1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Household, Royal

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15439601911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 13 — Household, Royal

HOUSEHOLD, ROYAL. In all the medieval monarchies of western Europe the general system of government sprang from, and centred in, the royal household. The sovereign’s domestics were his officers of state, and the leading dignitaries of the palace were the principal administrators of the kingdom. The royal household itself had, in its turn, grown out of an earlier and more primitive institution. It took its rise in the comitatus described by Tacitus, the chosen band of comites or companions who, when the Roman historian wrote, constituted the personal following, in peace as well as in war, of the Teutonic chieftain. In England before the Conquest the comitatus had developed or degenerated into the thegnhood, and among the most eminent and powerful of the king’s thegns were his dishthegn, his bowerthegn, and his horsethegn or staller. In Normandy at the time of the Conquest a similar arrangement, imitated from the French court, had long been established, and the Norman dukes, like their overlords the kings of France, had their seneschal or steward, their chamberlain and their constable. After the Conquest the ducal household of Normandy was reproduced in the royal household of England; and since, in obedience to the spirit of feudalism, the great offices of the first had been made hereditary, the great offices of the second were made hereditary also, and were thenceforth held by the grantees and their descendants as grand-serjeanties of the crown. The consequence was that they passed out of immediate relation to the practical conduct of affairs either in both state and court or in the one or the other of them. The steward and chamberlain of England were superseded in their political functions by the justiciar and treasurer of England, and in their domestic functions by the steward and chamberlain of the household. The marshal of England took the place of the constable of England in the royal palace, and was associated with him in the command of the royal armies. In due course, however, the marshalship as well as the constableship became hereditary, and, although the constable and marshal of England retained their military authority until a comparatively late period, the duties they had successively performed about the palace had been long before transferred to the master of the horse. In these circumstances the holders of the original great offices of state and the household ceased to attend the court except on occasions of extraordinary ceremony, and their representatives either by inheritance or by special appointment have ever since continued to appear at coronations and some other public solemnities, such as the opening of the parliament or trials by the House of Lords.[1]

The materials available for a history of the English royal household are somewhat scanty and obscure. The earliest record relating to it is of the reign of Henry II. and is contained in the Black Book of the Exchequer. It enumerates the various inmates of the king’s palace and the daily allowances made to them at the period at which it was compiled. Hence it affords valuable evidence of the antiquity and relative importance of the court offices to which it refers, notwithstanding that it is silent as to the functions and formal subordination of the persons who filled them.[2] In addition to this record we have a series of far later, but for the most part equally meagre, documents bearing more or less directly on the constitution of the royal household, and extending, with long intervals, from the reign of Edward III. to the reign of William and Mary.[3] Among them, however, are what are known as the Black Book of the Household and the Statutes of Eltham, the first compiled in the reign of Edward IV. and the second in the reign of Henry VIII., from which a good deal of detailed information may be gathered concerning the arrangements of the court in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Statutes of Eltham were meant for the practical guidance merely of those who were responsible for the good order and the sufficient supply of the sovereign’s household at the time they were issued. But the Black Book of the Household, besides being a sort of treatise on princely magnificence generally, professes to be based on the regulations established for the governance of the court by Edward III., who, it affirms, was “the first setter of certeynties among his domesticall meyne, upon a grounded rule” and whose palace it describes as “the house of very policie and flowre of England”; and it may therefore possibly, and even probably, take us back to a period much more remote than that at which it was actually put together.[4] Various orders, returns and accounts of the reigns of Elizabeth, James I., Charles I., Charles II., and William and Mary throw considerable light on the organization of particular sections of the royal household in times nearer to our own.[5] Moreover, there were several parliamentary inquiries into the expenses of the royal household in connexion with the settlement or reform of the civil list during the reigns of George III., George IV. and William IV.[6] But they add little or nothing to our knowledge of the subject in what was then its historical as distinguished from its contemporary aspects. So much, indeed, is this the case that, on the accession of Queen Victoria, Chamberlayne’s Present State of England, which contains a catalogue of the officials at the court of Queen Anne, was described by Lord Melbourne the prime minister as the “only authority” which the advisers of the crown could find for their assistance in determining the appropriate constitution and dimensions of the domestic establishment of a queen regnant.[7]

In its main outlines the existing organization of the royal household is essentially the same as it was under the Tudors or the Plantagenets. It is now, as it was then, divided into three principal departments, at the head of which are severally the lord steward, the lord chamberlain and the master of the horse, and the respective provinces of which may be generally described as “below stairs,” “above stairs” and “out of doors.” The duties of these officials, and the various officers under their charge are dealt with in the articles under those headings. When the reigning sovereign is a queen, the royal household is in some other respects rather differently arranged from that of a king and a queen consort. When there is a king and a queen consort there is a separate establishment “above stairs” and “out of doors” for the queen consort. She has a lord chamberlain’s department of her own, and all the ladies of the court from the mistress of the robes to the maids of honour are in her service. At the commencement of the reign of Queen Victoria the two establishments were combined, and on the whole considerably reduced. On the accession of Edward VII. the civil list was again reconstituted; and while the household of the king and his consort became larger than during the previous reign, there was a tendency towards increased efficiency by abolishing certain offices which were either redundant or unnecessary.

The royal households of such of the continental monarchies of Europe as have had a continuous history from medieval times resemble in general outlines that described above. There are, common to many, certain great offices, which have become, in course of time, merely titular and sometimes hereditary. In most cases, as the name of the office would suggest, they were held by those who discharged personal functions about the sovereign. Gradually, in ways or for reasons which might vary in each individual case, the office alone survived, the duties either ceasing to be necessary, or being transferred to officers of less exalted station and permanently attached to the sovereign’s household. For example, in Prussia, there are certain great titular officers, such as the Oberstmarschall (great chamberlain); the Oberstjägermeister (grand master of the hunt); the Oberstschenk (grand cup-bearer) and the Obersttruchsess (grand carver), while, at the same time, there are also departments which correspond, to a great extent—both as to offices and their duties—to those of the household of the English sovereigns. This is a feature which must necessarily be reproduced in any monarchical country, whatever the date of its foundation, to a more or less limited extent, and varying in its constitution with the needs or customs of the particular countries.

  1. The great officers of state and the household whom we have particularly mentioned do not of course exhaust the catalogue of them. We have named those only whose representatives are still dignitaries of the court and functionaries of the palace. If the reader consults Hallam (Middle Ages, i. 181 seq.), Freeman (Norman Conquest, i. 91 seq., and v. 426 seq.) and Stubbs (Const. Hist. i. 343, seq.), he will be able himself to fill in the details of the outline we have given above.
  2. The record in question is entitled Constitutio Domus Regis de Procurationibus, and is printed by Hearne (Liber Niger Scaccarii, i. 341 sq.). It is analysed by Stubbs (Const. Hist. vol. i. note 2, p. 345).
  3. A Collection of Ordinances and Regulations for the Government of the Royal Household, made in Divers Reigns from King Edward III. to King William and Queen Mary, printed for the Society of Antiquaries, (London, 1790). See also Pegge’s Curialia, published partly before and partly after this volume; and Carlisle’s Gentlemen of the Privy Chamber, published in 1829. Pegge and Carlisle, however, deal with small and insignificant portions of the royal establishment.
  4. Liber niger domus Regis Edward IV. and Ordinances for the Household made at Eltham in the seventeenth year of King Henry VIII., A.D. 1526, are the titles of these two documents. The earlier documents printed in the same collection are Household of King Edward III. in Peace and War from the eighteenth to the twenty-first year of his reign; Ordinances of the Household of King Henry IV. in the thirty-third year of his reign, A.D. 1455, and Articles ordained by King Henry VII. for the Regulation of his Household, A.D. 1494.
  5. The Book of the Household of Queen Elizabeth as it was ordained in the forty-third year of her Reign delivered to our Sovereign Lord King James, &c., is simply a list of officers’ names and allowances. It seems to have been drawn up under the curious circumstances referred to in Archaeologia (xii. 80-85). For the rest of these documents see Ordinances and Regulations, &c., pp. 299, 340, 347, 352, 368 and 380.
  6. Burke’s celebrated Act “for enabling His Majesty to discharge the debt contracted upon the civil list, and for preventing the same from being in arrear for the future, &c.,” 22 Geo. III. c. 82, was passed in 1782. But it was foreshadowed in his great speech on “Economical Reform” delivered two years before. Since the beginning of the 19th century select committees of the House of Commons have reported on the civil list and royal household in 1803, 1804, 1815, 1831 and 1901.
  7. Torrens’s Memoirs of William, second Viscount Melbourne, ii-303.