The formidable ladies-in-waiting whose service to the Queen has finally ended

It’s hard to imagine a more capable — or formidable — bunch of women. Known as ‘the Head Girls’, the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting were constantly by her side, some, astonishingly, for more than 60 years.

They were upright, aristocratic and utterly loyal companions and friends. They dealt with everything from public and personal correspondence and organizing the royal diary to accompanying the monarch on engagements, arranging private family events, Christmas and birthday gifts, and even sitting down with the Queen to watch the racing.

Like her family, they are currently putting aside their deep personal grievance to help prepare for Monday’s state funeral. And like the staff at Clarence House, who have been told to expect redundancies, they are facing a dramatic change.

It’s hard to imagine a more capable — or formidable — bunch of women. Known as ‘the Head Girls’, the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting were constantly by her side, some, astonishingly, for more than 60 years

While sources say it is too early even to begin discussing their future, it is likely that at least two of the five or so women currently working will retire immediately, as they are well into their 80s. They had remained in post because they wanted to stay by the Queen until the end.

An insider has told the Mail that one or two could stay on for at least a few weeks more as Camilla, the new Queen Consort, will be in need of their wise heads — and keen ear for palace gossip.

Another source said yesterday: ‘Everyone has a girl crush on the ladies-in-waiting. They are fun, great — and know absolutely everything. Fascinating and terrifying in equal measure.

‘They are utterly fabulous and have been such loyal servants to Her Majesty.’

Historically, a lady-in-waiting has always been a female ‘personal assistant’ at court, often taken from nobility, to serve a senior royal woman.

The ladies’ tasks today are mainly administrative, but without a shadow of a doubt they remain some of the most trusted, discreet and powerful figures at court — even though they don’t have the most prestigious job title, or earn a salary.

Hussey was appointed in 1960, the year of Prince Andrew's birth, originally to deal with the Queen's correspondence, but she rose to become her indispensable right-hand woman and great friend

Hussey was appointed in 1960, the year of Prince Andrew’s birth, originally to deal with the Queen’s correspondence, but she rose to become her indispensable right-hand woman and great friend

That’s one of the reasons the role almost always goes to a woman of aristocratic background — there are few wealthy enough to be able to afford to take on such a demanding position simply out of love and loyalty to the Crown. The Queen’s five most notable constant companions were Lady Susan Hussey, Dame Mary Morrison, Lady Elizabeth Leeming, Susan Rhodes and Dame Annabel Whitehead.

They were there, yesterday, as their mistress’s coffin was brought to Westminster Hall. Typically elegant in their grievance, dressed in black, pearls and diamonds, some leant on walking sticks, others on umbrellas, but they were determined to remain with her to the very end.

The ladies are modest in number compared with those who served past Queens — Elizabeth I had no fewer than 30 ladies-in-waiting, all reported by the Spanish ambassador of the time to be ‘very magnificent and in splendid style’.

Crucially, today’s contingent were all finely tuned to the Queen’s needs and moods.

It is said that when she was on engagements, they would keep a watch for gestures that communicated her feelings. If the Queen twisted her wedding ring around her finger, for example, this was apparently an indication to her lady-in-waiting that she wasn’t enjoying a conversation and wanted to be rescued.

They were also privy to her real feelings about some of her royal duties. Listening to the Everly Brothers perform their hit Cathy’s Clown at the Royal Variety Performance in the 1960s, she is said to have turned discreetly to one lady-in-waiting and said: ‘They sound like two cats being strangled!’

The nuances of their roles and titles can be confusing. For while the Countess of Airlie in recent years held the most senior title — ‘Lady of the Bedchamber’ — it was Lady Susan Hussey, 83, who took charge on a day-to-day basis as the leading ‘Woman of the Bedchamber’ .

Tradition holds that a Woman of the Bedchamber would be in daily attendance on the monarch, helping her with bathing and dressing — although today they are relieved of the task of entertaining her with music and dancing as was the case in Tudor times.

Historically, a lady-in-waiting has always been a female 'personal assistant' at court, often taken from nobility, to serve a senior royal woman.  The ladies' tasks today are mainly administrative, but without a shadow of a doubt they remain some of the most trusted, discreet and powerful figures at court — even though they don't have the most prestigious job title, or earn a salary

Historically, a lady-in-waiting has always been a female ‘personal assistant’ at court, often taken from nobility, to serve a senior royal woman. The ladies’ tasks today are mainly administrative, but without a shadow of a doubt they remain some of the most trusted, discreet and powerful figures at court — even though they don’t have the most prestigious job title, or earn a salary

Hussey was appointed in 1960, the year of Prince Andrew’s birth, originally to deal with the Queen’s correspondence, but she rose to become her indispensable right-hand woman and great friend.

She is the fifth and youngest daughter of the 12th Earl Waldegrave and was married to Marmaduke Hussey, later chairman of the board of governors of the BBC.

Such is her closeness to the Royal Family, she was asked to be a godmother of Prince William, and also to accompany the Queen to the funeral of her late husband, Prince Philip.

And when the Queen wanted to help Meghan come to terms with the complexities of royal life, it was Lady Susan she personally sent to see her. Unfortunately, Meghan is said to have declined her efforts to help, allegedly failing to appreciate just what a repository of wisdom she could be.

Lady Susan is a Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order (GCVO) and received the Queen Elizabeth II’s Royal Household Long and Faithful Service Medal with 30, 40, 50 and 60-year bars. Cool, calm and effective, she likes to remain enigmatically in the background at royal engagements, aside from collecting flowers and gently nudging on the receiving line.

But in 2001 she was spotted passing the Queen a pound coin so she could buy The Big Issue from a magazine seller while on an official day trip to Brighton.

The Honorable Mary Morrison, 85, worked closely with the Queen since 1960 and is said to have shared her passion for horse racing. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order in 2013.

In 2018, she gave the Queen a fright after she tumbled down a flight of stairs leading into the ballroom at Balmoral while standing next to her, and suffered a broken ankle.

But she stoically returned to work on crutches.

Dame Annabel had previously worked as lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret, but after Margaret's death in 2002 began working for the Queen.  The Queen is pictured in 2014 being accompanied by her lady-in-waiting Dame Annabel Whitehead on a visit to a Sunday service in King's Lynn

Dame Annabel had previously worked as lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret, but after Margaret’s death in 2002 began working for the Queen. The Queen is pictured in 2014 being accompanied by her lady-in-waiting Dame Annabel Whitehead on a visit to a Sunday service in King’s Lynn

In 2017, the Queen appointed two ‘younger’ ladies-in-waiting after the retirement of some of her other companions.

The Court Circular announced them as ‘the Lady Elizabeth Leeming and Mrs Simon Rhodes to be Extra Ladies-in-Waiting to Her Majesty.’

Lady Elizabeth Leeming is the Queen’s first cousin once removed, and the daughter of the 17th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne.

Mrs Rhodes is married to Simon Rhodes, the son of the late Margaret Rhodes, the Queen’s cousin and one of her childhood best friends, who died in 2016.

She was among those who joined ‘HMS Bubble’, the group who helped protect the monarch at Windsor Castle during the Covid-19 pandemic, along with Dame Annabel Whitehead, 79.

Dame Annabel had previously worked as lady-in-waiting to Princess Margaret, but after Margaret’s death in 2002 began working for the Queen.

She was made a Dame Commander of Royal Victorian Order (DCVO) in 2014 and has also received the Queen Elizabeth II Royal Household Long and Faithful Service Medal for 20 years of service.

A royal source said: ‘I think most of them have been waiting until the Queen went, before retiring themselves. But it could be that one or two stay on just to help the new Queen Consort ease into her role.

‘It’s a very different set up at Buckingham Palace compared to the one over at Clarence House.’

Another source said they didn’t believe the Queen Consort planned to supplement any new ladies-in-waiting ‘at this point’.

She already has two very talented women heading up her private office — Sophie Densham, her private secretary, and Belinda Kim, assistant private secretary — who also accompany her on official engagements.

And it has long been rumored that one of her closest and longest-standing aides, Amanda MacManus, who left royal service last year, will return in a ‘supercharged’ new role.

‘There’s no hurry as it is such early days and the Queen Consort has such a great team in place,’ said a source. ‘But it is inevitable that her office will need to expand.’

As it does, the Queen Consort must be able to relax amid a close and trusted circle of ladies of her own.

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