Why I Love Writing About Ladies-in-Waiting
by Sandra Byrd
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 Queens went to court, and stayed, they took their friends, too.
In Tudor England, Anne Boleyn asked her longtime friend Margaret Wyatt to stay with her throughout her ascent and then her queenship; Wyatt ultimately became her chief lady and Mistress of Robes and likely served Anne all the way to the scaffold. Henry VIII told Queen Kateryn Parr that she should "choose whichever women she liked to pass the time with her in amusing manners or otherwise accompany her for her leisure," and she did - mostly reformers like herself. Queen Elizabeth I had ladies from all families and factions serve her, but she seemed to be closest to her Boleyn relatives, such as her cousin Katherine Carey Knollys, whom she could trust without question. Queens often surrounded themselves with family members, hoping that they could trust in their loyalty because as the queen gained influence, so advanced her family.
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. As such, they were intimate gatekeepers, there day and night. They were privy to the queen when she had her makeup off and was in her dressing clothes and were high enough born to share some secrets with. Because of this, they knew the real woman.
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 upper class 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. I like to write about women wielding whatever power they had, ascribed or taken, using their influence both overtly and subtly. Ladies-in-waiting did just that.
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." When ladies-in-waiting turned and became disloyal, as did Sarah Churchill to Queen Anne, they were very often severed from court.
When we twenty-first century women wonder who's got our backs, the answer is very likely our friends, whom we trust implicitly and walk through life with. Our friends wholly know us, strengths and blemishes alike. When I write about a queen, I want to know the woman behind the gown and crown. This is why I've loved writing about Ladies-in-Waiting.
Sandra Byrd is the author of more than three dozen books, including her series set in the Tudor Court, Ladies in Waiting. You can walk through a Tudor Hall and then read more about these books at www.sandrabyrd.com. Her books, To Die For and The Secret Keeper, were chosen by Library Journal as 2011 and 2012 Best Christian Book Picks. Be sure to check out her new book, Roses Have Thorns, which is set to release April 9th, 2013.
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