Elizabeth and her women | Elizabeth I's Ladies in Waiting

Queen Elizabeth I's relationships with the women in her court can tell us a lot more about her personality. Jane Simpkiss explores.

Exploring Elizabeth’s relationship with her Ladies in Waiting helps reveal the woman behind the crown and her relationship with her own sex.

Procession portrait of Elizabeth I of England c. 1601.
Procession portrait of Elizabeth I of England c. 1601.

Elizabeth’s relationship with gender was far from straightforward. Living in a man’s world, she had to navigate between what was expected of her as a woman and as a ruler.

Elizabeth’s ladies had the unique position of seeing the Queen’s private self. They dressed her, ate with her and chatted with her and sleept alongside her. Their interactions reveal aspects of the Queen’s character often overlooked.

What was the Elizabethan court like?

To judge the stars in the presence of the sun, proved too challenging a task for a French nobleman when visiting the Elizabethan court and when asked by the queen what he thought of her ladies.

It is necessary to look beyond the magnificence of the queen to reveal the important role her ladies played in the royal household. Her relationships with her closest female aides reveals another side to her fascinating and successful reign.

Some of Elizabeth’s closest advisers were women and they give us new perspectives on how she managed her power and authority over the Tudor court.

In the Elizabethan court, proximity was power. The closer one could get to the Queen, the more power and influence you had.

The monarch’s suite of chambers was a vital arena for political intrigue and deals.

With a woman on the throne, male courtiers could not enter the Queen’s private chambers as easily. It was only Elizabeth’s women who had unfettered access to the monarch, giving them greater influence than would normally be expected.

​Was Elizabeth I a feminist?

Blanche Parry, the Chief Gentlewoman of the Privy Chamber, wielded more power than some of the most important men of the day.

She was in charge of the Queen’s personal papers and, if inclined, could amend proposals to the Queen to allow the best outcome for the sender.

As a close confidante, she could best judge the Queen’s mood and advise courtiers when and how it was best to raise issues with the monarch.

It was said by courtiers of the time that:

‘We worshipped no saints, but we prayed to ladies in the Queen’s time’.

Many of Elizabeth’s ladies were unpaid for their devoted service and forced to live in conditions much worse than their own homes.

Working as a lady in waiting might have offered many opportunities to Tudor women but it came at a price.

Elizabeth expected her women to be married to their jobs, just as she considered herself married to the English throne.

She was loathed to let her ladies marry and those that did were expected to remain at court away from their children and husbands for long periods of time.

Her close childhood companion Katherine Knollys rose high in the Royal household but found her situation so intense and her long absences from home so difficult that she would ‘weep for unkindness’. Burdened by the expectations of others throughout her life, Elizabeth seems to have placed some of this same pressure on her ladies.

Elizabeth’s relationship with her women could be toxic, revealing a jealous and controlling side to the Virgin Queen.

Elizabeth’s ladies were often her closest confidantes, but they also had the potential to become her greatest rivals.

Elizabeth Brydges, a lady in waiting, was supposedly verbally and physically assaulted by Elizabeth and forced to lodge outside the palace when she potentially caught the eye of Elizabeth’s favourite, the Earl of Essex.

Portrait of Elizabeth Brydges, afterwards Lady Kennedy by Hieronimo Custodis.jpg
(c) Woburn Abbey collection

As a woman, it seems that Elizabeth closely linked desirability with power and authority.

Whilst she may have made a show of her outward strength, Elizabeth was clearly insecure about retaining the loyalty of her male courtiers and her superiority over other women.

On discovering that her lady, Lettice Knollys, had secretly married Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, Elizabeth is said to have hit her shouting that

‘as but one sun lightened the earth she would have but one Queen in England.’

Elizabeth did develop close bonds with her ladies and she proved to be a devoted and generous friend.

For Elizabeth, true friends must have been hard to come by. When she met Helena Snakenbourg in 1565, she was touched by her kindness and friendship to the Queen. Helena liked the Queen so much that she even copied the way Elizabeth dressed.

Elizabeth rewarded this genuine affection by making Helena her lady in waiting with her own apartments and servants.

This was very unusual. Helena had no money or British connections and was in fact a lady in waiting to Princess Cecilia of Sweden, who was visiting England at the time. Elizabeth risked a diplomatic incident by seemingly poaching a foreign royal’s attendant.

Furthermore, unlike many of her other ladies in waiting, Elizabeth supported Helena’s marriage to the Marquess of Northampton, lending her the Queen’s closet for the ceremony.

It was the ladies of the bed chamber who helped construct the image of the Gloriana Regina for the outside world. However, by examining, the relationships Elizabeth had with these women, we can get one step closer to seeing her as they might have done. Their stories reveal the complicated woman behind the mask of the Virgin Queen.