 1
By: Ellen LeCompte

How I Developed a Fascination for the Monarchy
I have been hooked on the British Royals ever since my grandmother thrust a copy of a biography of Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret called The Little Princesses at me with the words “here - you should like this. It is about two little girls.” I was eight and it was our annual summer visit to Grandmamma’s in Connecticut – a rather formal household with no near neighbors (i.e. no local children with whom to play.) Clearly, this was an act of desperation on both our parts – hers to entertain a bored granddaughter and me to have something – anything at all - to do. So began for me a lifelong fascination with the Monarchy. That book was the start of what has become a personal library on the subject that now fills a small room and numbers several hundred volumes, objects and pictures. Needless to say, Sunday evenings at our house are eagerly anticipated for the Masterpiece series Victoria!

Not Just “Any” Duke!
Victoria is a wonderful glimpse into the life of a woman who is usually thought of as dressed in black; old, round and stern during a period considered prudish; boring and filled with ugly heavy carved furniture. Victoria viewers are getting a real ‘reset’ on what we knew – or thought we knew – of this iconic woman and the world in which she lived. As Americans though, sometimes a few references and situations that are obvious to British audiences can go sailing right over our heads. In this first episode of the second season, for instance, it starts off with the political leaders huddled over a map of Afghanistan, with one older gentleman making some strong comments on strategy. Only referred to as “Duke” throughout, unless you are a student of English history, you may not get the connection. “The Duke” is, in fact, Sir Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, a former Prime Minister and perhaps one of the most famous military generals ever, defeating Napoleon at Waterloo and becoming one of England’s greatest heroes. Of course Victoria would want his advice on the war in Afghanistan!

Ladies in Waiting and the Mistress of the Robes
And, just what on earth are “Ladies of the Bedchamber” and what is the big deal about them? That is a bit more complicated and goes back to the Middle Ages. Royal Households have always had strict ‘organizational charts,’ to use a 20th century term. The King and Queen are at the top, and from there, carefully defined duties and positions (with their associated power and influence) go down to the lowliest of the scullery maids and boot boys. Back in the day (think big drafty castle/palace), access to the monarch was closely controlled for reasons of prestige and security. The Royal Bedroom was the Sanctum Sanctorum and was as much an office for the inner circle as a place for the crowned head to sleep. Gentlemen/Ladies of the Bedchamber were a combination of attendants and advisors who wielded tremendous influence. On a Queen’s side there were three levels of Ladies in Waiting to be navigated, typically wives or widows of peers above the rank of earl, with the most important one a Duchess holding the title of Mistress of the Robes. Keep in mind that always - even today – the protocol of precedence is rigid and absolute, so the Mistress of the Robes would be the most senior peeress of the group whose husband’s title was the oldest. Enter Diana Riggs as Victoria’s Mistress of the Robes in Season 2, as she is the wife of The Duke of Buccleuch (pronounced ‘Buckloo’) and a member of the Peel Ministry.

The Cast of Victoria shares about the addition of Dame Diana Rigg to the series.

Falling under the station of the Mistress of the Robes are the remaining roles: Women of the Bedchamber, the Ladies of the Bedchamber and the Maids of Honour (unmarried girls from Good Families.) The task of the Ladies of the Bedchamber was to act as the go-between for the Queen and the Women of the Bedchamber, who had the task to wait upon the queen by helping her wash, dress and undress, and so forth. Some kings (Henry VIII and Charles II come to mind) viewed them (particularly the Maids of Honour) as ‘fair game’ for, shall we say, ‘personal pleasure.’ Ever heard of Anne Boleyn and Nell Gwynn? Given that aristocratic marriages were essentially business transactions rarely based on love, no wonder that there has always been an element of ‘hanky panky’ at the court - hence the roaming eye of Albert’s father and the heated looks between Prince Albert’s philandering brother, Prince Ernest, and Harriet, the Duchess of Sutherland in the first episode of Season 2.

By Victoria’s time, the Women of the Bedchamber no longer actually dressed The Queen or tended to her personal needs (such as emptying the chamber pot as they were expected to do in the beginning) but served more as companions and secretaries – which still meant that they had the ear of the country’s highest authority. There was a huge ruckus at the beginning of Victoria’s reign when there was a proposed change in Prime Ministers – Melbourne was a Whig and wanted to retire; Peel was a Tory and naturally wanted Tory ladies surrounding the Queen. Victoria would have none of it, feeling a loyalty to her friend Melbourne as well as a genuine fondness for the Whig ladies, her first real friends – remember, her mother kept her practically in solitary confinement at Kensington Palace when she was growing up. As a result, Peel refused to become Prime Minister and Melbourne had to stay on for a few more years.

Today, the role has evolved and is generally lumped under the catch-all title of ‘Lady in Waiting.’ These women function more like social auxiliaries, helping the royals - Queen, Princess, Royal Duchess, etc. - entertain dignitaries and dealing with correspondence. If you write The Queen, you will generally get a gracious answer – from a Lady in Waiting. Still, the basic purpose has remained the same across the centuries: to provide appropriate companionship and wise counsel for a busy woman who can't exactly make friends by joining a book club or popping around to the local pub. Technically there are still distinctions: Ladies of the Bedchamber are always peeresses who attend the queen on major public occasions; but daily waiting is left to the Women of the Bedchamber who work two weeks on, four weeks off. The Women attend the Queen on public occasions (all those bouquets!), reply to letters, do Her Majesty's 'personal' shopping and inquire after retainers who are ill. Traditionally, the position has been held by the daughters of peeresses and is unpaid – though they do get a small dress allowance and a place to stay at Buckingham Palace when they are on duty. Nice gig if you can get it!


About Ellen LeCompte
As the President Emeritus of the Richmond Branch of the English-Speaking Union, Ellen LeCompte is more than just an anglophile who has spent the last 50 years traveling from Virginia to the UK, attended British boarding school, studied at Cambridge and has a 17th century cottage in the Cotswolds. Since 2003 she has been recognized by Travel + Leisure magazine as their UK expert. A graduate of the College of William and Mary with a degree in international economics, Ellen started LeCompte Travel in 2001 organizing small, customized special interest tours and private itineraries featuring special access exclusive experiences with personalized themes such as Masterpiece Theatre, historic events, decorative arts, gardens, and architecture. And yes, she has met The Queen! Twice.

About the English-Speaking Union
The Central Virginia Branch of the English-Speaking Union (ESU) is a non-profit educational organization whose mission is to strengthen and broaden ties among the worldwide English-speaking community. Recognizing that English is a shared language that fosters global accord and goodwill by providing educational and cultural opportunities for students, educators, and members, the ESU is linked to over 70 ESU branches in the United States, as well as a network of branches in over 50 countries. The Central Virginia Branch is committed to supporting the English language in the Richmond area by providing scholarships to teachers for summer study in the UK as well as sponsoring Richmond's 'Bardathon,' a platform for high school students to experience the plays of William Shakespeare.