Why is it called a lady-in-waiting?

A lady-in-waiting is a female personal assistant who attends to a queen, princess, or other high-ranking noblewoman at royal or imperial courts. The role of a lady-in-waiting entails a variety of daily duties such as assisting with dressing, correspondence, and companionship.

What does a lady-in-waiting do?

A lady-in-waiting has a multitude of responsibilities in service to her mistress. Her main duty is to act as a personal attendant and provide whatever services the mistress may require at any given time. This can include:

  • Assisting with dressing, hair, makeup, and personal care
  • Keeping her mistress company and providing friendship
  • Running errands and carrying out requests
  • Organizing and maintaining clothing and personal belongings
  • Helping with correspondence by taking dictation and writing letters
  • Making travel arrangements
  • Acting as a secretary, planner, and advisor
  • Entertaining guests in the mistress’s absence
  • Supervising and managing other servants
  • Accompanying the mistress at official functions and social events

In essence, a lady-in-waiting acts as a personal assistant, confidant, advisor, secretary, housekeeper, companion, and representative for her mistress. She attends to both personal and official tasks in service to the needs of her lady.

Where did lady-in-waiting roles originate?

The tradition of royal ladies-in-waiting is a longstanding practice that can be traced back centuries. Some of the key origins and evolutions include:

  • In courts across Medieval Europe, queens and noblewomen recruited maids, companions, chambermaids, and other female servants to assist with daily tasks.
  • During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, the role became more codified as a prestigious position for well-bred young women from aristocratic families.
  • By the late Middle Ages, a hierarchy developed among ladies-in-waiting, with some serving as senior attendants to the queen and others assigned to princesses or ranking nobility.
  • In the courts of Europe’s small Germanic kingdoms, ladies-in-waiting gained considerable power and came to be known as “court ladies” who wielded influence in national affairs.
  • The heyday of the lady-in-waiting was in the 16th and 17th centuries, when vast retinues of royal ladies were common in elaborate European courts.
  • As monarchies declined, so too did the numbering of ladies-in-waiting. Today just one or two personal assistants typically serve modern queens and princesses.

While the role is not as ubiquitous or influential as in centuries past, the core purpose endures as providing elite personal service to royal and noble women.

Why are they called “ladies-in-waiting”?

The term “lady-in-waiting” originated from the fact that women holding this role quite literally had to be ready to serve day and night, waiting on their mistresses’ needs at any time of day. However, the term takes on a deeper significance when the complex purpose of ladies-in-waiting is considered:

  • Company: Their main duty was to provide companionship and always be available, so constant waiting was necessary.
  • Status: It highlighted how ladies were prestigious members of noble houses appointed to wait upon royal women.
  • Proximity: Ladies-in-waiting had unmatched access to the queen by waiting in her private chambers.
  • Discretion: They had to be discreet and wait to be called upon before taking any action.
  • Exclusivity: It was a waiting period before a lady could be chosen to fill an appointment or join the queen’s household.

In essence, ladies-in-waiting waited on their mistresses’ needs, waited for status appointments, waited behind closed doors for a summons, and waited hopefully for advancement. The term encapsulated the intermediary position these women occupied as they waited to serve and be served.

Ranking of ladies-in-waiting

There was a complex hierarchy among ladies-in-waiting at European courts. The rankings reflected both the ladies’ proximity to the queen and their social status. Key positions included:

  • Mistress of the Robes: The highest rank overseeing all wardrobe and dressing duties
  • First Lady of the Bedchamber: Personally attended to the queen in her bedchamber
  • Woman of the Bedchamber: Supervised the dressing and sleeping areas
  • Lady of the Privy Chamber: Had access to the queen’s most private quarters
  • Principal Lady-in-Waiting: Acted as secretary and personal assistant
  • Second/Third Lady-in-Waiting: Filled in more minor roles

There were also specialized ladies like the mantle bearer, candle bearer, and chamberer who assisted with royal duties like carrying the queen’s train. The highest ranking lady-in-waiting was typically someone the queen knew well or a daughter from a prominent family.

Duties according to ranking

Rank Duties
Mistress of the Robes Overseeing wardrobe, jewelry, & dressing rituals
First Lady of the Bedchamber Intimate bedchamber attendant
Woman of the Bedchamber Cleaning, tidying, & supervising bedchamber
Lady of the Privy Chamber Attending to private quarters
Principal Lady-in-Waiting Personal secretary & assistant
Second/Third Lady-in-Waiting Filling in with various duties

The hierarchy reflected both the significance of proximity to the queen and the ladies’ social standing. Those of higher noble birth would take precedence.

Privileges of serving as a lady-in-waiting

While a lady-in-waiting worked extremely hard day and night, the role also conferred social privileges. These included:

  • Prestige: Holding the post brought honor and influence to a lady’s family.
  • Palace life: Getting to live at court in grace and luxury.
  • Royal Favor: Opportunity to win the favor of the queen or princesses.
  • Power: Chance to wield power in court and political affairs.
  • Marriage: Meeting illustrious suitors at court and securing a high status marriage.
  • Advancement: Potential to gain appointment to influential court roles.

Serving in the queen’s inner circle offered young ladies unparalleled opportunities at court. Many used their access and connections to further personal ambitions.

Requirements and selection process

Ladies aspiring to serve as ladies-in-waiting had to meet exacting requirements:

  • Had to be from an aristocratic or gentry family, ideally with ties to royalty or peerage.
  • Needed impeccable manners, decorum, and discretion.
  • Required loyalty, trustworthiness, and willingness to serve obediently.
  • Had to be in good health to maintain demanding duties.
  • Needed intelligence, education, and good communication skills.
  • Should be able to play music, sing, dance, ride horses, hawk, or possess other courtly skills.
  • Had to be unmarried or widowed upon appointment.

Candidates were carefully vetted before being appointed through a competitive process. Selection involved consideration of family status, connections, age, temperament, accomplishments, and individual rapport with the queen or princess.

Rules and restrictions

Ladies-in-waiting were expected to adhere to strict rules and restrictions:

  • Had to remain unmarried during service, unless the monarch granted permission to wed.
  • Could not leave court without obtaining the mistress’s consent.
  • Had to be circumspect in words, actions, and relationships to avoid impropriety.
  • Could not receive gifts or rewards without the mistress’s approval.
  • Had to forfeit outside loyalties to serve and represent their mistress.
  • Needed to defer to the mistress and higher ranking ladies.
  • Had to follow court etiquette, protocols, and duty rosters.

breaking these rules risked dismissal in disgrace from court. Ladies had to embrace a life of duty and propriety.

Famous ladies-in-waiting

While most ladies-in-waiting operated quietly behind the scenes, some became famous for their remarkable service and accomplishments:

  • Jane Seymour – Became the third wife of Henry VIII after attending his first two wives as a lady-in-waiting.
  • Kat Ashley – Elizabeth I’s beloved governess and lady-in-waiting who loyally served her for over 30 years.
  • Madame de Motteville – Memoirist who chronicled life in the court of Louis XIV and his mother Anne of Austria.
  • Marie Casimire Louise de la Grange d’Arquien – Rose from lady-in-waiting to become Queen of Poland in her own right.
  • Charlotte Mecklenburg-Strelitz – Served as a lady-in-waiting before becoming Queen Charlotte, wife of George III.
  • Lady Caroline Lamb – Gained notoriety for her flirtation with Lord Byron while a lady-in-waiting to Caroline of Brunswick.
  • Lady Diana Spencer – Worked as a nursery assistant and lady-in-waiting before marrying Prince Charles.

These extraordinary women used their service roles as launching pads to change history.

Decline of ladies-in-waiting

While ladies-in-waiting were indispensable to early modern queens, their numbers and influence have declined over the past two centuries due to:

  • Limits placed on monarchical power and royal household budgets.
  • Rise of individual privacy and personal independence from court life.
  • Informality of modern life making elaborate dressing rituals obsolete.
  • Advancement of women making ladies pursue careers over court positions.
  • Democratization opening royal service roles to the middle classes.

Where queens once had hundreds of ladies-in-waiting, today the role is largely ceremonial and symbolic, with most royal women having just one or two ladies.

Ladies-in-waiting today

While vastly reduced, ladies-in-waiting maintain some key duties for today’s queens and princesses:

  • Assisting part-time with correspondence and scheduling.
  • Attending their mistress at ceremonial events and receptions.
  • Accompanying on royal tours and visits.
  • Providing companionship and conversation.
  • Collectively representing the royal household.

Contemporary ladies-in-waiting act more as honorary companions than personal servants. However, they allow modern royal women to maintain a link to tradition and reinforce their status by upholding court customs.


Ladies-in-waiting were once seen as glamorous positions, but in reality offered a life of constant service and little personal freedom. Today, the role is largely symbolic, but still upholds the grandeur and etiquette of royal households. The title of lady-in-waiting reflects a complex history of ranked service, privilege balanced by restrictions, and the bonds shared between royal mistresses and their dedicated attendants.

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