Have you ever been to see the Queen on one of her ‘walkabouts’? Or perhaps you have seen pictures of one in the newspapers. Ever noticed the smiling ladies in the hats who stand close behind the Queen, or the smartly dressed men walking a few steps behind her? They are the ‘ladies in waiting’ and equerries, essential members of the Royal Household who ensure that the Queen’s visits go smoothly.
It sounds like a rather archaic term, doesn’t it? More like something you’d find in Henry VIII’s time. It’s probably just a courtesy title, the ladies involved don’t really do anything do they? Don’t believe a word of it! The Queen’s ladies in waiting are indispensable to her. Most of the female royals have them in fact, and being a lady in waiting is not a post one can simply apply for – they are usually from families already known to the royals (one of the Queen Mother’s ladies was her niece, Margaret Rhodes) and are approached by an existing lady to see if they would accept the post if offered. After all, the Queen cannot simply offer the job outright as it would not do for her offer to be refused!
The ladies are not paid, but then they have no need of paid work – they serve for the honour. The senior lady is currently the Duchess of Grafton, the ‘Mistress of the Robes’ and under her come the ‘Ladies of the Bedchamber’ who have to be titled, and ‘Women of the Bedchamber’ who can just be plain Mrs and Miss.
All ladies are part time and work two weeks on, four weeks off. When on duty, they stay with the Queen in whichever home she happens to be occupying, and have a wide range of duties. They do the Queen’s personal shopping, keep her company at lunch or in the car if Prince Philip is not available, and attend her on royal visits. Standing behind the Queen, they are ready when she passes bunches of flowers to them – the Queen is given so many, she couldn’t possibly carry them all so it is useful to have an extra pair of hands. They will also talk to people waiting to meet the Queen, calming their nerves and instructing them in matters of etiquette.
When they are not out on visits, they spend their mornings writing replies to people who have written to the Queen, particularly to young children or elderly people, as the Queen always likes them to have a personal reply. They also send thank you letters to those who have arranged royal visits, although the Queen writes to her hosts directly. In the afternoons, the ladies will be on duty at Garden Parties and other Palace functions, always ready to talk to any guest, and one lady is always attached to a visiting Head of State, to make their visit more comfortable.
Ladies in waiting generally serve for many years and never retire – if a lady becomes too infirm to continue to serve, she is appointed as an ‘extra’, so she keeps the title but does not have any duties – the Queen is loyal to her ladies!
Who are they and what do they do? They are serving members of the Armed Forces, seconded to the Palace for three years at a time. Reporting directly to the Queen (or Prince Philip, or Prince Charles etc) they arrange royal visits, visiting each place beforehand to work out the plan for the day, and instruct the hosts on how to act when meeting the royal in question. They also accompany their royal on every visit, foreign or domestic, and can be spotted in military uniform if the occasion demands, or a smart suit (pressed by their own valet). They are basically very efficient organisers! The job is full time and involves rather unsociable hours due to attendance at all major entertaining functions but equerries are given a rather nice apartment in St James’s Palace to use during their service. Previous equerries have included Princess Anne’s husband, Sir Timothy Laurence, and Earl Spencer, father of Diana, Princess of Wales.
So, next time you see coverage of Her Majesty’s latest royal engagement, see if you can spot her right hand men and women close behind her.