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A better deal than Downton? A day in the life of a Jacobean servant

Historical author KJ Maitland offers insight into the lives of servants in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, and considers how it contrasts with the typical upstairs/downstairs picture of later history that we often see on screen…

Servants pour wine to Jacobean gentlemen in a London tavern, c.early 17th century
Published: March 31, 2022 at 3:52 pm
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In 1592, 18-year-old Anthony Maria Browne inherited the title of Viscount Montague from his grandfather, and with it the Sussex estates of Cowdray Castle and Battle Abbey. He seems to have found the households in disorder because, in 1595, he felt obliged to write A Book of Orders and Rules, detailing the duties and conduct he expected from each of the officers and servants on his estates. The book offers a fascinating insight into the lives of late Elizabethan and Jacobean servants, who operated very differently to their Victorian successors.

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The Montagues could afford to keep a huge staff. This was because upper-class Elizabethans didn’t provide bedchambers for servants, and their numerous young apprentices worked solely for board and lodgings. Noble families like the Montagues might have employed between 100 to 200 servants, although merchants in newly built mansions would have had far fewer – between 30 to 60. By the late Victorian period, however, noble households could no longer afford so many. Tatton Park in Knutsford – known for its lavish parties and royal guests – employed only 40 indoor servants in the 1880s; this would have been considered well-staffed by post-WW2 levels, but rather less so in Elizabethan times.

A portrait of 16th-century gentleman Sir Francis Willoughby, painted by George Gower
A portrait of 16th-century gentleman Sir Francis Willoughby, painted by George Gower. Willoughby used 15 men to bear food to his table, as a symbol of his status. (Image attributed to George Gower, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Status in the 16th century was displayed by the number of servants used to bring dishes to the dining table. Sir Francis Willoughby (1547–96), a coalmine owner, used 15 men to bear food to his table – but higher ranking families would have had more. Many of these ‘waiting’ servants were liveried and armed, primarily employed for status and protection. In consequence, according to clerygyman and chronicler William Harrison, writing in 1587, there were “great swarms of idle serving men”, unoccupied during hours outside mealtimes, who didn’t have enough work to occupy them in the bigger houses. They instead roamed the streets, looking for mischief.

A typical day of work

What was a typical day like for a servant in the 16th century? In Cowdray, West Sussex the gentleman usher summoned the yeoman ushers at 10am to prepare the dining chamber for dinner, the main meal of the day (though it could be served be as late as noon in the cities). After dinner, a servant was free to “dispose himself at his pleasure” until 5pm when he returned to serve supper. Supper over, the servant could again “dispose of himself as best liketh” until bed, including visiting taverns. They were, however, required to return to sleep in the house.

While there seemed to have been no provision for regular days off, many servants were allowed to take several hours off once their duties for the day were complete. Once the beds were made and private chambers tidies, the ushers, yeomen and grooms of the chambers were allowed to decide among themselves who remained on duty to wait on the family or accompany them when they went out – allowing the others to enjoy some time off.

A group portrait of a household staff, c1880s
A group portrait of a household staff, c1880s. During this era, servants were kept much busier than their Jacobean counterparts. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

This contrasts with the Victorian era, during which servants were kept much busier. During this period, lower ranking staff often worked from 6am to 10pm or 11pm at night, with only brief rest periods. Some would have to stay up until family members had returned from parties, however late. Even when staff were sitting down in the servants’ hall, they were generally expected to be engaged in household tasks, like shoe cleaning, and answering bells anytime they rang. In the latter half of the 19th century, time off became increasingly formalised and by 1880, servants expected to have a half-day off on Sunday and a full day off each month. By the 1900s they could expect a week’s holiday a year, and it had become fashionable to allow them an evening off a week.

Which roles made up a household?

Servants in a 17th-century household were mostly male. Gentlewomen helped female members of the family to dress, but it was menservants who cooked, cleaned rooms, emptied chamber pots, and brushed floors (tasks which in a Victorian house would have been done mainly by women).

The gender balance had already shifted by the Georgian period. In the 18th century, the housekeeper and cook were usually female, and they had been joined by chamber maids, housemaids and maids-of-all-work. The Elizabethan scullion boy had largely been replaced by a scullery-maid. Even in a vicar’s household where one might expect to find more male staff, the three or four servants were likely to be women with perhaps only one manservant.

Back in the late 1500s, Viscount Montague demanded meticulous records of expenditure. In the kitchen, this was the responsibility of the ‘Clarke of the Kitchen’, who had to provide the cooks with the ingredients for every meal in exact amounts for each person to be served. Among his many duties was to ensure every wheat loaf that went into the oven weighed 18 ounces, and was 16 ounces when it was taken out.

Jacobean ladies play cards while a servant brings food to the table
Ushers and grooms of the chambers were expected to purchase sets of cards, dice and backgammon for guests wishing to play. (Image by Alamy)

Since Tudor times it had been a tradition that houseguests leave gratuities for different members of staff. In the 1600s, tips known as vails were deposited in a clay box held by the steward, who would break it open once a quarter and distribute it to the servants he felt had earned it. In addition, ushers and grooms of the chambers were expected to purchase sets of cards, dice and backgammon for guests wishing to play. Satisfied guests deposited vails for this service in a separate clay play-box and the money was divided equally among the grooms and ushers. So, the more they ‘helped’ generous tippers to win, the heavier the play-box.

Upstairs, downstairs?

By the 1600s, family, senior officers and guests were dining upstairs in a chamber adjoining the family’s privy chambers. Servants and any strangers who were not guests of the master ate in the hall, where – at the beginning of the Tudor period – masters and servants had dined together. The clarke of the kitchen headed his own table in the hall for the servants for which he was responsible, the chief cook seated lower than the clarke. But servants weren’t kept ‘below stairs’, nor were they expected to withdraw if the master entered a room, as they were in Victorian times.

A servant in 17th-century Kirby Hall helps a lady to dress.
Servants in a 17th-century household were mostly male, though gentlewomen helped female members of the family to dress. (Photo by English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Victorian dinner guests would expect to be served the same food as their host. But in Tudor and Jacobean households, four or five different dishes, together known as a mess, would be placed between four people who helped themselves only from those dishes. People at the lower end might find brawn [a meat jelly made from pork] in mustard and boiled mutton as two of the dishes they were to share, while those higher up the table might have roast beef and roasted capon in wine in their mess.

Servants were instructed to watch the family and guests “diligently” while they were eating “to see if they need anything which … they forbear to call for”. But by the Victorian period, though servants were expected to be attentive to their needs, the family no longer wanted servants staring at them as they dined. Reflective mirrors or ‘butler balls’ were often hung in dining rooms, in which servants could discreetly watch the table without looking at it directly.

Where did servants sleep?

While Victorian servants slept in their own bedrooms, with underservants sharing rooms, most servants in the 17th century slept on paillasses [straw mattresses] in the hall, with a fire permitted from All Hallows’ Eve to Good Friday. Personal servants slept on truckle beds in their master’s bedchamber or outside their door. Senior officers had bedchambers, but it was common for people of all ranks to share beds not simply for space but warmth. The gentleman usher was responsible for seeing that all officers and servants slept two to a bed, but he chose who they would pair up with and had to ensure both servants were of the same rank.

Little wonder then that Montague exhorted his many servants to “embrace unity, peace and good agreement amongst themselves”.

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KJ Maitland is a historical novelist and lecturer of creative writing. Her latest book is Traitor in the Ice, the second novel in the Jacobean-set Daniel Pursglove series, and is published by Headline Books on 31 March 2022

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