Behind the Throne: A Domestic History of the Royal Household by Adrian Tinniswood - review by Sarah Bradford

Sarah Bradford

Never Knowingly Understaffed

Behind the Throne: A Domestic History of the Royal Household


Jonathan Cape 364pp £25 order from our bookshop

Entertaining, well researched, intelligent and easy to read, this book, as the author explains, is about the private lives of royalty from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II, and about how the business of looking after royalty has changed and yet in some respects remained the same over the past five centuries.

In the 21st century the size of Elizabeth’s household is around 1,200 – about the same as Charles II’s in the 1660s but an increase of one third on that of Queen Victoria, Elizabeth’s great-great-grandmother. ‘Some members of the current royal household are courtiers in the old-fashioned sense of the word, with ceremonial roles and titles which date back for centuries,’ Tinniswood writes. ‘Others – the Queen’s private secretary and her communications secretary – are modern courtiers, providing advice and managing relations with government and people. Others still are support staff in a more domestic sense’ – cleaning, cooking and making beds. In today’s world of the super-rich, the rituals of royal care are there to separate the sovereign from everyone else, to remind us that monarchs are not like us.

Elizabeth I’s spectacular summer progresses through England served to demonstrate royal grandeur and apartness as she travelled from palace to palace and house to house, her hosts vying with each other to shower her with gifts and lavish entertainments. In 1575 Elizabeth was out of London for almost twenty weeks, touring nine counties; in the course of her forty-five-year reign she made no fewer than twenty-two summer progresses and one winter foray into Kent. Lord Howard of Effingham had a glamorous dress made to give her when she visited his house in Chelsea, but unfortunately for him she preferred ‘the beautiful set of tapestries he had commissioned to celebrate the defeat of the Armada, so he had to give her those instead’. The queen travelled with her Privy Council ‘carrying out the day-to-day business of administering the nation’s affairs’, each councillor bringing his own household. Around 2,500 horses were needed to draw wagons loaded with supplies. They were accompanied by armed outriders, a spectacle in itself. The cost of entertaining the sovereign was therefore enormous. ‘When Elizabeth spent three nights at Harefield in Middlesex in the summer of 1602,’ Tinniswood explains, ‘Sir Thomas Egerton’s expenses, which included everything from 24 lobsters and 624 chickens to 48,000 bricks used in building new ovens to feed the Queen and her retinue, came to a colossal £2,013 18s 4d.’ Unsurprisingly some prospective hosts wrote to her secretary of state, Sir Robert Cecil, to say they couldn’t afford it. Others simply made themselves scarce. The Earl of Lincoln, faced with the imminent arrival of the queen and her entourage at his house in Chelsea, made sure he was out. Tinniswood’s account of Elizabeth’s court is laced with entertaining anecdotes from contemporary sources. Sir Francis Knollys, her treasurer of the household, his sleep disturbed by her ladies and maids of honour frisking in the next room, had the bold idea of ‘embarrassing them into silence’. Having asked a servant to bolt their chamber door so they couldn’t escape, he went into the room dressed only in his shirt and spectacles and read aloud a pornographic work by Pietro Aretino for over an hour.

It would be hard to imagine such a scene in the present. Members of Elizabeth I’s household were, according to the standards of our own time, crooks. For all the efforts of the dedicated Lord Burghley to diminish her household expenses, too many people ate and drank too much and expenditure remained stubbornly around 15 per cent over budget. Her successor, James I, was even worse, spending twice as much as she had. Tinniswood’s research is fascinating and revealing, particularly his discoveries in manuscript sources. Sir Thomas Chaloner, master of the household to James’s son Henry, Prince of Wales, was a medical scholar interested in chemistry and alchemy. To cure scurvy he advised, ‘Rub the places with powder of nitre, mixed with dog’s urine when it may be come by.’ Courts require palaces to house them and provide a setting for elaborate entertainments. James I commissioned Inigo Jones, ‘a champion of Renaissance classicism at a time when England was regarded as an intellectual backwater by the rest of Europe’, to build a new banqueting hall at Whitehall. It was also perhaps a step too far: it was from the Banqueting House that Charles I stepped out to his death on the scaffold.

Charles’s successor in power, Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, was a king in death if not in life. Tinniswood describes the pomp surrounding his lying in state in a room hung with black velvet after his death from pneumonia on 3 September 1658; at his funeral his effigy, mounted on a chariot, was ‘vested with royal robes, a sceptre in one hand, a globe in the other, and a crown on the head’. How much more royal can you get?

Monarchs and mistresses, courts and courtiers, politicians and prelates, frailties and foibles, Tinniswood depicts them all, from George III’s mad priapism to Edward VII’s passion for cars. ‘The motor has become as much a part of a courtier’s baggage as is the cigarette case,’ wrote an anonymous author in a society magazine in 1904. Tinniswood takes the story right up to the modern day, pointing out that in spite of all the changes in wider society, ‘there is still a lord chamberlain, a lord steward, a master of the horse, as there was in Elizabeth I’s day. There are still women of the bedchamber and a keeper of the privy purse and a mistress of the robes.’ There have also been Crawfies and Burrells. ‘Walk through the state rooms at Windsor or Buckingham Palace and those ghosts are there at your shoulder,’ he concludes. This is the most interesting and informative book on British royalty for many years. Read it and draw your own conclusions.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter