Saturday, August 11, 2012

Question from Michelle - Ladies in waiting spying on Queens

First, thank you for such a helpful and informative blog!

My questions are in regard to using ladies-in-waiting to spy on a queen's doings, particularly Catherine of Aragon, and how such "arrangements" were made.

Firstly, do we actually know of any instances where a lady-in-waiting was known (or at least highly suspected) as a spy who willingly and freely passed on information about her mistress to a third party? Would love some definitive documentation (e.g. letters to/from said spy, financial transactions, arrest warrants, etc), but would also love to hear what courtiers thought or suspected as well (e.g. if someone like Chapuys thought a particular woman was untrustworthy or betraying the Queen, etc) Also, do we know if there's any truth to that habit in period Tudor dramas where the Queen always dismisses her ladies before important conversations, and if so, was this due to fear or knowledge of spies?

Particularly, do we have any evidence of Cardinal Wolsey using Catherine of Aragon's English ladies-in-waiting to spy on her? I remember hearing somewhere that he used his influence to dismiss CoA's Spanish ladies-in-waiting and replace them with English ladies that reported to him (or at least ladies that CoA couldn't trust), but I can't remember if I heard it from a "factual" source or from fiction. It does seem something that Wolsey (or Cromwell) might do, though! What do we know of CoA's ladies informing other parties about her private dealings?

In a more general sense, if someone like Wolsey did wish to use a lady-in-waiting as a spy on the Queen, how would such an arrangement be made? For example, would he approach the woman directly, or would he approach her family so that her father/male relatives could instruct her? Would he likely suborn an existing lady-in-waiting, or might he try to arrange for a loyal family/woman to be placed with the Queen's household? Would these likely be long-term and all inclusive arrangements, or would they likely be negotiated for specific incidents (e.g. "The Queen is meeting with Bishop Fisher tomorrow. Tell me what they discuss.")? What sorts of bribery might be used? Would the lady be likely to use letters to pass on the information, or would she do it person, and if so, how and with who? (meeting in private areas with loyal servants, knocking on Cromwell's office door, etc?) Lastly, what would be the potential penalties for a woman who refused to inform on her mistress, or passed along lies/glossed over important information?

(Thanks so much for your answers! I will likely be back with other questions re: CoA and ladies in waiting. As a side note, if anyone could recommend some good texts about Catherine of Aragon and her ladies-in-waiting, I'd definitely appreciate it. I would even love some fiction recommendations for that topic, as long as they're not too wildly inaccurate.)


Laura said...

I have never seen any definitive proof of one of the Queen's ladies spying on her, and I doubt it would exist. Technically, it would be treason for a lady in waiting to sell confidential information about the queen to anyone. And even if it wasn't treated as treason, it would certainly result in the dismissal and disgrace of any maid who was caught selling a queen's secrets. At the very least the spy in question would be exiled from court.

Did it happen? Undoubtedly. But I highly doubt you'll find any written evidence of it.

shtove said...

That made me think of an interesting point: did a lady-in-waiting take an oath of secrecy? I guess they worked by an honour system.

I can't help on the spying query, but there is an incident of a young maid-of-honour spilling the beans after the death of Elizabeth I. The account was used to undermine the queen's succesor, and no doubt was seen as treacherous.

Full source at my blog - interesting story:

kb said...

Ladies in waiting were 'sworn' to the chamber. I don't have the exact words of the oath to hand. Regarding the manuscript account of Elizabeth Southwell on the death of Queen Elizabeth, it is possibly true but there are some reports that she was not a witness. See Lives and Letters of the Devereux, Earls of Essex in the reigns of Elizabeth, James I, and Charles I 1540-1646, Vol. 2, p. 205. Four years after Elizabeth I's death, I believe Elizabeth Southwell was in Italy. She had converted to Catholicism and her marriage to her lover, Robert Dudley, while apparently happy was not without it's legal and theological challenges. Also in 1607/8 Robert Dudley's license to travel outside of England was revoked so it is possible her testimony was colored by political events as well. Thank you for posting it on your site though. I will go find the whole article now!

Anonymous said...

It also depends upon what you mean by "spying", or, what kind of information is at issue. For example, I've read in several books that ambassadors in Elizabeth's time would obtain information from her ladies in waiting regarding a variety of topics ... everything from her behavior with Robert Dudley to her menses.


shtove said...


Thanks - that's an interesting source.

Here's the link:

Not clear on the author's point: Southwell was married in 1599 and therefore couldn't have been maid of honour in 1603 and therefore couldn't have been at court when the queen died?

I post the sources on Eliz's death so people can read for themselves.

Would be interested to hear more on the chamber swearing, how old it was, how christian etc.

Michelle said...

First of all, thanks for all the helpful responses!

As context, I'm currently in the planning stages for a text-based video game where the player is one of Catherine of Aragon's ladies in waiting. I liked the idea of introducing potential conflict/choice by having Wolsey ask/expect the player to pass on information in return for helping the player's family (minor nobility looking for positions at court etc), thereby forcing them to choose between helping their family/Wolsey or being loyal to CoA. That was why I was particularly interested in that rumor I heard about Wolsey dismissing CoA's Spanish ladies to replace them with English ladies she could no longer trust (would be a great place to start the game if so).

Laura - I did think it was a bit of a long shot that there'd be actual primary documentation on spying, though I don't know if there are any gossipmongers like Chapuys who might have thought Lady So-and-So was passing on information. As you say, it must have happened to some degree, so I'd love to extrapolate what we know about Tudor manners, etiquette etc to puzzle out how these arrangements would have worked.

shtove - Thank you for the article! I'm going to read it at further length later, but it may come in handy.

Esther - See, that's the sort of thing I'm interested in... how did these ambassadors approach the ladies? Did they bribe them, and with what? Were certain topics off-limits? (the whole Dudley/menses topic was important but perhaps it wasn't guarded as closely as some of her other secrets?) I'm trying to get into the mindset of someone who would want to find out more about the secret doings of a Queen (possibly stuff like menses, men flirting, etc, but also things like important visitors etc), and how they would go about it via the queen's staff.

Anonymous said...

It depends what you mean by spying. I do know that particularly with Anne Boylen her ladies in waiting were questioned about what the Queen did and of she saw any men. A lot of ladies who were supporters of Jane Seymour remembered or misremembered events that had happen years ago. If that counts as Spying. I got this Information from a book I am reasons at the moment of Anne Boylen,