Behind the Throne

A Domestic History of the British Royal Household


By Adrian Tinniswood

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An “enchanting” upstairs/downstairs history of the British royal court, from the Middle Ages to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II (Wall Street Journal). Monarchs: they’re just like us. They entertain their friends and eat and worry about money. Henry VIII tripped over his dogs. George II threw his son out of the house. James I had to cut back on the alcohol bills. In Behind the Throne, historian Adrian Tinniswood uncovers the reality of five centuries of life at the English court, taking the reader on a remarkable journey from one Queen Elizabeth to another and exploring life as it was lived by clerks and courtiers and clowns and crowned heads: the power struggles and petty rivalries, the tension between duty and desire, the practicalities of cooking dinner for thousands and of ensuring the king always won when he played a game of tennis. A masterful and witty social history of five centuries of royal life, Behind the Throne offers a grand tour of England’s grandest households.


When you appear… show yourself gloriously, to your people; like a god, for as the holy writ says, we have called you gods.

THE MARQUESS OF NEWCASTLE’S letter of advice to Charles II, 1659

The King’s Breakfast

The King asked

The Queen, and

The Queen asked

The Dairymaid:

“Could we have some butter for

The Royal slice of bread?”

The Queen asked

The Dairymaid,

The Dairymaid

Said, “Certainly,

I’ll go and tell

The cow


Before she goes to bed.”

The Dairymaid

She curtsied,

And went and told

The Alderney:

“Don’t forget the butter for

The Royal slice of bread.”

The Alderney

Said sleepily:

“You’d better tell

His Majesty

That many people nowadays

Like marmalade


The Dairymaid

Said “Fancy!”

And went to

Her Majesty.

She curtsied to the Queen, and

She turned a little red:

“Excuse me,

Your Majesty,

For taking of

The liberty,

But marmalade is tasty, if

It’s very



The Queen said


And went to His Majesty:

“Talking of the butter for

The royal slice of bread,

Many people

Think that


Is nicer.

Would you like to try a little



The King said,


And then he said,

“Oh, deary me!”

The King sobbed, “Oh, deary me!”

And went back to bed.


He whimpered,

“Could call me

A fussy man;

I only want

A little bit

Of butter for

My bread!”

The Queen said,

“There, there!”

And went to

The Dairymaid.

The Dairymaid

Said, “There, there!”

And went to the shed.

The cow said,

“There, there!

I didn’t really

Mean it;

Here’s milk for his porringer

And butter for his bread.”

The queen took

The butter

And brought it to

His Majesty.

The King said

“Butter, eh?”

And bounced out of bed.

“Nobody,” he said,

As he kissed her


“Nobody,” he said,

As he slid down

The banisters,


My darling,

Could call me

A fussy man—


I do like a little bit of butter to my bread!”




It was five o’clock in the afternoon. General Sir Henry Lynedoch Gardiner realised with a jolt that he had made a terrible mistake.

A veteran of the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, Gardiner had served in the royal household for twenty-seven years. Now that he was seventy-six, his memory was starting to fail him—rather a serious fault in Queen Victoria’s senior equerry, whose job it was to smooth his sovereign’s path through life. He was very defensive about it, lashing out at anyone who tried to remind him of his duties.

Whenever there was a big dinner at Windsor Castle, a band from one of the five Guards regiments that made up the Household Division of the British army entertained the queen and her guests by playing on the terrace outside the dining room. To get there, they had to walk through the dining room itself, making sure they were at their places before the diners arrived.

There was just such a dinner this evening—and Gardiner had forgotten to book the band. With less than four hours to go, the guardsmen were all at their camp in Windsor Great Park or, worse, out drinking in Windsor itself. This was the 1890s: there were no telephones and no cars. There was no way to contact them, no way to have them in place on the castle terrace by 8:45, when the queen and her guests would sweep into the dining room, expecting music.

Gardiner decided he had no choice but to resign. He went to the junior equerry, a young Guards officer named Fritz Ponsonby, and told him so. But Fritz reckoned the game was not yet lost. He sent a groom from the stables galloping off with a message for the officer commanding the regiment, begging him to gather the bandsmen together. He sent another to the superintendent of the stables at Windsor, ordering up three large wagonettes to bring the men to the castle as soon as they were assembled. Then, realising that if they were even slightly late they wouldn’t be able to walk through the dining room to the terrace, he spoke to the head of the Windsor Castle fire brigade and persuaded him to have four ladders ready on the North Terrace. The bandsmen were going to have to scale the castle walls.

Just after 8:45, Queen Victoria and her guests entered the dining room. Fritz and General Gardiner came up the rear, despondent as they realised there was no national anthem wafting in through the windows from the terrace. But as the guests sat down, Fritz noticed shadowy figures clambering over the wall onto the terrace, lugging their instruments after them. Before Victoria had taken a mouthful of soup, the Guards band struck up an overture and the day was saved.

The next morning, General Gardiner received a note from the queen pointing out that the band should always play the national anthem when she came in to dinner.

THIS BOOK IS about the private lives of royalty, from Elizabeth I, who ascended the throne of England in 1558, to Elizabeth II, who nearly four centuries later was proclaimed “Queen Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God Queen of this Realm and of Her other Realms and Territories, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.” Not every one of the seventeen monarchs who bridged the years between receives an equal amount of attention: all sovereigns are interesting, but some are more interesting than others. Nor have I gone into any detail about the business of ruling, or the monarch’s often-complicated relationship with his or her ministers. Instead, I have focused on how the business of looking after royalty has changed (and, in some respects, remained the same) over the past five centuries, how Fritz Ponsonby and his kind have helped to maintain the monarchy.

Kings and queens and their families were, and still are, entitled by virtue of their positions to a certain level of comfort, a cocoon of support to make their lives a little easier. Sovereigns don’t cook. They don’t dress themselves, or pour themselves a drink, or make their own beds. If the stories are true, the future king of this realm and of his other realms and territories doesn’t even squeeze his own tube of toothpaste; this task is given to one of his four valets, who applies toothpaste to the royal toothbrush from a crested silver dispenser.* Clarence House, currently the official London residence of the Prince of Wales, has formally denied the other famous “pampered royal” legend, that each morning the Prince of Wales’s staff line up seven boiled eggs in ascending order of firmness, each one numbered according to cooking time, so that he can sample each and select the one which meets his requirements.

In the twenty-first century, the size of Elizabeth II’s household stands at around 1,200 employees, about the same as Charles II’s household in the 1660s but an increase of one-third on the household of Elizabeth’s great-great-grandmother Victoria, who had a staff of 921 salaried retainers. 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. Others—the queen’s private secretary and her communications secretary, for instance—are modern courtiers, providing advice and managing relations with her government and her people. Others still are support staff in a more domestic sense, cooking and cleaning and making the beds. The Prince of Wales, who keeps a separate establishment, employs over 160 full-time staff, most of whom are there to support the official duties and charitable activities of the prince, the Duchess of Cornwall, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Only twenty-six are described as personal, garden, or farm staff.

Of course, rich people have always had entourages, small armies of secretaries and servants and sycophants. But for royalty, there is more to it. Kingship isn’t a role to which one can aspire, like the presidency of the United States or the headship of a social media empire. The rituals of royal care are there to separate sovereigns from the rest, to remind their subjects that they are not like other people, not even presidents and billionaire executives. If they were, if there were no difference between the prince and the pauper, then why shouldn’t the pauper reign in the prince’s place? Whether monarchs have ruled by repression or consensus, their lives were and still are a pattern of reminders that they are not like us. They are different.

IT HAS ALWAYS been that way. When Henry VIII’s servants made his bed each evening, they crossed themselves and kissed the spots where their hands had touched the sacred space. There were rules about how a servant should place the towel and napkin on the king’s table (“no wrinkles”); about what Henry VIII’s father, Henry VII, should wear at the traditional Twelfth Night festivities which marked the end of the Christmas period—a crown of gold set with sapphires, rubies, emeralds, and pearls, which “ought to be hallowed and no temporal man to touch it but only the king.”1

Those rules were set out for the instruction of newcomers to court life, and as a reminder for members of the royal household who might be inclined to forget what was due to their sovereign. Some household ordinances were simply lists of offices with pay and allowances, intended to help with budgeting. Others were meant to regulate behaviours. When Edward IV’s seven-month-old son, also Edward, was created Prince of Wales in 1471, a set of “Regulations for the Government of Prince Edward” was produced, setting out the infant prince’s daily routine. It began soon after six o’clock in the morning, when his chaplains came into his bedchamber and said matins. After he was dressed, he went into his private chapel to hear Mass. After breakfast he had lessons; then dinner at ten, when “such noble stories as behoveth to a prince to understand” were read to him. There were more lessons, and sports, in the afternoon. He was to be in bed by eight, and his attendants were urged to make him “joyous and merry” at bedtime.2

The settings for these medieval displays of regal ritual varied enormously, from hunting lodges to castles to palaces. The kings and queens of England moved frequently. They liked to show themselves to their subjects as a demonstration of their power; they liked to hunt in different parts of their realm; they went in search of healthy air, avoiding plague and pestilence; and they went in search of provisions when supplies in the immediate neighbourhood ran low.

And they had plenty of royal houses to choose from. In the thirteenth century, Edward I owned around twenty houses. When Henry VII came to the throne in 1485, fourteen of those houses had been sold or given away or abandoned: the only ones left were Clarendon Palace, in Wiltshire; Clipstone, a substantial hunting lodge in Nottinghamshire; Havering Palace, to the east of London; Windsor Castle; Woodstock, in Oxfordshire; and Westminster Palace, built by Edward the Confessor in the mid-eleventh century, at the same time as he established Westminster Abbey, and remodelled by the Norman and Angevin kings, most notably William Rufus, who in 1097–1099 created Westminster Hall, the largest hall in England.

To these six residences medieval kings added and subtracted others as their fortunes rose and fell. Houses were given away, confiscated, abandoned. In some reigns, the number of royal houses amounted to twenty-five; in others, it fell to no more than nine or ten. Their interiors were a long way from the stark, stony survivals that we see as we wander around medieval houses today. Walls were often whitewashed and quarried—marked with lines, usually in red, to represent blocks—and those blocks were sometimes filled with painted decoration. Ceilings were covered with gold and silver spangles. Wainscot in the form of vertical deal planking was popular in the royal palaces, and this was also painted, sometimes with quite elaborate “histories” or allegorical scenes with deeply personal meanings. At Southampton Castle in 1182, Henry II, whose children were battling each other over the succession to the throne, ordered his chamber to be painted with a picture of an eagle being attacked by its offspring.

When Henry VIII came to the throne in 1509, his own architectural inheritance included a palace on the south bank of the Thames nine miles upstream from Westminster, at Sheen, renamed “Richmond” by his father, and another new palace at Greenwich, also on the Thames and seven miles downstream. In 1512 a fire destroyed the residential part of the palace at Westminster. Rather than rebuild it, Henry VIII decided to leave what remained to serve as his administrative and legal headquarters while he began a new palace at Bridewell on the edge of the old City of London. In the first two decades of his reign he acquired more houses, including Grafton in Northamptonshire and New Hall in Essex. But by far the most important two acquisitions came first in 1527, when Henry’s lord chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, tried to stave off his master’s mounting displeasure over his failure to arrange the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine of Aragon by presenting him with the half-finished Hampton Court Palace on the Thames, twelve miles southwest of London; and then in 1529, when Wolsey’s fall enabled Henry to occupy the cardinal’s town house, York Place, which sprawled along the Thames just yards from the old Palace of Westminster. By 1532 Henry had renamed it Whitehall.

Henry VIII continued to accumulate houses at an extraordinary rate. Between 1531 and 1536 he built a large new house, St James’s, on the site of an old leper hospital in Westminster. Various senior clerics were urged to follow Wolsey’s example (or rather, to avoid following Wolsey’s example) by handing over their houses to the king: Archbishop Cranmer gave up Mortlake in Surrey and Knole in Kent; the Bishop of Ely handed over Hatfield in Hertfordshire; the Bishop of Durham gave his episcopal house on the Strand. By the time of his death in 1547, Henry VIII owned over fifty houses—more than any other monarch before or since.3

The extent of the accommodation varied enormously, as did its configuration. But the principles remained the same, whether the sovereign was staying at a hunting lodge or a palace. By the fourteenth century the household had split into the Hall and the Chamber, both of which were departments rather than actual, architectural spaces. The Hall included quasi-public communal areas such as the physical hall, where most of the household ate, and service areas like the kitchens, larders, and pantries. The Chamber, the king’s private space (insofar as any space could be called private for a sovereign whose bowel movements took place in company), was his lodgings, a series of rooms and anterooms culminating in his bedchamber. As the Middle Ages wore on the sovereign took to eating in these rooms—usually in his bedchamber, which became a more public space in consequence, so that the bed was moved out into another room. By the end of the fifteenth century the Chamber itself had divided into the great chamber and the privy chamber, although the separate functions of each were by no means clear-cut. Henry VII ate sometimes in state in his hall; sometimes in his great chamber; and sometimes in his bedchamber, when his table was set up next to his bed.

We can see these separate departments in action in the most comprehensive medieval set of royal household ordinances to survive: the so-called Liber Niger Domus Regis Angliae, the Black Book of the household of Edward IV. Written sometime between 1467 and 1477, the Black Book was intended to address a problem which English and British sovereigns have grappled with for a thousand years: how to balance domestic economy with the proper display of regal grandeur. The role demands magnificence, and magnificence costs money.

The fifteenth-century judge Sir John Fortescue was one of the first to articulate the connection between wealth and kingship. Writing in the 1470s, Fortescue declared that “it shall need that the king have such treasure, as he may make new buildings when he will, for his pleasure and magnificence; and as he may buy him rich clothes [and] rich furs.” A king needed money to buy hangings for his houses, vestments for his chapel, horses of great price for his stable. Without it, “he lived then not like his estate, but rather in misery, and in more subjection than doth a private person.”4

Along with money, kingship required organisation. Those horses of great price in the royal stable didn’t look after themselves. Chaplains were needed to wear the vestments and pray for the king’s soul. Esquires of the body must be on hand to help him with his rich furs; once the new buildings were built for the king’s pleasure and magnificence, they had to be populated with grooms and pages and yeomen and gentlemen ushers, who had to be fed by a small army of bakers and cooks and scullions, who had to be paid by an entire department of clerks in the countinghouse.

This system of household government was what the Black Book set out to codify. It divided Edward IV’s household into two parts: the Domus Regie Magnificencie and the Domus Providencie, which corresponded very roughly to the Chamber and the Hall, and less roughly to what later reigns would call “above stairs” and “below stairs.” The Domus Providencie dealt with the day-to-day practicalities of providing food and lighting and heat for a vast throng of servants. It was presided over by the lord steward, who enforced discipline and looked after the finances, heading the counting house, or Board of Green Cloth, which was named for the cloth of green baize which customarily covered the table or board at which its officers sat. The officers who assisted him in this were the treasurer of the household, the comptroller, the cofferer, and two clerks of the green cloth. But the lord steward’s department also comprised the kitchens, the bakehouse, the buttery and pantry, the spicery and confectionery and laundry and woodyard, as well as the great hall, where most household officers ate, and the servants who waited on them. There is still a lord steward, a treasurer, and a comptroller in Elizabeth II’s household today, although the first is a ceremonial post—no one expects the lord steward to concern himself with budgets and recalcitrant staff anymore—and the last two are purely political appointments, given to Members of Parliament from whichever party is in government.

The chief officer of the Domus Regie Magnificencie was the lord chamberlain. He or his deputy was responsible for the royal apartments and the people who ministered to the king—his body servants, his waiting staff, his physicians, and his chaplains, as well as the gentlemen ushers and yeomen ushers, the grooms and pages who looked after the more formal and more public areas of the king’s lodgings. By Henry VIII’s time, and possibly before it, the Chamber’s two subdepartments, the great chamber and the privy chamber, were still technically in the charge of the lord chamberlain, but the privy chamber, the most intimate of the king’s public spaces, was looked after by a small group of grooms of the chamber, headed by the groom of the stool. This officer originally had the task of supervising the sovereign’s bowel movements, although from these unenviable beginnings he (or she, when the sovereign was female) eventually became one of the most powerful figures in the royal household, with the right to attend the king at all times. They were gatekeepers, controlling access to the king even when they weren’t present at court and mediating between him and other members of the household. The post was only discontinued when Victoria came to the throne in 1837.

In theory, everything about the workings of the royal household was strictly controlled. Some of the sovereign’s servants (and their servants’ servants) were entitled to bouge of court—that is, they had food and lodging, fuel to keep them warm and candles to light their way, sometimes clothes or an allowance for clothes to help them do their job. Lists of names set out who could receive bouge of court; who had diet only with no lodgings at court; who had to fend for themselves. Lists set down the wages due to each official, the number of servants an officer could feed and lodge at the sovereign’s expense. The porters were empowered to prevent anyone from slipping in extra servants to be fed at the king’s expense. The rights and responsibilities of each and every royal servant were clear.

In theory. In practice, for most of its history the royal household gave an impression of barely controlled chaos. Additional servants were always being smuggled into court while those who were supposed to be in attendance wandered off on business of their own. In the sixteenth century, pets were smuggled in, as well: small spaniels were the only dogs allowed at court, as pets for the queen and her women, but officers had a bad habit of bringing their greyhounds and mastiffs into work, where they tripped up the waiting men and bit each other and urinated all over the place. Servants urinated all over the place, too: the Privy Council had to issue an order banning urination in the precincts of the court, and big red “No Pissing” crosses were painted on exterior walls. Household officers fought with each other and pilfered anything that wasn’t nailed down: food, silver plate, candles, firewood, and coal. They took locks from doors, stole furniture, broke windows.

Life in the royal household is a little more measured these days. The centuries that separate Elizabeth I from Elizabeth II have introduced different standards of behaviour—for both the sovereign and her household. The idea of monarchy has shifted, too. Nowadays Britain expects a sovereign who is both above the people and of the people, accountable yet unchangeable. But the crown still needs a support network of courtiers and officials and domestic servants, an interface with the public and a buffer to keep that public at bay. Life in the royal household, which is the subject of this book, could not be lived without them.

* If this is true, it probably dates back to the time in 1990 when Prince Charles broke his right arm playing polo.



It seemed such a good idea. A pleasant entertainment to amuse Queen Elizabeth I, a piece of community theatre for a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1575.

The plan was simple. A bridal procession of townspeople would march two by two into the yard of Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire, all dressed for the occasion and looking attractively pastoral. There would be rustic dancers and games and feats of arms beneath the queen’s window. Then the bride and groom would lead the procession back to town, and a second group would take over the castle yard and put on a play. It was an old piece, traditionally performed in nearby Coventry on the first Tuesday after Easter, Hock Tuesday—hence its title, The Old Coventry Play of Hock-Tuesday. It had been banned after the Reformation because of the general disorder and riot that went with it—the centrepiece was a great battle in which the Saxons massacred the Danes, and there were often casualties—and Coventry was determined to secure the queen’s permission for it to resume.


  • "A glimpse into a world where everything is possible for the rulers, because the ruled do all the work: This sounds enchanting, and so Behind the Throne proves to be...The author has a wry humor and a way with a phrase."—Wall Street Journal
  • Ranked Number 1 on "Five Best Books on British Royal Households"—Wall Street Journal
  • "Charmingly erudite...Like a seasoned tour guide, Tinniswood keeps us moving through chambers of wonders, from the Elizabethan to the modern era...Tinniswood is both a careful scholar and a nimble writer."—Washington Post
  • "Shrewdly observed and engagingly written...A cracking read, packed full of stories which Tinniswood relates with verve and wit."—Spectator (UK)
  • "Tinniswood (The Long Weekend) explores the inner workings of the well-oiled machine that is the household, servants, and monarchy of Britain...A masterpiece of history that reads like a novel; a true delight."—Library Journal (starred review)
  • "[Tinniswood] amply, entertainingly, compellingly succeeds in making the case that when it comes to British royalty, it takes a village to make a monarch."—New York Journal of Books
  • "[Tinniswood] displays a knack for uncovering the absurd and delightful. A wit borne of a deep intimacy with his subject shows through. It all has the effect of bringing the monarchy down to earth."—New York Times Book Review
  • "[A] juicy new domestic history of the royal household...Tinniswood's magpie narrative is...about boundaries: the walls, literal and metaphorical, that separate monarchs from their people."—Guardian
  • "Fascinating...Never overly deferential, but humorous and distantly respectful. Our royals are human beings after all...Behind the Throne is a wonderfully entertaining account of life through five centuries of royal households."—Sunday Times
  • "Behind the Throne, erudite and amusing, bulges with colourful scenes of barely managed chaos at court."—Times
  • "[A] juicy new domestic history of the royal household...Delicious."—Observer
  • "This is the most interesting and informative book on the British royalty for many years."—Literary Review
  • "An intimate and entertaining look at the private lives of monarchs from Elizabeth I to the current occupants of Buckingham Palace...Deft, zesty social history." -Kirkus—Kirkus
  • "Tinniswood is a wry storyteller."—Baton Rouge Advocate
  • "Think of Behind the Throne as Downton Abbey meets The Tudors, with a dash of Victoria and a smidgen of The Crown thrown in."—Winnipeg Free Press
  • "Well-researched and often entertaining...Devoted watchers of The Crown will especially enjoy the nimble analysis of both the narcissistic Edward VIII's brief reign and Princess Margaret's doomed romance...Utilizing a Downton Abbey approach, this enlightening narrative allows the royal family mystique to disappear just a little."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Superb."—New Criterion
  • "An enjoyable and lively account of the British royal household from Elizabeth I to Elizabeth II."—Choice
  • "If Downton Abbey showcases a well-oiled machine of domestic efficiency in an English estate, you might think the servants surrounding British monarchs would be held to an even higher standard of discretion and excellence. And, as historian Tinniswood warns, you'd be entirely wrong. The reality, as he explores in this diverting book covering the domestic life at court from Elizabeth to Elizabeth, is both much messier and incredibly interesting...This rare glimpse into royal households reveals the priorities and peculiarities of kings and queens."—Booklist
  • "A lively, engaging, and endlessly fascinating account of life behind closed doors at the English court. Exploring five centuries of royal service--from Elizabeth I to her modern day namesake--this is a must-read for all fans of British royal history."—Tracy Borman, author of The Private Lives of the Tudors
  • "Both fun and scholarly, this is a back-stage, back-stairs, sometimes backside history of England that focuses on the seamy-side of power, the sights you weren't intended to see and the stories you weren't supposed to hear. Savor it like a good gossip column."—David Starkey, author of Elizabeth: The Struggle for the Throne and Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII
  • "Tinniswood's riveting overview of 500 years of the men and women who made the monarchy shows what has changed - and what hasn't. From the courtiers who handled foreign diplomats for James I to the chauffeurs who drove Edward VII, the first royal motorist, the delight is in the detail."—Sarah Gristwood, author of Game of Queens and Elizabeth: The Queen and the Crown
  • "Behind the Throne is so much fun it's almost a guilty pleasure. Adrian Tinniswood provides an utterly fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the British monarchy, from the realities of the royal chamber pot to bedchamber politics."—Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire
  • "Meticulously researched, rich in detail and hugely entertaining, Behind The Throne is an evocative feast of royal history, from the first Elizabeth to the present, at its page-turning best. From a master historian and story-teller, it is an absolute must for anyone interested in the British monarchy, past and present, and for any self-respecting history lover. A book I only wish I had written, I cannot recommend it highly enough."—Christopher Warwick, royal biographer and historian

On Sale
Oct 2, 2018
Page Count
416 pages
Basic Books

Adrian Tinniswood

About the Author

Adrian Tinniswood is senior research fellow in history at the University of Buckingham and the author of many books on British history, including Behind the Throne and the New York Times bestseller The Long Weekend. He was awarded an OBE for services to heritage by the Queen and lives in Bath, England.

Learn more about this author