The Victorians have been notoriously stereotyped as a staid bunch. Feast your eyes upon a magnificent piece of evidence to the contrary: A replica of Prince Edward’s lavish, custom-made sex chair.
The Smithsonian Channel is premiering the first episode of Private Lives of the Monarchs on Monday, May 20. It’s hosted by Tracy Borman, author of The Private Lives of the Tudors and curator at Britain’s Historic Palaces. Over five episodes, Borman and other historians trace the private lives of various famous kings and queens—Victoria, Louis XIV, Henry VIII included—and the ways those private lives departed from their public personas. One particularly broad gap was between Queen Victoria’s upright image and her son’s playboy lifestyle as he waited around to be promoted from Prince of Wales to reigning monarch, and nothing illustrates that gulf quite as eloquently as his frankly beautiful sex chair.
Fortunately, Borman was available to give us a little bit more information about the chair, as well as explaining why in fact the best job in Tudor England was accompanying the king to the toilet.
JEZEBEL: How much were these private lives actually private? By which I mean, how much are the things you guys are talking about seeping into public awareness, and does it actually matter?
TRACY BORMAN: We know so much about the public persona of these very famous monarchs, but it’s astonishing how many of the private details have been hidden, really, until now. I have done a lot of research into the private lives of royals during many years of history and working with seemingly just inconsequential documents such as account books, notes left behind by servants, and they’ve been largely disregarded as being pretty trivial, domestic. But actually the details that they provide are absolutely fascinating. They really do give us a new insight into these famous monarchs and how they lived when they were away from the public gaze, so to speak.
The public persona is so important and so much thought goes into crafting it and so much effort is put into carving that persona so deeply into public awareness that I imagine it’s very difficult to get any further past that image.
Yeah, it can be. But in particular with Henry VIII, because I am first and foremost a Tudor historian and I wrote a book called The Private Lives of the Tudors, I spent many years researching original records left by the servants who attended the Tudors in private. I was staggered—even with the Tudors, one of the most popular subjects in history, these records had been overlooked, and you can really get a sense of the people behind the facade. The man behind the monarch, if you like.
So it told, for example, about Henry VIII’s whole raft of embarrassing health complaints. He was something of a hypochondriac, so he left a very detailed medical record behind. We know that he had a very bad injury while jousting, and that turned ulcerous and could be smelt from three rooms away, so it was all pretty disgusting. He was impotent. He was deeply paranoid. He seemed this invincible king in public, but in private he was absolutely terrified most of the time, either of sickness or of assassins. You see a very, very different side to Henry VIII when you look at the accounts of those who served him in private.
That really complicates the image—people who aren’t even history buffs know that Holbein image, and what you’re saying is so counter to what we see there.
Exactly. When we think of Henry VIII we think of Holbein. We see that image of majesty and power. Whereas the reality was far removed from that. In fact, there’s a lovely quote from somebody who visited Henry in private, and they said that he was the most timid man you could hope to meet. That isn’t the Henry VIII that we’ve come to know and love from the history books. That’s really what set me off on my quest to look at other monarchs, and this gulf between the public and the private. That what really fascinates me, and that’s what we’ve brought to life in this series.
Since we talked about the Tudors, I want to ask you about my favorite illustration of the ways in which the monarch’s private body is a matter of public concern, which is the Groom of the Stool. For people who aren’t familiar: That’s not somebody who’s keeping up with a footstool, right?
I’m afraid not. The Groom of the Stool, he was responsible for attending the king when he visited the closed stool—or his toilet, his lavatory, however you want to say it.
The crucial thing is, and the slight irony is, even though obviously it’s called “private lives,” the king and queen were never, ever left completely alone. They always had a servant with them, even when they visited the toilet. So, the Groom of the Stool’s job sounds like the worst job in history—they had to attend the king on the toilet and stand there until he’d finished and then, frankly, clean him up afterwards, and then he would step back out into court. It sounds terrible.
But it’s the most sought-after job in the whole court, because it’s all about access to the king, and arguably nobody gets closer access or more regular access to the king, because he’s there on a daily basis. They’re with him when nobody else is, and they can use that opportunity not just to talk about the weather, but to talk about politics, to put a good word in for their friends and family, and actually put a good word in for themselves, as well. So you find that grooms of the stool do really well after the position. Henry is a generous man. He pays well and he promotes people who are associated with his groom of the stool. That’s why everyone is prepared to put up with the less pleasant aspects of the role.
I mean if everything revolves around intimacy with the king—that’s the most intimate job I can imagine!
Exactly! And that’s the point. In those days, when a king ruled, he wasn’t just a figurehead—he actually ruled the country. The way to get power for yourself was to spend time with the king, to access the king—that’s what it was all about. That’s why jobs at court were so highly sought after, and this one more than any other.
One of the monarchs featured in is Louis XIV. I know this is a huge thing to generalize about, but are there any broad-strokes ways the story of the private lives of the French monarchs are different from the English monarchs? Is the gap larger, is it smaller, does the private life of the French king work differently than that of the English king or queen?
Of course there are similarities in terms of keeping the private self separate from the public self. But in terms of Louis XIV, everything is on a whole other scale. He kept this magnificent palace of Versailles—I work at Hampton Court part of the time, and Hampton Court would fit into one of the wings of Versailles, which is a huge palace. On the surface absolutely magnificent. But what you see much more and the real contrast between the French court and the English court is even though Louis does keep his private life private, he doesn’t maintain to nearly the same degree as, say, Henry VIII. So his palace absolutely stank. We know on the surface it was all magnificent, but actually, you didn’t have to drill too far down to realize it covered a whole multitude of sins. People just went to the toilet wherever they liked, literally within the palace. In the whole palace, with thousands of rooms, there were no closed stools, no toilets, so people just went where they wanted—fireplaces, behind curtains. You can imagine how much it stank.
I’m sorry, we’re diverting into a bit of a theme here, aren’t we? The whole series isn’t about toilets.
Also, in terms of excess, as well, Louis really put the likes of Henry VIII in the shade, because he was incredibly vain. He was very sensitive about the fact that he was quite short, so he wore very high heels and tried his best to disguise those with long robes. He had over a thousand wigs in his collection, because he went bald quite early on and he didn’t like that, so he would have these enormous wigs that would come so high that they made him look taller than he really was. Everything was done to excess with Louis. That’s the real difference between the French court and perhaps others that we cover in the series. Obviously there’s riches and there’s decadence at the English court, too, but goodness me, nothing like Louis XIV.
I wanted to ask about Bertie’s sex chair. What’s up with the sex chair? Why does it exist?
Yeah, naughty Edward. This is one of the earlier scenes that I filmed in the series, and actually i got to sort of test out the sex chair. Not actually, but at least stand in Edward’s footsteps. Because there is a very faithful replica of the sex chair that we were able to borrow for the series.
So, Edward liked the finer things in life, and he particularly liked the ladies. He would travel over to Paris on a regular basis, because that was the best place if you liked the ladies. They were a much freer society than Victorian London. Edward, as well as lots of women, liked his food, and he put on quite a lot of weight later in life. Now, there is a theory that this sex chair, as well as being just a bit kinky, frankly, was to sort of help him do the business, even though he was now quite large.The way in which it is structured has enabled him to remain standing and to access the lady on the chair, should we say, without his enormous belly getting in th way.
But what really perturbed me about the chair is that there was room on it for two ladies, one on the top and one underneath—but exactly how he got to the one underneath we never managed to actually work out between the whole crew. So what she was doing down there, whether it was like a queuing system, she was just lying down there to wait, I don’t know. But it’s quite a contraption. It looks a bit like a sleigh. It’s a weird looking thing. But apparently it worked! Bertie loved it. I love the fact that, despite its function, it is still made for a future king, and so it’s studded with gold, it’s padded. It’s all as you might expect. It’s all very decadent. That stands out to me as a real highlight of the series. I don’t think I’ll ever quite forget that experience.
If you’re gonna be the heir to a great throne, you should have custom-built for furniture for whatever you want! What’s the point if you can’t?
Exactly. And I just love this contrast between Queen Victoria, who’s seen as really dour and serious and buttoned-up, we would call it, and then her son who is just doing what the hell he likes over in Paris and just enjoying himself in the brothels and not taking his role as heir to the throne very seriously at all. You can imagine how much Victoria must have disapproved. It was quite staggering.
How well known was it that he was quite so prolific in his good times? Is that something where every Englishman was just like, Oh yeah, that’s the prince! Or was this the further you got into the inner circles, the secret was revealed. How public was that?
I think it was more the latter. Amongst the elite, probably, it was quite well-known what was going on. Edward’s friends and confidants would have known, but I think Victoria, his mother, if she’d got to find out, she would have been absolutely appalled. Edward did take some care to employ discretion, so it wasn’t like it was gossiped about in the newspapers, like it would be today. It wasn’t quite that well-known. But those within Edward’s circle certainly knew about it, they encouraged it, they went over with him, they enjoyed the same sort of things.
(Updated 3/3/22 with new details)