Kate Middleton's ladies-in-waiting: What will they do?

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
April 15 2011 7:10 AM

Waity Katie's Ladies

A brief history of British ladies-in-waiting.

Pippa Middleton, the sister of Kate Middleton. Click image to expand.
Pippa Middleton, sister of Kate Middleton

For most of Kate Middleton's public life, the term lady-in-waiting served as the linchpin for cruelly punning headlines about her slow-as-molasses-in-January romance with Prince William. Then, suddenly, the couple was engaged, and royal-watchers trained their lorgnettes on the question of whom "Waity Katie" would choose as her lady-in-waiting. More casual observers stateside wondered what exactly a lady-in-waiting does in this day and age, when the word lady is more often than not used ironically. "One looks upon all those things as dead and gone like 'Chop off her head,' " wrote the son of one newly appointed lady-in-waiting—a century ago. It's a role that seems even more out of step with the culture today, and yet the lady-in-waiting remains a vital part of the royal household.

The job certainly has evolved over the years. Many of the tasks that used to be allotted to ladies-in-waiting (helping her mistress dress, for example) have been assigned to other, paid members of the royal household. Today the ladies function more like social auxiliaries, helping the royal entertain dignitaries and manage her correspondence.Yet their true purpose has remained the same across the centuries: to provide appropriate companionship and wise counsel for a woman who can't exactly make friends by joining a book club and can't unwind with those friends over pints at a local pub.

Advertisement

Lady-in-waiting is itself a catchall term for a woman who serves a female royal. Among the queen's attendees, there are more specific, tiered job titles, though the system isn't strictly codified. The woman of the bedchamber is Her Majesty's right-hand woman and plays a key role in making decisions about social engagements. Ladies of the bedchamber work on a rotating basis throughout the year. Theirs is a more ceremonial role; they are on hand for events like the opening of Parliament or fetes for foreign dignitaries, and the queen may have anywhere from a handful to a dozen. Finally, the mistress of the robes, often a duchess, is the most senior of the ladies of the bedchamber; she helps schedule the rotation for the rest of the group and plays an important role in the queen's coronation.

One journalist and royal watcher, Charlie Jacoby, told me that the ladies-in-waiting's task is, more or less, to "look decorous"; they help lend an air of formal propriety to the court. But while ladies-in-waiting are expected to look respectable, they haven't always acted that way. More than a few, for example, have served a turn as their mistresses' majesty's mistress. Anne Boleyn might be the most famous lady of dual bedchambers, but Alice Perrers was reportedly the first to serve the court in that hybrid capacity. After Queen Philippa's death in 1369, the increasingly senile King Edward III gave his wife's jewels, among other favors, to the former damsel of the bedchamber. (The House of Commons eventually demanded that Edward stop funneling obscene amounts of money to her, and she was cut off and forced to swear on a cross that she'd never see the king again.) Some kings, of course, actively avoided seeking extracurricular distractions among their wives' aides.  According to Anne Somerset's exhaustive 1984 history Ladies-in-Waiting: From the Tudors to the Present-Day, King Edward the VII, son of Victoria, was a legendary philanderer, but his wife's ladies tended toward the geriatric—all the better to set off the queen's own considerable beauty. When the Shah of Persia visited in 1902. he was not impressed with their collective charms, and, misunderstanding their role at court, offered his royal colleague some friendly advice: "These are your wives? They are old and ugly. Have them beheaded and take new and pretty ones."

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Republicans Like Scott Walker Are Building Campaigns Around Problems That Don’t Exist

Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

The Best Way to Organize Your Fridge

The World

Iran and the U.S. Are Allies

They’re just not ready to admit it yet.

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

Farewell! Emily Bazelon on What She Will Miss About Slate.

  News & Politics
Politics
Sept. 16 2014 2:11 PM Spare the Rod What Charles Barkley gets wrong about corporal punishment and black culture.
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 16 2014 2:35 PM Germany’s Nationwide Ban on Uber Lasted All of Two Weeks
  Life
The Eye
Sept. 16 2014 12:20 PM These Outdoor Cat Shelters Have More Style Than the Average Home
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Slate Plus Video
Sept. 16 2014 2:06 PM A Farewell From Emily Bazelon The former senior editor talks about her very first Slate pitch and says goodbye to the magazine.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 16 2014 1:27 PM The Veronica Mars Spinoff Is Just Amusing Enough to Keep Me Watching
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 1:48 PM Why We Need a Federal Robotics Commission
  Health & Science
Science
Sept. 16 2014 1:39 PM The Case of the Missing Cerebellum How did a Chinese woman live 24 years missing part of her brain?
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.