Are you descended from the servants of royalty?

By Guest, 16 May 2018 - 4:01pm

As Britain prepares to celebrate the royal wedding, Catherine Curzon reveals the wide range of roles our ancestors could have filled as servants to historic kings and queens - some more pleasant than others

george iv coronation procession
George IV's coronation procession in 1821 included Anne Fellowes, who scattered herbs and petals in his path (Credit: Getty Images)

When George IV swept into Westminster Abbey for his coronation in 1821, at the head of the grandest procession in the land was Anne Fellowes, scattering an aromatic blend of petals and herbs in the king’s path. It marked the last gasp – to date – of the British court’s official herb-strewer. 

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When we think of the royal court, it’s easy to imagine a glamorous world of fashion and romance. But like any vast organisation, the monarch’s household required an enormous machine at its back to keep the home fires burning, the horses watered and the red carpet dusted with herbs.

There were innumerable jobs available to those who worked in the palaces, and from the lowliest to the most senior everyone had a part to play. But roles such as doctor, equerry and the far-from-enviable groom of the stool were certainly more intimate than others.

At the top of the heap, with responsibility for keeping the monarch in good health, sat the physician to the king or queen. The importance of this role can’t be overstated, for this was a world when the death of a monarch could have catastrophic consequences, with pretenders and would-be invaders waiting at the doorstep. One of the most scientifically significant holders of this post was Matthias de Lobel, physician to James I. A giant in the science of botany, he was quite a catch.

Although the pickings could be rich, the stakes were just as high because the physician was charged not just with treating illness, but with ensuring that the monarch didn’t get sick in the first place. This was easier said than done with the fast-living likes of Henry VIII, who didn’t even allow a mention of death in his presence. The death of a monarch could lead to sleepless nights for their subjects, too.

Held in the special collections of Leeds University library, the diaries of antiquarian Ralph Thoresby offer an insight into the anxiety that gripped the nation following the death of Queen Anne. As the public waited for George I to arrive from Hanover, they were all too aware of the Jacobites poised north of the border. Thoresby was terrified of “the dreaded invasion of the Pretender with an army of French and Irish”, and wasn’t the only one. He added, “I was deeply concerned at this matter, and so were most persons, as 
was evident by their very countenances.”

Woodcut of the Royal College of Physicians
The Royal College of Physicians holds the revealing diaries of Queen Victoria's royal physician (Credit: Getty Images)

Royal physicians

Of course, even a live monarch wasn’t necessarily a healthy one. Perhaps the most famous episode of illness that befell a sovereign was the notorious madness of George III. Francis Willis, the clergyman turned doctor who was charged with his care, was brought in as a specialist by Queen Charlotte after he successfully treated a courtier’s mental illness. It was the making of him.

Although his treatment wasn’t successful in the long term, Willis never looked back. Once the owner of a modest sanatorium, he became a celebrity. He received a £1,000 annuity for 21 years (by comparison, a naval surgeon earned £60), and opened a chain of clinics, employing his sons as doctors to cope with the demand for his services.

Yet with great power comes great responsibility, and no royal physician knew that better than Sir Richard Croft, physician to George III, George IV and his daughter, Charlotte of Wales. When Charlotte and her newborn son died after a disastrous 48-hour labour, the public went into hysterical mourning for the first People’s Princess. Linen-drapers ran out of black cloth, shops and national institutions closed for a fortnight and even gambling dens were shut for her funeral. The country had never seen anything like it before, and Croft blamed himself. Three months later, 
he took his own life.

Not all royal physicians endured such a fate. The Royal College of Physicians holds the diaries of Robert Ferguson, the doctor who presided over the birth of all nine of Queen Victoria’s children. He was given unparalleled access to Victoria and his diaries include intimate details of the royal household, including deeply personal exchanges between Victoria and Albert during her labours, when Albert “sat by her bedside during the whole time, cheered and sustained her – and covered her face with kisses in the acme of her sharpest throes”.

In 1973 the position of the royal physician changed to become ‘head of the Medical Household’. This appointee – so far all have been men – still acts as physician to the monarch, and is also the most senior member of an assortment of medical professionals who are charged with the care of the royal family and paid a nominal salary.

18th century woodcut of the Royal Mews
Equerries looked after the stables in the Royal Mews, shown here in the mid-18th century (Credit: Getty Images)

Equerries, grooms of the stool and more

In centuries past, the royal physician’s closest working relationship would be with a very particular member of the royal household indeed: the groom of the stool.

At his most basic level, the groom of the stool was responsible for attending the king as he used the close-stool, essentially a commode, and passing the contents of the chamber pot to his physicians for examination. Because of the level of access to the monarch required to perform the role, not to mention its unenviable duties, it was initially given to the young sons of influential courtiers. John Russell, 15th-century steward to the Duke of Gloucester, wrote The Book of Nurture (1460) as a guide to the duties of servants. He included a poem penned to help the groom of the stool remember his duties. It lists the most vital points of the role, from having a soft cushion to keeping a towel close at hand!

As the years went on, this intimate role developed into an administrative position, and by the era of Henry VIII the groom was one of the king’s closest confidants. The office-holders could expect rich financial rewards and titles, a far cry from the young men who were once required to hold the king’s washcloth.

By the time of the Stuarts this earthiest of offices had become known as the ‘groom of the stole’, suggesting that dressing the monarch was now the focus of the role rather than his intimate motions. The position existed until 1901 when it was abolished by Edward VII, the duties having been distributed to several courtiers with far less earthy job titles.

This wasn’t the only job that called for close access to the monarch. No king was complete without his equerries, who were usually members of the armed forces. Although their role was initially to care for the royal stables, eventually they became companions to the sovereign, always on hand should he need them. Though it might sound like a glamorous and well-connected life, it was arduous and poorly rewarded.

Under the auspices of the chief equerry, the king’s equerries were required to be in virtually constant attendance. Their period of service was three months on, nine months off, and the job was exhausting. Even when the equerries weren’t actively performing a duty they were required to stand there in the room in case the king needed them, like a piece of furniture.

Colonel Philip Goldsworthy, an equerry to George III, poured out his heart to the courtier Frances Burney, telling her that the nine months off left him adrift socially when he came out of service. Worse still were the three months of work, when Goldsworthy lamented that, “It’s a wonder to me we outlive the first month.” He lamented hours spent out hunting, “fagging away like mad from eight in the morning to five or six in the afternoon,[…] looking like so many drowned rats, with not a dry thread about us, nor a morsel within us – sore to the very bone, and forced to smile all the time!” And what reward did George III offer his loyal, frozen retainer? “Barley-water! 
I never heard of such a thing in my life!”

Equerries were usually army officers drawn from the families of loyal courtiers. In a letter from Queen Charlotte to the Prince Regent, she makes a case for the appointment of Mainwaring Onslow, a wounded soldier, to the role. Onslow was “obliged to give up his profession and to retire with so small a Patrimony,” she wrote. “Any place of Equerry [with a payment of] about 2 or 3 Hundred 
a year when an opportunity occurs would 
I believe make the family happy.”

Someone whose job entailed the exact opposite of standing around was our old friend, the herb-strewer. Unlike doctors, equerries and grooms of the stool, this was definitely a role for a woman. The first on record, Bridget Rumney, held the position from 1660 to 1671, under Charles II. After the Restoration, Rumney was given “the office of providing Flowers and Sweet Herbs for the Court, granted by the late king to herself and her late mother” (a royal laundress who died at the battle of Naseby in 1645).

Rumney received a salary of £24 for mixing a blend of petals and herbs and sprinkling it throughout the palace, thereby freshening the sometimes acrid London air. With average earnings being a meagre £13 in 1660, this was generous indeed. Herb-strewers eventually became a key part of the household, and George III and his son, the Prince Regent, were served by Mary Dowle, who strewed for four decades until her death. The role then became a ceremonial one and passed to Anne Fellowes, a friend of the Prince Regent. She was the last lady to strew herbs, for the position was retired when it came to the coronation of William IV due to budget cuts. To this day, however, the first unmarried lady in Fellowes’ line of descent can lay claim to the position should it be renewed.

From the sweet scent of herbs and petals to the rather different aromas suffered by the groom of the stool, the royal household was a world of dramatic contrasts in which everybody knew their place. Even if it happened to be next to the commode.

Coronation of George VI in the Illustrated London News
This depiction of coronation pageantry from The Illustrated London News includes Anne Fellowes (Credit: Getty Images)

Take your research further online

The National Archives
TNA holds the personal letters and papers of courtiers and members of the royal households, some of which are available online.

The Royal Archives
Based at Windsor, the archives hold a number of records relating to the royal household. Records of staff from 1526 to 1924 have been digitised on Findmypast.

Georgian Papers Online
This fascinating project is halfway through its five-year plan to digitise royal records from the Georgian era. Gems include account books from 1730 to 1733 listing staff and others paid for services.

The Royal College of Physicians
The RCP holds the diaries of Robert Ferguson, which provide an unparalleled glance into the life of a royal doctor. They can be viewed by appointment.

The Book of Nurture
Written in verse, and originally published in 1460, this is the perfect primer to find out more about earlier roles.

The Book of the Court
This 1844 edition of an examination of the offices and duties of the court makes for interesting reading.

The Diary and Letters of Frances Burney
Although members of the royal household didn’t often go on the record with their complaints, these tell-all diaries from courtier and writer Frances Burney (1752–1840) reveal a world of intrigue, hard work and very tired feet.

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