‘You rang, Majesty?’ … an article about royal servants

With Downton Abbey back again, and an interesting-looking new series on domestic service beginning this week on BBC2, here’s a relevant article I wrote a couple of years ago for the BBC Who Do You Think You Are? magazine.  It’s about how go about your research if you think ancestors of yours may have worked in the royal household.

The chances that your ancestors might have worked for royalty are probably greater than you think.

The Georgian royal household, for example, was staggeringly vast.  The highest ranking of its members, the courtiers proper, were the lords and ladies in waiting.  These noblemen and women were glad to serve the king and queen in even quite menial ways because of the honour involved.

Beneath them were about 950 other royal servants, organised into a byzantine web of departments ranging from hair-dressing to rat-catching, and extending right down to the four ‘necessary women’ who swept the floor and emptied the ‘necessaries’ or chamber-pots.

If you want to know what these people looked like, you need only visit Kensington Palace.  There, in the 1720s, the artist William Kent painted portraits of forty-five royal servants, looking down upon palace visitors from the walls and ceiling of the King’s Grand Staircase.  It’s an extraordinary record of the faces to be seen ‘below stairs’ at court.

The eighteenth-century courtier Lord Chesterfield understood that those below stairs had great power, and that a history of the court should concentrate on the servants as well as the great:

  • ‘there is, at all Courts, a chain, which connects the Prince, or the Minister, with the Page of the back-stairs, or the Chambermaid.  The King’s Wife, or Mistress, has an influence over him; a Lover has an influence over her; the Chambermaid, or the Valet de Chambre, has an influence over both; and so ad infinitum.

The Royal Household’s staff list seemed to go on ad infinitum as well.  It contained a Decipherer, a Secretary for translating into Latin, an Embellisher of Letters to Foreign Princes, and forty-eight Chaplains who attended in shifts of four.  Then there were the Master of the Revels, the Surveyor of the Waterworks, the Keeper of the Lions in the Tower.  There were musicians and a dwarf comedian from Poland named Ulric Jorry.  Not least were the Clerk of the Spicery, the Yeomen of the Salt-Stores, and the three ‘confectionaries’ who made the king’s cakes.

Many of these people had to get used to constant changes of address.  In medieval times, the kings of England had moved constantly from castle to castle.  This was partly to maintain a physical presence in lawless areas, and partly because the royal household quickly consumed all the food available locally.  Henry VIII still travelled between nearly sixty different royal houses.  By Georgian times, the court was remained transient, moving between the palaces of St James’s for business, and Kensington or Hampton Court Palaces for pleasure.  All three would be largely superseded by Buckingham Palace after George III acquired it for his new wife, Queen Charlotte, but he still liked to retire to Windsor Castle or Kew Palace for relaxation.  Traces of this pattern of movement remain even today: the present queen is at Sandringham for Christmas, Buckingham Palace for business, Windsor Castle for weekends, and Balmoral for holidays.

By the eighteenth century, the more important courtiers served in shifts lasting a month or so before returning to their homes and families.  The lower, non-noble, servants lived permanently at the court, wherever it was.  Only a few were attached to particular palaces to keep them in good order while the court was elsewhere.

Jobs in the royal household were highly desirable because of the accommodation, the good food and security of tenure.  The pay, especially for women, was not generous, but there was always the chance of becoming a royal favourite.  The downside was the need to negotiate cut-throat court politics, and to obey the intricate rules.  The Maids of Honour were well-born young ladies employed to look decorative in the palace’s drawing room.  They lived in considerable luxury.  One described how:

  • We have people found us that clean our rooms and wash for us, so there is no expense of that kind; sheets and towels are also found, silver candlesticks, and china, (tea-things, I mean,) and sugar … we have by much the best table; no allowance of wine, but may call for what quantity and what sort we please: we have two men to wait.

On the other hand, a more experienced Maid wrote that ‘the life of a Maid of Honour was of all things the most miserable’ and she ‘wished that every woman who envied it had a specimen of it’.  It involved hours of watching and waiting, and a complete lack of privacy.  While on duty, Maids of Honour were not allowed to sit down, had to wear a uniform of immensely heavy hooped dresses, and were not allowed to cross their arms.   Yet they kept up their spirits with pranks and jokes, and all hoped to make good marriages.

Appointments at court were made on the basis of nepotism rather than merit.  In fact, there was a lively market in the sale of the ‘reversions’ of posts: a lump sum offered in advance to secure an upcoming vacancy.  People invested a lot of time building up the contacts to get a job.  Thomas Burnet, for example, spent a whole tedious half-decade at court without employment, and hung around in the palace drawing room every single day.  If a man ‘can hold out five years’, Burnet calculated, ‘tis morally impossible he should not come into play’, but he complained constantly about his ‘cursed Court attendance’.

Eventually Burnet got the job he wanted, but not so Peter Wentworth.  He was an equerry, who walked or rode alongside the king whenever he left the palace.  He longed to be promoted to the position of Groom of the Bedchamber, with more important duties.  But he lacked the self-confidence to push for it, and suffered from an ‘unaccountable foolish bashfulness’.  He drowned his disappointed hopes in the generous amount of alcohol available to the servants, who sat drinking every day between three and five.  We know so much about Wentworth because of the merry, scandalous, amusing letters he wrote describing his life at court.  But beneath the wit lay deep sadness.  ‘What I writ’, he said, ‘goes for the writing of a drunk fellow, & as such ought not to be valued’.  Nepotism, drinking, boredom: generally the royal household was a grand, impressive, but inefficient organisation.

At Kensington Palace, the important female servant was its formidable housekeeper, Mrs Jane Keen, and over the years she became the motor that kept the palace running.  Princess Amelia poked fun at the Earl of Hardwicke for bowing just as low to Mrs Keen as he did to the king.  She died a wealthy woman: the estate she left included £3500 and a portrait of herself wearing diamond earrings.

Lord Chesterfield considered that ‘footmen and maid-servants, all speak ill.  They make use of low and vulgar expressions, which people of rank never use’.  In appearance, though, the superior servants were sometimes indistinguishable from their betters.  Swept up in the eighteenth-century craze for fashion, an aristocrat might well have met ‘a puppy at an assembly, perhaps who gets £50 or £60 a year, dress’d in his bag [i.e. his wig] and sword and the next morning you’ll see him sweeping his master’s doorway’.  He would also ape his master’s arrogance: ‘the servants of a great man are all great men.  Wou’d you get within their doors, you must bow to the porter’.

The only really clear visual distinction was between the lowest, menial servants, who wore uniform or livery, and those above.  They were addressed differently: ‘if she is Mrs with a surname, she is above the livery and belongs to the upper servants’, it was explained, ‘but if she be Mrs only with her Christian name, as Mrs Betty, Mrs May, Mrs Dolly’, then she will ‘look as low’ as anybody.

The ‘below stairs’ areas of a royal palace could be rowdy, with running feet and fists ready to throw a punch, and unsavoury characters lurked in the corners.  There were complaints that ‘idle persons’, ‘vagrants & beggars’ were ‘commonly seen within the King’s palace’.  A royal wedding was marred by ‘bad company’ and ‘scrub people’, and no wonder, for footmen were seen in the coffee houses beforehand, selling the tickets intended for peers ‘to any who would purchase them for three shillings’.

A kind of committee called ‘the Board of the Green Cloth’ was the mechanism for regulating the workaday parts of the royal household.  Its officers took their name from an actual table or ‘board’, covered with a green cloth, around which their predecessors had met since the reign of King Edward IV.  Piles of tokens pushed across the table stood for provisions in and out.

The provisioning, cleaning and security of the palace was the responsibility of the Lord Steward, one of the great officers of the realm.  He, along with the Treasurer, the Comptroller, the Master and the Cofferer of the household, plus clerks, made up the Board of the Green Cloth.  Together they ran the entire below-stairs department, making contracts with suppliers and paying the bills.

The Board also maintained discipline, and had judicial responsibility for all offences committed in or near the court.  Before the Board appeared disobedient servants, pickpockets, prostitutes and the unruly scrum of chairmen touting for business who overcrowded the palace courtyards.

There was a continual tension between the Lord Steward’s Department (supervised by the Board of the Green Cloth) and the servants employed in the ceremonial, ‘above-stairs’, part of the palace, which was controlled by the Lord Chamberlain.  The Lord Chamberlain’s servants griped about the poor food provided by the Lord Steward’s department: so little meat that they ‘had much ado to make a dinner’.  They also complained that the Lord Steward’s men were so mean with candles that the courtiers ran ‘their noses against the hangings’ in the dark.  ‘Do not suffer us to be governed by the Board of Greencloth!’ was a cry frequently heard among the Lord Chamberlain’s servants.

Punishments were exceptionally harsh for servants caught stealing from the royal palaces.  In 1731, servant Sarah Matts was put in prison for ‘feloniously stealing a quilt’ out of a palace guard-room.  While incarcerated, she brought an accusation of rape against a guard.  With heart-rending circumstantial detail, she reported how he ‘thump’d me’ and then he flung me a-cross the bed, so as my head hung down, and he tore my legs asunder … I scream’d, and cry’d out, Murder; but he would lie with me.

A character witness who appeared in support of Sarah’s assailant said that she was a prostitute, just ‘a common vile woman’, who deserved no better.  He announced that she’d previously been seen ‘in bed with a man’ in the guards’ room at St James’s Palace, and that ‘the greatest black-guard may lie with her’ for sixpence.

It comes as no surprise, given the blackening of her character, that her attacker was found innocent, and poor Sarah was subjected to a whipping.

Matters took a turn even worse for one Catherine Pollard, employed for thirty years in the silver scullery at Kensington Palace.  She was accused of stealing four silver plates, and of selling them to a dealer who performed the treasonable action of filing off the royal arms.  He, however, escaped punishment, by giving evidence against Catherine herself, while she was tried for a capital felony at the Old Bailey.

The plea she made in her own defence was pitifully inadequate: ‘I believe there was a spell set upon me, or else I was bewitch’d’.  She was condemned to death.

There were regular attempts made to reform the royal household.   In the seventeenth century Charles II made great cutbacks, including the custom for everyone working at court to dine there.   After a few years, though, the greedy and the needy crept back to the court’s generous dinner tables.

Really radical re-organisation and retrenchment came only in the nineteenth century.  The new Queen Victoria was astonished to discover that she needed to ask two separate people to make her a fire: the Lord Steward’s department could lay it, but only the Lord Chamberlain’s men could light it.  Prince Albert was put in charge of a great shake-up, and monstrous, bloated, corrupt excesses of the Georgian royal household were seen no more.

Key sources


You can consult eighteenth-century publications like The Present State of the British Court, a periodic publication listing the royal household’s current membership.  But an easier starting point is the online ‘Database of Court Officers 1660-1837’, including servants, compiled by R.O. Bucholz and available here.


To drill deeper, you need to wade through the voluminous accounts kept by the Lord Steward’s and the Lord Chamberlain’s departments.  These documents at The National Archives list payments for food, furnishings and fuel as well as naming numerous employees.  Further details about individuals might emerge if you write to the Royal Archives, Windsor Castle.


The royal palaces still in use by the Royal Family are run by the Royal Household, but you can still visit Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace, Clarence House or Holyrood in Edinburgh.  Those no longer in occupation are run by the charity Historic Royal Palaces.  Hampton Court, Kensington, the Tower of London and the Banqueting House in Whitehall are open to visitors nearly every day; Kew Palace during the summer only.


Another important group of people associated with the royal palaces are the grace-and-favour residents given the use of unneeded palace accommodation by the Lord Chamberlain.  This was a feature in particular of life at the enormous Hampton Court Palace after the court moved elsewhere.  The resources produced by Historic Royal Palaces include a Gazetteer of all the known grace-and-favour residents.

Sorry I had to turn the comments off,  for some reason this article has been spammed to pieces!

One thought on “‘You rang, Majesty?’ … an article about royal servants

  1. Mel

    Hello, I was wondering if you knew what a male servant who opened the doors to rooms above the stairs might be called? From medieval times on wards. Thanks so much.


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