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.
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."