Monday, 30 April 2012

The Groom of the Stool

I frequently ask on this blog whether we can and should look to history to understand modern forms of servitude and whether we lose sight of the  uniqueness of the past by insisting on its modern relevance. Well nothing reminds me of the distance between the modern and the early modern worlds more than the fact that the Tudor kings employed a servant specifically to – I’ll phrase this delicately – wipe their royal posteriors. This servant was hilariously named the ‘Groom of the Stool’ (sadly ‘stool’ meant ‘toilet’ at this point but the modern term for a bowel movement did evolve from here) and he had an influential and powerful role. Obviously the Groom was granted access to the most intimate moments of the monarch’s life but during Henry VIII's reign he also assumed responsibility for important administrative tasks.

Before he became infamous for bullying overweight schoolchildren David Starkey produced some superb analyses of this role. Starkey explains how Henry VII transformed the traditional great Chamber – the room in which “the king slept; ate most of his meals, and conducted most of his private business” – into a series of smaller rooms (1). The smallest and most personal of these was the Privy Chamber. Henry staffed this study-come-bedroom with a handful of trusted subordinates and forbade them to work in any other room. As Starkey puts it, the “firmly closed door of the apartment protected the king physically from the court nobility and so morally from the constant, insidious pressure they could ordinarily bring to bear.”  He might have hired a servant to wipe his backside but Henry longed for privacy and in the Privy Chamber he could relax and study accompanied only by his most trusted servants.

His son, however, renovated the function of the Privy chamber and its staff. The young Henry VIII, always glad of companions, swelled the staff of the chamber and entrusted them with ever more magnificent duties. These servants acted as emissaries between Henry and foreign and domestic magnates and monarchs.

So what might the existence and status of this role tell us, if anything, about servitude in early modern England? On the one hand, Starkey points out that although the Groom “had (to our eyes) the most menial tasks” his standing was, under Henry VIII, “the highest… entirely honourable, without a trace of the demeaning or the humiliating.” Although we may find it difficult to accept, early moderns did not necessarily consider servitude – whether royal or domestic –  to be demeaning. What's more, subordinate positions could have intensely powerful effects.  Then again, as Orlando Patterson points out, the Groom held no real power of his own. He was accepted by others only as a symbolic stand-in for the king, not as an agent who acted independently. As such, his legal position was strikingly similar to that of a slave (2). If such individuals enjoyed elevated statuses this was only because they were symbolically incorporated within the bodies of their masters. Powerful effects do not always require empowered individuals.
1. David Starkey, “Intimacy and Innovation: the rise of the Privy Chamber, 1547-1558” in The English Court, ed. David Starkey (Longman, 1987).
2. Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Harvard University Press, 1985).

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