Greasing wheels of well-run monarchies
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.
THE ROLE OF GROOM OF THE STOOL PROVIDED GREAT ACCESS
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