To Wait Upon the Queen

A guest post from Karen Heenan

Lady, in Waiting, the third novel in my Tudor Court series, takes place during the early years of the reign of Elizabeth I. Its main character, Margaery Preston, is a chamberer, one of many levels of waiting-women in the royal privy chambers.

Image by Jo-B from Pixabay


Unlike a court headed by a king, where all public and private duties were carried out by men, a queen’s attendants, other than guards, were all female. This gave them some degree of power at court, as courtiers, court officials, and ambassadors all vied for attention and influence. To be a woman in Elizabeth’s court required connections: many attendants were related on her Boleyn side, but there were also cousins descending from her father’s sisters, Margaret and Mary.

The women were required to amuse the queen, and so had to be well­-educated, often speaking several languages; skilled in music or dance; and able to keep up with the queen on horseback or at the archery butts.


At the top of the heap was Katherine (“Kat”) Ashley, first lady of the bedchamber and the queen’s former governess. Mistress Ashley kept the privy chamber running smoothly, handling expenses on behalf of the household and keeping an eye on the younger women. But her main concern was always Elizabeth.


The ladies of the bedchamber came next—senior ladies-in-waiting whose duties included dressing and undressing the queen, combing and styling her hair, serving her food, entertaining her with music or conversation, and occasionally sharing her bed. (The queen was a bad sleeper and liked company; it was also a form of security in that she would never be alone). These ladies were generally older, and often married. Most were related to Elizabeth in some way.


Next in line were the maids of honor, who were both entertaining and decorative. Maids were generally well-born girls of fourteen to eighteen years of age. Their placement made it easy to secure good marriages under the queen’s eye.


The other women, including chamberers, were more all-purpose, and did whatever needed doing at any given time, from carrying trays to emptying chamber pots to my character Margaery’s least favorite task, collecting the pins which held the queen’s daily costumes together. (Heads would not roll if Her Majesty stepped on a pin, but it would be an unpleasant time, nonetheless).


With so many women, the court should have been a brilliant display of color, but it was not. As Margaery learns early on from Mistress Ashley, “Her Majesty likes her women to be soberly dressed.”


Elizabeth Tudor did not like to be upstaged, even by those closest to her.

Lady, In Waiting

by Karen Heenan
Book III of The Tudor Court

This unusual story of a marriage made for reasons other than love, between two people both with sometimes-conflicting duties to their sovereign and her advisors.

You can read the first chapter here.

Romans in Africa, Africans in Rome

We first meet my character Druisius in the last third of Empire’s Exile, when he’s assigned to guard the party of travellers from the lost West who have unexpectedly arrived in Casil. (If you’re new to my series or this blog, Casil is an analogue of Rome, in most ways.) Druisius is a palace guard and a musician, and were my world real, he’d be of African origin.

“I am different.” He was, of course, his dark skin making him stand out in Linrathe and Sorham. In Ésparias, where men from the southern coast and Leste served on the Wall, his appearance wasn’t remarkable, a matter of degree rather than sharp contrast.

Empire’s Reckoning

The Phoenicians, Greece and then Rome had traded with north and northwest Africa from about 900 BCE (Carthage was founded about 800 BCE) and among the trade goods were grain and salt, olive oil, gold and pottery. Rome controlled north Africa for about 500 years.

https://anthrogenica.com/showthread.php?705-Roman-Africa

But goods from further south were also brought to Carthage and other trading centres, and Rome, always looking for efficiencies, sent perhaps up to five expeditions into sub-Saharan Africa. (They also wanted, at one point, to circumnavigate the continent, but that appears to not have happened.)

In 21 BC, Lucius Cornelius Balbus, Proconsul of Africa, sent troops as far south as the Niger River (Manding: Jeliba or Joliba “great river”; Igbo: Orimiri or Orimili “great water”;  Tuareg: Egerew n-Igerewen “river of rivers“) in part to subdue the Garamantes people who had a nasty habit of disrupting trade caravans passing through their territories. Sixty or so years later, Suetonius Paulinus led an army across the Atlas range and possibly to the borders of modern-day Senegal. Two expeditions to Lake Chad occurred in the first century CE, and possibly one that travelled into modern-day Nigeria.

Roman military leaders kept detailed records (ok, Rome kept records of everything, pretty well) and much of what we know of these explorations comes from Pliny the Elder. But archaeological evidence also suggests that trade continued well after Rome declined as a world power. Analysis of copper-based objects in Burkina Faso shows the origin of the ore to be in the Eastern Mediterranean, and dating from the 3rd to 7th C of the common era.

So – back to Druisius. Rome was a cosmopolitan city; its colonies were, too, in part because one of its strategies was to send legions of young men far away from home, where they couldn’t lead rebellions against their land’s Roman rulers. Historian and archaeologist Anthony Birley, in his book Septimius Severus: The African Emperor notes that between 193 and 211 CE eight men of African origin commanded Roman legions in the north. Severus himself was of Libyan origin, and is portrayed in contemporary portraits as dark-skinned.  So there is nothing unusual about Druisius in my city of Casil.

Septimus Severus and his family. Tempera on wood. Acquired from Egypt in 1932 CE. from Roman Egypt c. 200 CE. It is on display at the Altes Museum in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin

But as my readers know, I build my world on detailed research. And in the work-in-progress (really, a work-in-planning) my characters return to Casil, and Druisius and his family will have a larger role. I know very little about early-medieval cultures of north Africa, and less about those further south. They may be Casilani traders now, but Druisius’s family would have mementos and traditions from their own culture, and I want those to be as reflective of reality as I can make them. So it’s time for a good chunk of research, made harder by the COVID-driven closure of my university’s library…but not too hard to work around that in this electronic age. I’m looking forward to learning something new.

The featured image is a bust of the Emperor Caracalla, Septimus Severus’s son. His mother, Julia Domna, was Syrian.