Housekeeping, the historian Adrian Tinniswood reminds us, has always been a vexing business. Never more so, perhaps, than in 17th-century England, what with dogs and servants urinating “all over the place;” house guests consuming “twenty-four lobsters and 624 chickens” in three days; scurvy and sweaty armpits at every turn (“Rub the places with powder of nitre, mixed with dog’s urine”); and kitchen visitors making off with “salmon tails and the heads of porpoises.” All of which and a great deal more — details of childbirth, for example, of laundry and latrines — are tastefully revealed in “Behind the Throne: A Domestic History of the British Royal Household,” Tinniswood’s charmingly erudite tour through five centuries of, well, cosseting. For his subjects are no ordinary homemakers. “Kings and queens and their families were, and still are, entitled by virtue of their positions to a certain level of comfort,” Tinniswood decorously begins, “a cocoon of support to make their lives a little easier.”
Then he spells it out. “Sovereigns don’t cook. They don’t dress themselves, or pour themselves a drink, or make their own beds.” The future king of England, we learn, may even require one of four valets to anoint the royal toothbrush with paste “from a crested silver dispenser.” Not that Tinniswood is mocking; Tinniswood hardly ever mocks. Indeed, his style is so restrained he could be a scientist describing the practices of a remote Amazonian tribe or family of mountain gorillas. And the effect is at times wonderfully, if unintentionally, droll. All the bowing and scraping, all the “rituals of royal care are there to separate sovereigns from the rest,” he writes, adding, “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.” Tinniswood, crouching not in the rain forest but in the royal shrubbery, spies on this exotic species on our behalf. For we cannot get enough, it seems, of royal peeping. Whether watching “The Queen” or “The Crown,” reading the popular Tudor/Elizabethan histories of Tracy Borman or the historical novels of Hilary Mantel, we delight in monarchs reincarnated with inner lives revealed, typically in everyday scenes.
When Elizabeth I, for example, is quoted as saying “You know I am no morning woman” and Tinniswood goes on to describe her elaborate dressing routine and her habit of constantly losing trinkets such as “a small fish of gold with a diamond in it,” she is, for a moment, uncannily present. As is Queen Anne in her misery (“not one of [her] seventeen children survived infancy”); George III in his derangement (“At times he appeared to us as if he was crying”); and Victoria in her gloom (“As a rule, children are a bitter disappointment”). Servants and courtiers, too, are given their say. Abigail Hill, for example, in 1728 describes her duties, (“The bedchamber woman pulled on the queen’s gloves, when she could not do it herself”); John Evelyn, a courtier to King James, deplores “the divers cringes” of priests celebrating Mass, and Philip Goldsworthy, court equerry in the 1780s, complains of having to “hear over and over again all that fine squeaking” at nightly concerts.
Such voices, along with telling vignettes, are expertly deployed to aerate what is, after all, a dense history: five centuries, 19 monarchs, numerous wars and crises, all compressed into a little over 300 pages. Compressed but not diminished. For Tinniswood is both a careful scholar and a nimble writer, particularly adept at graceful summary. “When William of Orange’s horse, Sorrel, stumbled over a molehill in the park at Hampton Court,” he writes, for example, “catapulting him into eternity and his half sister onto the throne, Queen Anne inherited a clutch of royal residences rather different in character from those which her father had left behind when he fled to France fourteen years before.” And later: “Sixteen years after Caroline’s death, and seven years after the death of her unlovely husband George IV . . . The eighteen year-old Queen Victoria was moving house.”
Like a seasoned tour guide, Tinniswood keeps us moving through chambers of wonders, from the Elizabethan to the modern era, on a journey into dullness. “Little or nothing to be done till dinner,” one equerry writes of Victoria’s household, “when we all dressed up in knee-breeches and stockings.” While the queen, alarmed by overspending, decrees “that toilet paper should give way to newspaper squares in the castle lavatories at Windsor.”
Tinniswood concludes with a description of a modern British monarchy rich in online followers and marketing consultants though “one source at Clarence House recently likened the Prince of Wales’s household to … Wolf Hall, such were the internecine battles that went on there.” For, as the “groom of the stool” knew in the reign of Henry VIII, only those close to majesty may whisper in its ear, though often in vain. “We have called you gods,” one adviser reminded Charles II, urging him to “show yourself gloriously to your people . . . and when people see you thus, they will down on their knees, which is worship and pray for you with trembling fear and love.” The adviser was ignored — but kept his head.
Anna Mundow is a freelance journalist and reviewer.
By Adrian Tinniswood.