What does a lady in waiting do?

I presume that it’s more than just waiting to be a lady.

How to be a Lady-in-Waiting

Aro, you do realise that that page isn’t for real, or, at least, isn’t about ‘real’ ladies-in-waiting?

A proper answer to the OP was be that they’re really just the royal equivalent of a PA. They also provide a queen or princess with some female friends to hang out with. The phrase ‘in waiting’ means little more than in residence, in the sense that they take turns to live at court so that one of them can be on call round the clock.

In the past, being a lady in waiting was a position of high honor. Your family had to be of good birth, and wealthy enough to afford the clothing that being in court required, which was no mean feat in the days of diamonds sewn on skirts.

Ladies in waiting were not maids in the strictest sense: they had servants of their own. They were more of a compainion/chaperone for the queen. There were “regular” maids to do all of the grunt work. A lady in waiting’s duties might include reading to the queen, helping her with embroidery projects, playing music, or just gossipping to entertain her.

Being a lady in waiting meant that you were in the eye of all of the highly placed courtiers. . . . which could spell a good marriage. If the king himself took an interest in you, it could mean wealth for your family. That’s why the positions were so sought after.

Lissa, it was never that simple, except in the pages of popular (and not so popular) royal histories. Several generations of careless historians have confused the whole issue by conflating several different types of historical court positions and then anachronistically applying a modern job description to them.

The term ‘lady-in-waiting’ is not some olde-worlde term dating back to medieval antiquity. The earliest use cited by the OED dates from 1862 and then probably only as an informal term. So far as I can work out, it was not used by the British royal household as an official job description until the twentieth century. Spot-checking the lists of royal servants in successive editions of Whitaker’s Almanack suggests that by the early 1920s it was being used in some of the royal households, but only those of the more minor royal ladies, such as the Duchess of Albany and Princess Beatrice. No British queen regnant, queen consort or queen dowager employed a lady-in-waiting until 1952 when the present Queen retained the four ladies-in-waiting she had used as Princess Elizabeth.

Of course, earlier generations of English/British royal ladies had employed female companions, but these were not ‘ladies-in-waiting’ and there were crucial differences between the duties of those companions. (Applying the term to positions at foreign courts leads to even greater complications.) A lady of the bedchamber (or privy chamber) was not the same as a woman of the bedchamber (or privy chamber), who was different again from a maid of honour, who must also be distinguished from the general female hangers-on without official positions. Confusing them only multiplies the misconceptions.

(This site gives some idea of the hierarchy in some of the British female royal households in the eighteenth century. For at least 300 years before that, the basic structures had been similar.)

Almost invariably, these female servants were married. English/British queens took it for granted that their closest servants, the ladies of the bedchamber, would be peeresses, which meant that (almost by definition) they were married or widowed. The women of the bedchamber were commoners, but they too were usually married, as they were most often the wives of men employed elsewhere in the royal household. It was also thought to be more seemly for royal women, whether they themselves were married or not, to be surrounded by married women. The maids of honour, on the other hand (as their name suggests), were unmarried, but they were not really royal companions. Their function was instead to look decorative and to learn from the older women around them. They were the ones who were the great marriage catches. (It was true that the older women were well-placed to secure one of the maids as a husband for their sons.) Most of the young women who were taken to court to advertise their marriageability held no court positions. They had the same, very limited access to court functions as any other well-born visitors.

It is also an anachronism to assume that the senior female servants did not do ‘the grunt work’. That involves some very twenty-first century notions about the nature of service employment. One of the reasons why queens employed peeresses as their body servants was precisely in order to show who was superior. A queen would expect to be dressed by them, to be served their meals by them on bended knee (even when dining alone) and to be attended by them on their close stools. The honour however worked both ways. If a queen was honoured by having only peeresses perform such tasks, the peeresses could at least feel that they were being honoured by being asked to perform tasks reserved for peeresses. The other menial tasks within the queen’s private apartments were performed by her necessary woman or by her male servants. Unlike some other departments within the royal household, members of the bedchamber were not allowed to delegate their duties to their own servants because that would have meant allowing those servants into the holy of holies, the queen’s private apartments.

Much of this remained true until it began to change during the course of the nineteenth century. However, even when actual ‘ladies-in-waiting’ appeared, they did not replace the ladies or women of the bedchamber. Those positions still exist.


**APB, ** I was aware of all of the facts above, but thought that the “simple” explanation might answer the OP’s questions.

You are correct in saying that histories sometimes lump all of the Queen’s ladies under the catch-all term of “lady in waiting,” leading to a lot of needless confusion.

What I meant was that a peeress wouldn’t be the one who cleaned the fireplace or scrubbed the floor. Those tasks would have been left to others.

I’m sorry. I should have been clearer. Your explanation was marvellous.

I’ll tell you later.