See you in court
Interview by Amruta Slee for the QANTAS inflight magazine, April 2011
With a royal marriage on the agenda in London this month, the work of historian Lucy Worsley will be on show even more than usual. Here, the chief curator at Historic Royal Palaces talks court life through the ages.
Which historic palaces are you involved with?
Historic Royal Palaces is an independent charity that looks after the Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Kensington Palace, the Banqueting House in Whitehall, and Kew Palace in Kew Gardens. We don’t get any money from the government or the royal family. The purpose of our charity is conservation and education.
How did you get the job?
When I finished my history degree at Oxford, I wrote to all the historic houses in the area begging for a job. I ended up at a tiny 17th-century place called Milton Manor, where my tasks included giving guided tours, feeding the llamas, and looking for important pieces of paper that my boss, Anthony [Mocklet-Barrett] had lost. We also had the most terrific historical re-enactments: the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, the sinking of a Nazi boat in the lake for D-Day, a Stuart court masque, etc. (This gave me a real taste for what I do today, which is similar, but on a much bigger scale.)
After Milton Manor I got a job at the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, where I was in charge of wind and watermills. Whenever I went to visit our members at their various mills, they would always give me a bag of their own stone-ground flour. Eventually my kitchen cupboard fell off the wall under the weight of it all! After that I worked at English Heritage, looking after castles and country houses, and then, seven years ago, I ‘upgraded’ to palaces.
What intrigues you most about royal history?
One of the things that interests me most about kings and queens is the fact that they were the best-documented people of their day. We can really find out a lot about life in the past by getting to know them as representative people of their age, not just as political figures. We also discovered that our visitors are really interested in the servants in the vast royal households – it wasn’t just posh people at court. Even today you don’t have to be a rabid royalist to be interested in the operation of power. For most of the past thousand years, the court was where the powerful people were to be found.
What is your favourite period of English History?
At the moment I’m flicking my fan towards the 18th century. My favourite period changes depending on what I’m working on and I’ve just finished a book about the Georgian court – it’s called Courtiers, The Secret History of Kensington Palace. It’s about the servants who lived and worked at court, and it gives a worm’s eye view of the torrid goings-on in the Georgian royal family. In the story there are numerous mistresses, a mysterious turbaned Turk, a Wild Boy, a Vice-Chamberlain with many vices and drunken Equerry.
What is the biggest misconception about the palaces?
Lots of people fear they’ll be really touristy and commercial. They’re not: everyone’s ticket money goes towards our education and conservation work. That’s what we’re here for, along with trying to give our 3.2 million visitors a year a really good time.
Which palace is the most popular?
The Tower of London is our most-visited palace – everyone wants to see the crown jewels and the spot where two of Henry VIII’s six wives were executed. Recently, many people in Britain have been experiencing tough times, it seems, except for us. Last year we had the highest number of visitors in a decade. I suppose it makes sense: in troubled economic times people often take a day out instead of a holiday, and turn to history for comfort.
© 2013 Lucy Worsley