The king was the government. His household was to serve all his needs – and provide a properly magnificent ceremonial setting for his glory and power.
Government and the Great Offices of State
The curia regis was the centre of government, and a court of law. As bureaucracy had grown from the itinerant, medieval court, the most important of the great offices of State derived become stationary, based in Westminster Hall, and acquired their own bureaucracies. The King’s Council was purely an advisory body.
The Household as a centre of politics and patronage
Early Tudor government probably employed around 1,500 people. Such a small government (compared to modern times) was therefore severely restricted in it what it could do, and relied on the nobility and gentry of the country to rule. Nonetheless, the patronage these jobs provided was larger than any available elsewhere; it was said that there were 175 posts of court which could support a gentleman, and over which patronage the families of the magnates, barons and gentry squabbled. For any scions of the peerage, court was where to find influence, power and patronage; for artists, musicians, scholars it was the source of commissions and a future. The medieval and Tudor court was unlike any institution we have today – a public meeting place and centre of power.
The Household – service and magnificence
The purpose of the royal household was to provide for all of the monarch’s needs. This meant their personal needs, but also their needs as the head and seat of government. The setting was critical – magnificence, display and ceremonial was an integral part of the monarchy, it was expected, demanded and necessary. The court therefore often absorbed a third of the monarch’s ordinary revenues.
The household had therefore two main divisions; the domus providencie was the practical stuff – linen, food, transport, the hunt all that. Below stairs if you like. In 1558 there were 290 people working under the Steward of the Household. The domus regie magnificencie was the front of house stuff – the business of government, and the public face of the king – required therefore to display the magnificence of the monarch.
From Two to three Chambers: Henry VII
Traditionally, the court was based on the ancient concept of the lord’s Great Hall – a single hall where the monarch met, ate, consulted and played with their great men. Then a Presence Chamber was added – a throne room, still a public room. These rooms together were called the Chamber. It was peopled by the great and the good, unlike most of the posts ‘below stairs’, and maybe surprisingly was much bigger than below stairs. The leading posts would be taken by the magnates; Henry VII’s Chamberlain until 1494, head of the Chamber, was William Stanley, the man who had picked his crown from the thornbush. Other posts would be taken by the nobility and gentry.
The concept was very different from the structure of the courts of the Italian Renaissance. There, a Prince expected to have his own ‘closet’ or office, where they would work, surrounded not by the great men who would constantly use their position to exert political influence, but by bureaucrats, dependent on and totally subservient to the monarch.
The medieval household was therefore thought of as having two chambers – the below stairs domus providencie, and the Chamber. Henry VII preferred the Italian model. He wanted private rooms where he could work without distraction, without political pressure. He did not know well, and distrusted the nobility; he wanted a bureaucracy to do his will.
So he created the Guard Chamber before the Great Hall, guarded by his new Yeomen of the Guard. He added the Privy Chamber to the great hall. A room, soon to be a complex of bedrooms and closets, behind the dais of the Chamber. These were not public rooms. Only the monarch and authorised staff could go here.
The Privy Chamber the centre of king’s power
The Privy Chamber was peopled by Henry’s appointees – men drawn from the middling sort, the most exalted from the gentry. Here was Henry VII’s inner Council the men he trusted and implemented his will – you can see and article here about these men. The head of the Privy Chamber was the Groom of the Stool; Hugh Denys, under Henry VII. Traditionally there to help the king with his ablutions, it became a powerful role, controlling access to the king. Henry then followed the practice of Edward IV in moving fiscal management and policy from the slow, cumbersome Exchequer to the Privy Chamber; and the Groom of the Stool effectively became the king’s finance minister. With the arrival of Queen Mary, the role lost influence and became once again as it had been.
Roles in the Royal Household
Many of these roles are hideously obscure, especially below stairs. Here’s a brief glossary, where I know the answer. Where I don’t, please add a comment if you do!
- Acatry: Responsible for storing meat and fish
- Almonry: Distribution of alms. Nothing to do with Almonds.
- Chaundry: Candles
- Cofferer: Treasurer. In the royal household, he was essentially the operational boss
- Ewery: Storage of ewers (should have guessed that), linen and towels
- Harbinger: Finds and provides lodgings.
- Henchman: From old English hengst, for stallion. A groom who accompanied lords and great men in processions; in Scotland the right hand man of the chief.
- Knight Marshal: Maintaining order at the King’s court. Moves to the Earl Marshal under Henry VIII.
- Larder: storage of meat, probably bacon
- Master of the Jewel House: keeper of the monarch’s private treasury. From 1042 to the 13th century, the role was held by Westminster Abbey.
- Pantry: Storage of bread
- Scullery: care of plates, dishes and utensils
- Sewers: Attendants at meals who organised seating and serving of guests
Prepared with the help of the really rather fantastic ‘Hudson’s English History’ by Roger Hudson, which is worth every penny.