When Queen Alexandra chose her ladies in waiting she prudently surrounded herself with elderly and plainish ones, who did not tempt her susceptible husband Edward VII. ‘These are your wives?’ the Shah of Persia solicitously enquired. ‘They are old and ugly. Have them beheaded and take new and pretty ones.’
In earlier times, beheading was a definite possibility (one of Catherine Howard’s ladies was executed) and court life was, to say the least, fraught. As Anne Somerset reports, Tudor courts were a maelstrom of intrigue, surreptitious liaisons, political in-fighting, struggles for the ear of the monarch and rampant greed.
Elizabeth I’s ladies were terrified of her: her sarcasm was withering and, if in a real rage, she would beat them fiercely, once breaking a girl’s finger. In her eyes, their greatest sin was wishing to get married and therefore leaving her service. Love affairs often got the same treatment. One reason for the Queen’s strictness on matters of morality was her justifiable desire for law and order in her court: violence always lurked beneath the velvet and pearls, and most men were armed.
Not much changed with the Stuarts. Drunkenness was a feature of James I’s court — the King himself was a toper —and beauty was still a woman’s best asset. The favourite lady of Charles I’s wife, Henrietta Maria, was Lady Carlisle, so brilliant and such a beauty that half the court was in love with her. As he watched her take her daily walk at Hampton Court, the poet John Suckling avidly undressed her with his eyes: ‘I was undoing all she wore/And had she walked but one turn more/Eve in her first state had not been/So naked or so plainly seen.’
With the Restoration and Charles II’s marriage to Catherine of Braganza there was a scramble for places at court, where employment could be highly lucrative.