Positions Within Marie Antoinette’s Household
Marie Antoinette‘s household, referred to in French as La Maison de La Reine, included not only servants but also a number of noblewomen. Obtaining a position within the Queen’s household was an honor, and positions were highly coveted because it allowed those who held them to have close access to the Queen. Even the most minute details were assigned to someone. For instance, there was the train-bearer who carried the Queen’s train or held her mantle or pelisse.
The women selected for the prinicipal positions within the Queen’s household were selected carefully because they had to sometimes keep confidences to prevent intrigues or if they were entrusted with money, they could not be spendthrifts. Those who served in the Queen’s household also had certain perks. For instance, some of the Queen’s ladies had access to her discarded clothing. Candles, even if unused, were also divided among the ladies of the bedchamber. It was profitable to obtain the candles because it allowed “four of [them to receive] 50,000 livres a year each.”
A hierarchy operated for each position within the Queen’s household. The most important position was Superintendent of the Household. Moreover, those serving in the Queen’s household were required to follow etiquette. This meant people deferred to the person above them, otherwise they were considered to be breaking protocol:
“These rules were so scrupulously followed that one time, the Queen was left naked, shivering, and covering her breasts as one person after another of higher status entered the room. In response, the shivering Queen, who was known to be anything but fond of etiquette, cried out, ‘How disagreeable! How tiresome.'”
Here is the list, according to rank, with a brief description of the duties performed by each.
Superintendent of the Household: This was the most important position in the Queen’s household and a position held for life. Everyone went through the Superintendent of the Household before being granted access to the Queen. Thus, the superintendent could determine who could and who couldn’t see the Queen, as well as determine the outcome of quarrels among the household. The superintendent could also dismiss anyone for any reason. Because this position was so important and because the Superintendent spent a great deal of time with the Queen, she was given her own apartment at Versailles. In addition, the superintendent swore fidelity to the King.
The position of Superintendent of the Household first began in the 1600s. Louis XV’s wife, Marie Leszczyńska, appointed Mademoiselle de Clermont to the position of superintendent. However, Maria Leszczyńska became unhappy with the privileges assigned to the post and when she died on 24 June 1768, she asked her husband (Louis XV) to keep the post vacant.
When Marie Antoinette became Queen in May of 1774, she did not fill the position immediately. Eventually, however, Marie Antoinette gave the post to her dear friend, the Princesse de Lamballe. The Princesse de Lamballe assumed the role on 18 September 1775. The appointment caused great controversy and jealousy within the Queen’s court because suddenly many of those who had unfettered access to the Queen, no longer did. In addition, the Princesse de Lamballe was scrupulous about performing her duties and this caused friction with the other women.
Some of the duties that the Superintendent of the Household might perform, included the following:
- Inviting guests to activities held by the Queen, such as balls.
- Placing the Queen’s breakfast on her bed every morning.
- Regulating who had access to the Queen.
- Repling to the Queen’s correspondence.
- Supervising all the other women on the Queen’s staff.
Lady of Honor (dame d’honneur) and Mistress of the Wardrobe (dame d’atours): During the time when no Superintendent of the Household existed, the position was accomplished by these two women. In addition to those duties, the Lady of Honor, which was a married women, was also responsible for the following:
- Ordering the Queen’s carriage.
- Pouring the water for the Queen to wash her hands and dressed the Queen in her chemise.
- Preparing the Queen’s bed for the footmen.
- Serving as companions and attended and assisted with court functions.
- Supervising the Queen’s toilette by changing lace, linens, and furniture during the Queen’s public toilette and in the Queen’s bedroom.
- Supervising and managed trips to other locations, such as Fontainebleau, St. Cloud, Marly, Petit Trianon, or La Muette.
- Supervising other waiting women, who did such things as drying the Queen off after a bath or warming her bed at bedtime.
The Mistress of the Wardrobe also had certain duties:
- Dressing the Queen in her petticoat and handed her the gown during her public toilette.
- Drawing the curtains and left the Queen’s bed to be made.
- Ensuring the Queen’s wardrobe was kept in order.
- Preparing a foot bath when the Queen did not take a full bath.
- Ensuring the Queen was dressed appropriately and suitably.
- Overseeing repairs, cleaning, and availability of Queen’s clothing, napkins, and lace.
- Supervising the queen’s wardrobe and jewelry.
Ladies of the Palace (dames du Palais): This position eventually replaced the Ladies of Honor and they took over the role as stated in Lady of Honor, with one Lady of the Palace supervising the others. Their duties were not necessarily menial, as they served more as companions to the Queen. They performed this duty when the Queen left her apartment to go to Mass or after her morning toilette.
First Lady of the Bedchamber (dame d’atours): She helped the Mistress of the Wardrobe achieve her functions. She also had keys to the Queens rooms, thereby allowing her or the ladies of the bedchambers to recommend or deny audiences with the Queen, which meant the ladies of the bedchamber held a powerful position at court. Their duties entailed:
- Announcing when the Queen rose in the morning.
- Maintaining and controlling pensions and payments from the Queen’s Privy Purse.
- Placing the Queen’s petticoat on her and handed her gown to her while dressing.
- Performing honors of service when Ladies or Honor or the Mistress of the Wardrobe were absent.
- Supervising the Queen’s levée and coucher.
- Supervising other ladies of the bedchamber.
Besides these functions, there were also a variety of other positions within the Queen’s household that might include:
- Butlers, Footmen, and Esquires: Household responsibilities and responsibilities for food service.
- Controller of the Queen’s Household: Inspect and regulate food expenses and supplies.
- Doctors, Surgeons, and Apothecaries: Care for the Queen’s health.
- Ecclesiastic Officers: Provide necessary religious and ecclesiastical services.
- Hairdressers: Prepare the Queen’s hair daily.
- Male-servants: Perform miscellaneous tasks.
- Officers of the Mouth: This position required nobility. They officiated for ushers in case the Queen should happen to want them when going in grand procession. Quarterly they did honors of a table.
- Queen’s Gendarmes: Guard the Queen.
- Queen’s Guards: Serve as body guards
- Queen’s Light Cavalry: Aid the gendarmes and guards.
- Queen’s Musicians: Provide music for the Queen’s enjoyment.
- Stables of the Queen: Maintain and provide royal carriages.
- Tire-Women: Function as a lady’s maid.
- Valet of the Wardrobe: Aid the lady’s maid.
- Wardrobe Porter: Carry wrappers, clothes, and baskets from the bedchamber to the tiring wardrobe.
-  Fraser, Antonia, Marie Antoinette: The Journey, 2002, p. 150.
-  Walton, Geri, Marie Antoinette’s Confidante: The Rise and Fall of the Princesse de Lamballe, 2016, p. 75.
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