The Royal household of Mid Tudor England

Mid-Tudor Royal Household 1547-1555

This study looks at the component structures of the royal household as they exist in 1547.

They are the Household Proper – the Great Master’s (or Lord Steward’s) department, that is offices reporting to the board of the Greencloth, supervised, at least notionally, by the comptroller and the cofferer. These are what Victorians might have thought as the ‘below stairs’ servants.

The Chamberlain’s department overseen by the Lord Chamberlain and the Vice Chamberlain – the latter position is by now coupled with the captaincy of the guard and therefore a hybrid office between it and the most recent emergent structure – and the one originally and rightly identified by Dr David Starkey to exist in a separate institutional sense from its parent – the Privy Chamber; the Chapel Royal; and the officers of the household without…namely the Master of Horse and the officers of the stables and parks.

The palaces, their gardens, parks, hunting grounds and lands within their jurisdiction fall under the exclusive government of these royal officials. It is a ‘court’ both legally and magnificently. A crime committed under the jurisdiction of these officers or by one of these officers is outside the competence of the usual judicial process. It is its own world, entire and complete. As the monarch moves, so does his court, so does his household and its officers and so does its ‘peculiar’ legal, economic and social jurisdictions.

If the household provided the nuts and bolts (or perhaps the bread and butter) of the business of the court, the Chamber and Privy Chamber provided, in their separate ways, the appropriate setting for the jewel of monarchy. Therefore, they define the life of the monarch. But fabulous display wasn’t either department’s reason or rationale. They governed in the most profound sense access; and in the most profound sense access governed early modern monarchy and government.

Access is the defining reality of the early modern state. It’s its political legacy to the modern age. In personal monarchy – whether of duke or prince, king or pope – access is all. Today the profound nature of the meaning of this simple truth is located in Washington DC. It’s home to the leader of that most self-consciously republican of nations – the United States of America –  in a palace we call the White House; in the home (or as I would say ‘household’) of its monarch, the president of the United States.

The Chapel Royal and Almoner are given scant mention in most studies of this period. Cardinal Wolsey was first a royal almoner; as was Bishop George Day of Chichester and then Edward VI’s tutor Dr Richard Cox. Bishop Thirlby and Abbot Fakenham were both Deans of the Chapel Royal. These religious servants had ready access to the monarch. The Tudor monarchy used these peculiar jurisdictions almost as a ‘legatine’ model with which to impose both the Supremacy and religious policies that it followed. These and the other chapels peculiar were to be used ruthlessly by both sides to effect religious policy in this crucial period of the Catholic and Protestant (or as some prefer, Evangelical) Reformations in England.

Masters of horse haunt Tudor history, Tudor courts and Tudor politics from Anthony Browne to Robert Dudley. The master was the personal body servant of the monarch once he or she was outside the chamber – whether in the gardens or in the parks; whether on the hunt, playing tennis, in a maze or in festive tents or temporary banqueting halls – and given the amount of time renaissance monarchs devoted to such outdoors recreations – hunting, falconry, jousting (and by extension war) – this was more than an office of access; it was effectively next to principal gentleman, the office of access. Under a female monarch it was the only office of a male body servant that survived. Sir Edward Hastings under Mary I and Robert Dudley, earl of Leicester, under Elizabeth hold this office. Their importance to the history of these monarchs underscores this simple fact.

Finally, in early modern monarchy, the household was the spending department of state. It consumed annually most of the ordinary revenues of the crown – much more in this period.  The officers of the household were almost ‘civil servants’ in the early modern state. The business of government and the state was the royal estate.

A thousand liveried officials were more than personal servants. They provided the monarch with expertise to manage, to regulate and to govern. These were the men the crown called upon to maintain an army, equip a navy or build coastal defences. These were the men who helped to account for and manage the dissolution of monasteries and chantries. They assisted in the administration of the great debasement. These household officers knew the logistics behind the showy display of monarchy. They knew about accounting, victualling, moving huge the numbers of people and animals and such involved in the routine of progress from place to place; and from palace to place; in the ceaseless motion that was the itinerant Tudor monarchy.

The royal household is key to understanding administration and finance; it’s key to the politics and the religious developments of the Mid Tudor period. In many senses it stages the history of the period. The central political narratives of the reigns of Edward VI and Mary I have been told from many ‘off-stage’ perspectives. In the case of Edward VI the viewpoint has been that of the Protector Somerset or the Privy Council or the Machiavellian John Dudley, duke of Northumberland. In the case of Mary I it seems any perspective, no matter how unlikely will serve – from that of rival ambassadors at her court to the improbable polemics of Knox and Foxe; from that religious fanaticism, through submissive wife to her Spanish consort, to dysfunctional would-be-mother. This need to spin the history has been driven in part by sources and in part by wilful historiography.

There are good reasons to restore the central political narrative to the centre of monarchical power – the household and the court. From this viewpoint much that previously seemed illogical, inexplicable or just plain confused becomes clear and comprehensible. It will also raise new and interesting questions about the certain suppositions that have long posed as unquestioned historical truths – namely, that Edward was the hapless victim of political circumstance: bullied by advisers and brow-beaten by his privy council; and that Mary I’s sterile reign is a backward looking and doomed enterprise to turn a moderate nation of godly reform into one of papist hispanophiles. If the historiography has taken us so very far from the truth it will mean that we must examine why we have needed to embrace such a distorted view of events.

The Greek philosopher Epictetus remarked ‘men are not disturbed by things but by the view they take of them.’ His wisdom would have been familiar to all of the protagonists. It will also serve to be our guide.