As a companion to our story on the Queen’s Guard, Mistress Arianna of Wynthrope interviewed former royal retainers to learn what the job of serving the Crown entails.
As our Kings and Queens travel among the populace, you may have noticed that they are almost never alone. Typically there is at least one gentle tagging along behind, often carrying a basket, goblet, cloak, or fan. During courts, they are standing behind the thrones, fanning the royals if it is warm or offering them libations to keep their throats cooled. These good folk are retainers, and while their job may look simple, doing it well it is not. Some experienced retainers explain why.
What do retainers do?
Master Tigernach mac Cathail, who has served as a retainer for multiple royalty including Timothy and Gabrielle, Malcolm and Tessa, and Andreas and Kallista, says, “A retainer is like a butler and personal secretary all rolled up into one. They take notes and gather contact information regarding gifts that are presented for personal thank you letters. They remind the Monarchs about Their schedule. A retainer may have to fetch items or locate individuals with whom the monarchs would like to speak.” Master Tigernach continued, “One of the general rules I also go by is to try to keep Their Majesties’ hands free. They shouldn’t be carrying things or doing things that the retainer could be doing.”
Baroness Nuzha bint Saleem, who was head retainer for Khalek and Branwen, commented, “Your utmost purpose is to keep the royalty comfortable and safe – not the way the Queen’s Guard keeps the royalty safe, [but in] the simple little things that you would do for your family. You wouldn’t let your mother or your sister eat something they’re allergic to. You wouldn’t let your brother remain stuck in an uncomfortable conversation. You’d always make sure they had space at the dinner table and a place to sit if they came to your home. It’s the same for royalty at events.”
Indeed, one of the problems that SCA Royalty often have is that since they were not born nobility in the real world, they are unused to having ‘servants’ and may be uncomfortable with others fetching and carrying for them. Master Tigernach observed, “Sometimes this involves educating new sets of royalty. Often they don’t like someone waiting on them and want to do things for themselves. However, [retainers are] part of making the Kingdom look good.” He joked, “I let King Andreas dig his own sump in Æthelmearc Royal, and told him to enjoy it, because it was one of the last things we would let him do [that Pennsic].”
Many past retainers think of their role as stage managing the theater of the SCA. Baroness Boudicea Ravenhair, called ‘dicea, who has also served as a retainer for numerous Crowns, noted, “In my experience, retaining is the heart of the performance art in the SCA. Retainers are stage managers, set dressers, props, make up, dressers, handlers, house managers, special functionaries, concessions, catering, directors, prompters, and stage ninjas. They are the people who hold the space for the royalty to make magic with the populace. Roles are based on needs and filled with skills. SCA theater is a gift that everyone involved works to create together.”
Baroness Nuzha agreed, “Remember that this is not your show, it is theirs. You are a roadie, not the main act. You have done a good job if people see the beauty and the smoothness with which the show happens, but none of the effort.”
The best retainers anticipate the needs of their King and Queen without smothering them. Master Tigernach remarked, “There is a balance to taking care of the royalty and handling the little things, [without] going overboard. The final say is always up to Their Majesties, and you have to work out the line with them.”
Anyone can be a retainer
Unlike the Queen’s Guard, who are generally appointed by the Queen in consultation with her Captain of the Guard, anyone can volunteer to serve as a royal retainer for an event. Mistress Euriol of Lothian, who has retained for Timothy and Gabrielle as well as Malcolm and Tessa, remarked, “I encourage new people to retain. It is important [to understand] that if there is a general call out to become a retainer, then it is intended for everyone. If you show up to an event, volunteer to retain. If you know you’re going to an event in advance, reach out to the Head Retainer or equivalent and make the offer.”
Mistress Euriol noted that retaining can be a broadening experience for those who sign on for an entire reign. “Those that are considered part of the regular staff may go to events they may not regularly go to. Carpooling is great way to get to know people better. Finding crash space is a good way to make new friends.”
If you would like to serve as a retainer, however, there are some important things to remember. Baroness Nuzha says, “Read their whims, check for their allergies, [and] don’t wear, feed them, or have them around any of the things they’re allergic to. Don’t dote. That gets tiresome. Just BE present. BE aware. Notice if they seem uncomfortable or tired or hungry or thirsty.” In addition, Her Excellency points out that discretion is vital for retainers. “You should stay the heck OUT of their conversations. You are there to make them comfortable and to help them do the things they need to get done. You are not there to butt in or acquire knowledge to use for gossiping. You are most likely NOT their confidante. Do not assume the role unless it is asked of you.”
I encourage new people to retain – Mistress Euriol of Lothian
Retainers’ roles differ depending on the circumstances. Master Tigernach noted, “Being a battlefield retainer is different than being a regular retainer. During breaks [in the fighting] you have to bring food and drinks onto the field. You may also have to help with the armor, although a squire usually takes care of that.” He continued, “For court, the retainers process in behind the guards and champions and may have to carry stuff. During court they will stand behind the Thrones on their shift and keep Their Majesties’ glasses full.”
At events with hot weather or a lot of physical activity, like Pennsic and War Practice, retainers need to ensure that their King and Queen remain hydrated and healthy. Master Tigernach said, “For some monarchs you have to almost push [fluids] on them. I know with King Malcolm, I didn’t bother to ask if he wanted something to drink most of the time. Instead I would just put [a cup] into his hands. It’s important that retainers take care of themselves, too. They need to make sure they stay hydrated and rest if needed.”
Serving Royalty with children
Many of Æthelmearc’s Kings and Queens have reigned with small children in tow. These children have their own needs that retainers are often asked to assist with, and each set of royalty had their own way to accommodate their children. Mistress Katryne (Kate) of Bakestonden, who served Morguhn and Meirwen as well as Andrew and Alexandra, commented, “We had an approved list of retainers to watch the child. But if said child wanted mommy or daddy at any time, [we would] bring the child even if it was in the middle of court or a meeting.”
However, not everyone is suited for royal babysitting. Mistress Euriol noted, “Depending on the Royals, those who take care of any children may not be considered a retainer, but may be considered separately from that function. There are also retainers who are not comfortable taking on a role with children.”
What does the Head Retainer do?
Mistress Euriol explained, “Head retainers organize the retainer schedule and recruit people to retain. They step in to fill a hole in the schedule. They may do some of the errands that may be more sensitive in nature. They also set the expectations of the retainers’ duties in general and what might be needed for a specific situation.”
Master Tigernach agreed that being head retainer requires organizational skills. “You [maintain] the spreadsheet with all the contact information for retainers. You also need to keep track of the schedule for the event and the schedule of retainer shifts. You have to share information with the Captain of the Guard. The Guard usually help at the beginning and end of events to unload and load gear. The head retainer or reign coordinator had the schedule and I would get that information to help figure out my shift.”
Mistress Kate recalls coordinating with autocrats and royalty liaisons before events. “There were lots and lots and lots of emails, phone calls, and spreadsheets with all of the contact information. [There was] a sheet for main contacts, then a sheet per event, and we did a lot of localized retainers per region so we had a contact sheet of available retainers per region per event.”
Baroness Nuzha noted, “If you are the head retainer, it is your job to make sure that your retainers are taken care of, as well as the royalty.” She recommends that all retainers have a backup and know their limits.
Baroness ‘dicea commented, “Retaining [for] royalty isn’t fun and games. It is pretty hard core larping. Royalty have ideal images of what is great about their kingdom that they want to reflect back to the populace. The retainers are supporting this theatrical presentation. Everyone has a role in every situation. It is not about rank or value, it is about the image of having people to pour drinks for guests, it is [about] the image of having a Herald. Royalty and their entourage are putting on a play within a play, setting aside other roles to make this part shine brightest.”
Mistress Kate concurred. “We retained by the saying: Service is love made visible.”