Greas­ing wheels of well-run monar­chies

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Melanie Reid Mandy Sayer’s

The Queen com­mutes to San­dring­ham by train, bowl­ing down the plat­form at King’s Lynn like the granny in the Giles car­toons. This, as royal mes­sages go, is more nu­anced than that of her pre­de­ces­sor, El­iz­a­beth I, who went “on progress” around the coun­try with a mile­long con­voy con­tain­ing 400 wag­ons and car­riages, armed out­rid­ers, ban­ners and bu­glers, 2400 horses and a court of about 350.

De­spite the 500-year gap, roy­alty’s pur­pose is un­changed: to ren­der it­self vis­i­ble, on its own terms, to its sub­jects. It is what kings and queens do. Their ex­is­tence de­pends on it.

Adrian Tin­nis­wood’s Be­hind the Throne is about the do­mes­tic staff who stage-man­age royal lives, from wash­ing their bed linen to groom­ing their horses. Repub­li­cans must look away or lo­cate their sense of the ridicu­lous.

Mag­nif­i­cence costs money, hence the vast ed­i­fice of comptrollers, trea­sur­ers, chap­lains, clerks, pri­vate sec­re­taries, lord stew­ards and lord cham­ber­lains, physi­cians, apothe­caries, maids of hon­our, cooks and pages, not to men­tion the ser­vants’ ser­vants, nec­es­sary to make it pos­si­ble.

And the staff them­selves were im­pos­si­ble to con­trol.

This book, eru­dite and amus­ing, bulges with colour­ful scenes of barely man­aged chaos at court. El­iz­a­beth I had 30 fe­male at­ten­dants. Off duty, the girls had fun. Sir Fran­cis Knollys, trea­surer of the house­hold, was trou­bled by their ten­dency to “frisk and hey about in the next room, to his ex­treme dis­quiet at nights”. In an at­tempt to em­bar­rass them into si­lence, he locked them in, en­tered the room wear­ing only a shirt and a pair of spec­ta­cles, and pa­raded up and down for an hour read­ing aloud from a porno­graphic work.

El­iz­a­beth I’s groom of the stool — lit­er­ally, the su­per­vi­sor of re­gal bowel move­ments — had an eas­ier job than some. The close stool was a vel­vet-cov­ered wooden box, with seats em­broi­dered ER, and the queen re­treated be­hind a canopy of crim­son silk and cloth of gold to hide from view.

For all its ob­vi­ous draw­backs, the role of groom of the stool pro­vided great ac­cess. Prox­im­ity to power was it­self power. Over time, the job evolved to that of a gate­keeper, one of the most pow­er­ful po­si­tions in the house­hold, and

Steak Diane — an over­cooked piece of rump drown­ing in a milky mush­room sauce — was con­sid­ered gourmet din­ing. Recipes cut from the pro­gres­sive Women’s Weekly in­cluded those by Char­les II’s time, paid £5000 a year, which was a con­sid­er­able for­tune.

The Palace of White­hall, the main res­i­dence of the English mon­archs from 1530 un­til 1698, teemed with free­loaders. Mar­ried ser­vants de­manded ac­com­mo­da­tion for their chil­dren and ser­vants in the palace too. Hun­dreds of ex­tra­ne­ous peo­ple ate and drank at royal ex­pense. With too many “hang­ing and haunt­ing in and about the court” there was pil­fer­ing.

Staff perks were con­sid­er­able: cooks, for in­stance, had the salmon tails; the grooms and pages the can­dle ends (it was not un­til Vic­to­ria’s for tuna mor­nay and cab­bage rolls, but most of the time we had to set­tle for burnt lamb chops and over-boiled veg­eta­bles. It was also the time when pre­served food reigned supreme: the only reign that the prac­tice of re­plac­ing all the can­dles in the palace ev­ery day, re­gard­less whether used or not, stopped). Ev­ery­one had their fin­ger in the pie. Royal pur­vey­ors un­der James I, it was reck­oned, col­lected up to 20 times as many goods as they de­liv­ered to the house­hold.

Char­les II was so lav­ish that Tin­nis­wood likens White­hall in his time to a vast apart­ment com­plex with ser­vice, restau­rants, shops and an ir­ri­ta­ble, but in­ef­fec­tual, res­i­dents’ as­so­ci­a­tion. The palace was clut­tered with peo­ple stand­ing around talk­ing, smok­ing and for­ni­cat­ing. There were 18 kitchens, a bar­ber, milliner, herb seller and squat­ters. Me­nials slept in clos­ets and cor­ners. Po­ten­tially there were 1500 peo­ple liv­ing there.

The rot set in with “Dis­mal Jimmy”, James II, who brought in re­forms and re­duced court num­bers to 600. Ge­orge III lived fru­gally, too, but pity his equer­ries and 17-strong med­i­cal team, faced with the mad king’s “most beastly in­de­cency both of word and ac­tions”, which led him to run around “for some hours” with an ob­vi­ous erec­tion, jump­ing on his wife and even his daugh­ter.

Vic­to­ria bat­tled costs through­out her long oc­ca­sion on which beet­root, as­para­gus and pineap­ple were eaten was when they were plucked from the ser­rated open­ing of a can.

Some more sur­prises for wide-eyed mill- reign. Dur­ing the fa­mous case of the bed­cham­ber, when two maids were found with VR mono­grammed linen at home, a string of wit­nesses de­scribed the dis­or­der at Buck­ing­ham Palace. There was a ridicu­lous lack of co­or­di­na­tion. One de­part­ment set a fire, an­other lit it.

Royal ex­penses started to come un­der pub­lic at­tack. Why did the queen have a hered­i­tary fal­coner (£1200 a year) when she had no hawk? Why were so many ladies of the court paid for do­ing ab­so­lutely noth­ing? Why a mas­ter of the ten­nis court when there was no court?

Star­tling sav­ings were achieved, but the house­hold was in­stinc­tively pro­tec­tion­ist. Pri­vate sec­re­tary Sir Henry Pon­sonby named his sec­ond son an equerry. The son wrote: “Af­ter break­fast … we all went to work. This was not easy in my case as I had noth­ing to do … till din­ner, when we all dressed up in knee breeches and stock­ings.” Equer­ries, re­marks Tin­nis­wood, be­came “mem­bers of the fam­ily, while al­ways re­mem­ber­ing that they never quite could be”. This, the in­ner life, is an in­ter­est­ing thread that he fails to ex­plore.

Vic­to­ria sat at the apex of 42 grand­chil­dren con­nected to most of the Eu­ro­pean crowned heads, who all vis­ited fre­quently. In­formed of ris­ing costs, she was ap­palled, re­fused to have her bed mended af­ter it broke, and de­creed that news­pa­per squares should re­place toi­let pa­per.

One glo­ri­ous char­ac­ter to emerge is Char­les Stam­per, Ed­ward VII’s me­chanic, who would lie along the bon­net fix­ing the car­bu­ret­tor while the royal car was trav­el­ling at 60km/h (the king hated de­lays of any kind) and car­ried a bu­gle to alert staff to open the gates. Po­lice es­corts be­gan, mar­shalling non-ex­is­tent crowds into side roads and shov­ing sleep­ing tramps into hedgerows, lest they im­pede royal progress.

From a fun, el­e­gant nar­ra­tive, Tin­nis­wood rather freezes as he moves into modern times. It’s a loss, for there are many res­o­nances. El­iz­a­beth II has about 1200 em­ploy­ees, the same as Char­les II in the 1660s, but an in­crease of onethird on Vic­to­ria. The royal house­hold may do dif­fer­ent things — writ­ing em­bar­rass­ing mem­oirs, for one — but char­ac­ters such as Bobo, the Queen’s dresser, Paul Bur­rell, Diana’s but­ler, and Char­les’s for­mer valet, Michael Fawcett, were cast cen­turies ago. Tin­nis­wood chooses not to go there.


is a colum­nist with The Times. en­ni­als: in the 60s; it was still il­le­gal for a woman to buy a vi­bra­tor; if she planned to marry she was forced to quit her job; and if, post-wed­ding, she wished to travel over­seas, she had to ob­tain writ­ten per­mis­sion from her bread­win­ning hus­band.

If this same mar­ried woman wanted to di­vorce her hus­band, she had to doc­u­ment her­self hav­ing an af­fair or doc­u­ment her­self pre­tend­ing to have an af­fair.

The arts of the time suf­fered from the same power im­bal­ances and nar­row-mind­ed­ness: in 1973 six posters of the statue David for sale in a Mel­bourne book­shop were seized and de­stroyed by the lo­cal vice squad.

What starts off as a gen­tle and af­fec­tion­ate glance at the past by Glover grows more and more po­lit­i­cal as he con­tin­ues to nar­rate, be­com­ing, as he rightly states, “an ar­gu­ment about the pos­si­bil­i­ties of progress”. The Land Be­fore Avo­cado would make the per­fect fes­tive gift for baby boomers nos­tal­gic for their ado­les­cence and for mil­len­ni­als cu­ri­ous about an alien time, not so long ago, when avo­cado was merely an avail­able colour in a range of match­ing ket­tle and toaster sets. most re­cent book is Mis­fits & Me: Col­lected Non-Fic­tion.

The young princesses Mar­garet and El­iz­a­beth in a de­tail from the cover of Adrian Tin­nis­wood’s book

A drive-in movie theatre in Syd­ney’s Chul­lora in 1956

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