Hofdame Note: Our Baguette Elizabeth Davies has a three post mini series scheduled for the first months of 2023 full of fun facts about previous coronations. This post is a “preparatory post” for that series. Thank you, Elizabeth, for help us build the excitement around here!
Soon after King Charles’s accession, Queen Camilla declared that she would not be appointing Ladies in Waiting, thus ending a tradition going back centuries. Presumably she will still need assistance with aspects of her new role, but also presumably the posts will be proper paid positions and not aristocratic ladies doing it for the honour and perks.
One of the senior of such honorary positions was the Mistress of the Robes. We all know that in the last reign, the real working mistress of the robes was Angela Kelly, who received recognition for her important role, but she did not hold the Title. This was traditionally held by a Duchess – and it was the tiara’d Duchess of Grafton we would see at the Queen’s side at Openings of Parliament, after Angela had adjusted HM’s robes in the ante room.
Formerly, the Mistress of the Robes was actually responsible for the Queen’s wardrobe and jewels, as well as acting as a line manager for the other Ladies in Waiting, arranging the rota of attendance. They also had specific duties at State occasions, notably at a Coronation. In times past, the position came with great influence and was much sought after – we all know about the relationship between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill.
Like our late Majesty, Queen Victoria had a long reign and because in her day Mistresses of the Robes were political appointments, she had a total of ten different ones, some coming in and out of role as governments changed. However, the one I am focussing on is Harriet Sutherland- Leveson-Gower (née Howard) Duchess of Sutherland, who was in position at the time of Queen Victoria’s Coronation and was one of her longest serving ones.
Harriet was the daughter of the 6th Earl of Carlisle and became a great friend of Queen Victoria. The Duchess worked to abolish slavery – a stance critiqued by Karl Marx, as Harriet’s mother-in- law, the previous Duchess, had been closely involved in the Highland clearances, which had led to impoverishment and emigration of the Sutherland tenants.
Queen Alexandra inherited her late mother-in-law’s last Mistress of the Robes as her first. She was Louisa Montagu-Douglas-Scott, Duchess of Buccleuch. Her granddaughter, Lady Alice Montagu-Douglas-Scott, was to marry Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, so she is ancestress of all the current royal Gloucester family. As she was born Lady Louisa Hamilton, daughter of the first Duke of Abercorn she is also the 4x maternal great Aunt of Prince William, as well as the 2x great grandmother of Sarah, Duchess of York. She was also maternal aunt to Queen Mary’s first Mistress of the Robes.
Queen Alexandra outlived her husband Edward VII by many years and she kept her last Mistress, the Duchess of Portland, for herself. So when Princess Mary became Queen in 1910, she appointed a new Mistress of the Robes, namely Evelyn Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, a daughter of the Marquess of Lansdowne and his wife Lady Maud Hamilton, and thus a niece of Louisa Duchess of Buccleuch. Evelyn initially kept the role for five years, when she accompanied her husband to Canada when he was appointed Governor General, but resumed it on his return in 1921 and served the Queen until the latter’s death in 1953, thus again leaving a vacancy for the new Queen in 1936.
In 1936, the new Queen Elizabeth appointed Helen Percy, the Duchess of Northumberland, as her first Mistress of the Robes. Helen was born Helen Gordon-Lennox, granddaughter of the 6th Duke of Richmond, so she was a direct descendant of King Charles II and his French mistress Louise Kerouaille. Helen served the Queen until 1964, a year before her own death.
The late Queen’s first Mistress of the Robes was Mary Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire, nee Gascoyne Cecil. She was the granddaughter of former Prime Minister Robert, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, and the daughter-in-law of Evelyn, Duchess of Devonshire, above. It was Mary’s son, William, Marquess of Hartington, who married Kathleen “Kick” Kennedy, sister of President John Kennedy. Mary was in post until 1967, when she was suceeded by the Duchess of Grafton.