A Privy chamber was the private apartment of a royal residence in England. The gentlemen of the Privy chamber were servants to the Crown who would wait and attend on the King and Queen at court during their various activities, functions and entertainments.
Six of these gentlemen were appointed by the Lord Chamberlain, together with a peer, and the Master of the Ceremonies, to publicly attend to all foreign ambassadors. Their institution was owed to King Henry VII. As a singular mark of favour, they were empowered to execute the King's verbal command without producing any written order; their person and character being deemed sufficient authority.
Privy chamber and outer chamber in an English royal household
The Privy chamber was the most influential department in an English royal household. It contained the king's 'privy lodging,' consisting of bedroom, library, study, and lavatory. What was known as the Chamber was later divided into a Privy chamber (distinguished from bedchamber in 1559), and outer chamber (often styled Presence chamber), and the Great Hall.
"While entry to the Presence Chamber was strongly contested by many, the key to real influence lay in access to the Privy Chamber." In fact, maintaining verbal contact with the King effectively required access to and control of the King's private lodgings; in other words, the Privy chamber.
The Privy chamber under the Tudors
Originating in Henry VII's reign (1485–1509), the Privy chamber, by the time his son Henry VIII had ascended the throne, had become quite institutionalized, with a regular staff of its own, such as gentlemen, ushers, grooms, and pages. The Privy chamber developed further under the reign of Henry VIII, through a winding process of reform and reorganization, particularly from 1518 to 1536.
The Gentlemen who dominated the Privy chamber were servants of the Crown and usually "shared two characteristics: the King's religion and the King's personal favour." Apart from playing an "increasingly important role in the handling of the crown's cash," the Privy chamber also played a military role, providing an "army-within-an-army." Often, the gentlemen in the Privy Chamber were peers of Henry or figures of importance in the government, who shared their duties with the Groom of the Stool and the Chief Gentleman of the Chamber, with overall responsibility for all staff. These people usually organized hunting expeditions, in King Henry’s case, or games, in the case of the boy King Edward VI who succeeded him, as a form of entertainment and as a way to create time for bonding.
The duties of the gentlemen of the Privy chamber or "gentlemen weyters" (later these gentlemen waiters would belong to the chamber) were required to "dilligently attend upon... [the king's] person... doeing humble, reverent, secrett and lowly service". In other words, this service consisted primarily in giving company to the sovereign and in dressing and undressing him, although they performed a variety of chores.
King Henry VIII
The Privy Chamber was properly established under Henry VIII who, as a young man early in his reign, had a "desire to have friends around him"; friends who also enjoyed sports and jousting as Henry did. The Gentlemen of the Chamber usually became very distinguished individuals, sometimes having more influence over the King even than his wife. As Henry's rule progressed, the number of gentlemen in the Privy chamber increased, partly to accommodate outsiders who had recognized the advantages of holding a post so close to the King, and partly to provide enough cover to allow staff some release from duty. Occasionally, as in the case of Thomas Wolsey, access to the Privy chamber could contribute to a downfall.
In the early years of Henry VIII's reign, the title was awarded to subordinates of the King and to court companions who spent time with him. These were the sons of noblemen or important members of the gentry. In time they came to act as personal secretaries to the King, carrying out a variety of administrative tasks within his private rooms. The position was an especially respected one, since it held the promise of regularly gaining the King's attention.
The position of Groom of the Stool became an increasingly influential one, especially in King Henry's old age, when he required a great deal of physical assistance. Although this position was one of a male servant to the household, in charge of the 'royal excretion' (which meant he had the task of cleaning the monarch's anus after defecation), and although the Groom of the Stool had therefore the most unskilled of tasks, still his standing was of the highest; this royal service was seen as entirely honorable, without a trace of being demeaning or humiliating.
Ordinances of Eltham
An extract from the Ordinances of Eltham, manuscript dated 1526, reads:
- "It is ordeyned that such persons as be appointed of the privy Chamber, shall be loving together, and of good Unity and accord keeping secrett all such things as shalbe done or said in the same, without disclosing any part thereof to any person Not being for the time present in the said chamber, and that the King being absent, without they be commanded to goe with his Grace, they shall not only give their continuall and diligent attendance in the said Chamber, but also leave hearkening and inquiring where the King is or goeth, be it early or late, without grudgeing, mumbling, or talking of the King's Pastime; late or early going to bedd."
Grooms of the Stool under Henry VIII
- Sir William Compton (1509–1528) - Died in 1528 during the Sweating sickness
- Sir Henry Norris (1526–1536) - Beheaded 1536 for High Treason
- Sir Thomas Heneage (1536–1546)
- Sir Anthony Denny (1546–1547)
- Sir Michael Stanhope (1547–1551) - Beheaded 1552 for High Treason
King Edward VI
During 1549-53 there were six 'principal gentlemen' (Sir John Cheke, Sir Henry Sydney, Sir Nicholas Throgmorton, Sir Thomas Wroth, Sir Henry Nevill and Barnaby) and twenty-six 'ordinary gentlemen' in Edward VI's Privy chamber. All of these gentlemen, except for Barnaby, were 10 to 15 years older than the king. Usually, the six 'principal gentlemen' would be close intimates of the monarch; however, with a king as young and inexperienced as Edward, there was a huge possibility that some of these men could have forced themselves onto the king rather than the other way around. In fact, it might well have been the case that there were gentlemen of the Privy chamber who were not so friendly with the king: like Sir Phillip Hoby, who was a diplomatist and an intriguer, Lord Strange and William Stanley who ‘confessed to having been employed by Somerset as a spy’.
As salary a gentleman received £50 a year, a gentleman usher £30, and a groom £20. The gentlemen were regular officers of the court and hence belonged to what was called the 'Ordinary of the King's Honorable House', as opposed to the six gentlemen, two gentlemen ushers, four grooms, one barber, and one page, whose positions had been established during the reign of King Henry VIII.
The Privy chamber led to the rise of many powerful men. Later in the reign of King Edward VI, Sir John Gates emerged as ‘a political figure, based in the Privy chamber, and able to control access to the young King on behalf of his patron, the Duke of Northumberland.’ Usually, it was the person closest to the King (whether it was the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Protector or the Lord President of the Privy Council) who would pack the Privy chamber with his allies. This not only suggests that the members of the Privy chamber changed depending on who occupied these positions of power, but also hints that the Privy chamber was very useful in maintaining the power of such people. In fact, John Fowler indirectly maintained Thomas Seymour’s control over Edward by accepting bribes and allowing repeated contact and influence between the two.
- TudorRoyal Household[unreliable source] at tudorplace.com.ar
- Penry Williams, The Later Tudors, p. 130 at books.google.com
- Terence Alan Morris, Tudor Government, p. 10 at books.google.com
- Diarmaid MacCulloch, The reign of Henry VIII: politics, policy, and piety, p. 17 online
- Extract from the Ordinances of Eltham, January 1526 at nationalarchives.gov.uk
- Clements R. Markham, King Edward VI: An Appreciation, p. 168 online
- Morris, op. cit., p. 22 online
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chambers, Ephraim, ed. (1728). "Chamber". Cyclopædia, or an Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (first ed.). James and John Knapton, et al.