Lord Chamberlain

The Lord Chamberlain or Lord Chamberlain of the Household is the most senior officer of the Royal Household of the United Kingdom, supervising the departments which support and provide advice to the Sovereign of the United Kingdom while also acting as the main channel of communication between the Sovereign and the House of Lords. The office organises all ceremonial activity such as garden parties, state visits, royal weddings, and the State Opening of Parliament. They also handle the Royal Mews and Royal Travel, as well as the ceremony around the awarding of honours.

Lord Chamberlain of the Household
The Earl Peel

since 16 October 2006
Member ofRoyal Household of the United Kingdom
AppointerSovereign of the United Kingdom

For over 230 years, the Lord Chamberlain position had the power to decide which plays would be granted a licence for performance, from 1737 to 1968, which meant that the Lord Chamberlain had the capacity to censor theatre at his pleasure.[1]

The Lord Chamberlain is always sworn of the Privy Council, is usually a peer and before 1782 the post was of Cabinet rank. The position was a political one until 1924. The office dates from the Middle Ages when the King's Chamberlain often acted as the King's spokesman in Council and Parliament.[2]

The current Lord Chamberlain is The Earl Peel, who has been in office since 16 October 2006.[3]

Historic role

During the early modern period, the Lord Chamberlain was one of the three principal officers of the Royal Household, the others being the Lord Steward and the Master of the Horse. The Lord Chamberlain was responsible for the "chamber" or the household "above stairs": that is, the series of rooms used by the Sovereign to receive increasingly select visitors, terminating in the royal bedchamber (although the bedchamber itself came to operate semi-autonomously under the Groom of the Stool/Stole). His department not only furnished the servants and other personnel (such as physicians and bodyguards, the Yeomen of the Guard and Gentlemen Pensioners) in intimate attendance on the Sovereign but arranged and staffed ceremonies and entertainments for the court. He had (secular) authority over the Chapel Royal, and through the reabsorption of the Wardrobe into the Chamber, was also responsible for the Office of Works, the Jewel House, and other functions more removed from the Sovereign's person, many of which were reorganized and removed from the Chamberlain's purview in 1782.[4]

As other responsibilities of government were devolved to ministers, the ordering of the Royal Household was largely left to the personal taste of the Sovereign. To ensure that the chamber reflected the royal tastes, the Lord Chamberlain received commands directly from the sovereign to be transmitted to the heads of subordinate departments.[4]

In 1594, the Lord Chamberlain, Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon, founded the Lord Chamberlain's Men, for which William Shakespeare was a part (and later a shareholder in the company) and for whom he wrote most of his plays during his career. Carey served under Elizabeth I of England at the time and was in charge of all court entertainment, a duty traditionally given to the Master of the Revels, a deputy of the Lord Chamberlain. Later, in 1603, James I of England, elevated the Chamberlain's Men to royal patronage and changed the name to the King's Men.[5]

Theatre censorship

The Licensing Act 1737

In 1737, Sir Robert Walpole officially introduced statutory censorship with the Licensing Act of 1737 by appointing the Lord Chamberlain to act as the theatrical censor. The Licensing Act 1737 gave the Lord Chamberlain the statutory authority to veto the performance of any new plays: he could prevent any new play, or any modification to an existing play, from being performed for any reason, and theatre owners could be prosecuted for staging a play (or part of a play) that had not received prior approval.

Historically though, the Lord Chamberlain had been exercising a commanding authority on London's theatre companies under the Royal Prerogative for many decades already. But by the 1730s the theatre was not controlled by royal patronage anymore. Instead it had become more of a commercial business. Therefore, the fact the Lord Chamberlain still retained censorship authority for the next 200 years gave him uniquely repressive authority during a period where Britain was experiencing "growing political enfranchisement and liberalization".[6]

Even further confusion rested in the fact that Members of Parliament could not present changes to the censorship laws because although the Lord Chamberlain exercised his authority under statute law, he was still an official whose authority was derived from the Royal Prerogative.[6]

Theatres Act 1843

By the 1830s, it started to become clear that the theatre licensing system in England needed an upgrade. Playwrights, instead of representatives of minor theatres, actually initiated the final push for reform as they felt that their livelihoods were being negatively affected by the monopoly the larger theatres had on the industry, backed by the laws in the 1737 Act.[6]

A Select Committee was formed in 1832 with the purpose of examining the laws that affected dramatic literature. Their main complaints were the lack of copyright protection for their work and more importantly that only two patent theatres in London could legitimately perform new plays. After more pressure from playwrights and theatre managers, the findings of the committee were finally presented to Parliament.[6]

It was the proposals of this committee that Parliament implemented in the Theatres Act of 1843. The Act still confirmed the absolute powers of censorship enjoyed by the Lord Chamberlain but still slightly restricted his powers so that he could only prohibit the performance of plays where he was of the opinion that "it is fitting for the preservation of good manners, decorum or of the public peace so to do". However, the Act did abolish the monopoly that the patent houses had in London providing a minor win for playwrights and theatre managers wishing to produce new work.[6][1]

Theatres Act 1968

In 1909, a Joint Select Committee on Stage Plays (Censorship) was established and recommended that the Lord Chamberlain should continue to act as censor but that it could be lawful to perform plays without a licence from the Lord Chamberlain.[1] However, King Edward VII refused to accept these recommendations. The outbreak of both World Wars put an end to any parliamentary initiatives to change the laws regarding theatre censorship for many years. In 1948, the first British Theatre Conference recommended the termination of theatre censorship with the plan to pursue parliamentary action to ratify this.[1][6]

In the 1960s the debate to abolish theatre censorship rose again as a new generation of young playwrights came on the scene. They gained popularity with their new plays in local establishments, but since many were refused a licence by the Lord Chamberlain, they could not transfer to the West End. In the case of John Osborne's play A Patriot for Me, the Lord Chamberlain at the time, Lord Cobbold, was irritated that the play was so widely publicized even though he had banned it and therefore pursued legal action. In the end, the play was allowed to continue as it was. At this point, several widely regarded authors had all been censored by the Lord Chamberlain at one time or another, including playwrights Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw. Another Joint Select Committee was founded to further debate on the issue and present a solution. This time the argument largely centered around this issue on the portrayal of living and recently dead individuals, particularly in reference to the monarchy as well as politicians.[1][6]

After much debate, the Theatres Act 1968 was finally passed; it officially abolished the censorship of the stage and repealed the Lord Chamberlain's power to refuse a licence to a play of any kind.[1] The first London performance of the musical Hair was actually delayed until the Act was passed after a licence had been refused.[7]


The battle regarding the abolition of censorship was largely a political one, fought on principle. Those who opposed the termination of this particular duty of the Lord Chamberlain were mostly concerned about how to protect the reputation of the royal family and the political elite instead of controlling obscenity and blasphemy on stage. However, this concern has largely been unfounded. Since the termination of censorship, British drama has flourished and produced several prominent playwrights and new works since. The abolishment of censorship opened a floodgate of theatrical creativity.[6]

Duties of the office

The Lord Chamberlain is the most senior official of the Royal Household and oversees its business, including liaising with the other senior officers of the Household, chairing Heads of Department meetings, and advising in the appointment of senior Household officials.[2][8] The Lord Chamberlain also undertakes ceremonial duties and serves as the channel of communication between the Sovereign and the House of Lords.[2]

The Lord Chamberlain's Office is a department of the Royal Household and its day-to-day work is headed by the Comptroller. It is responsible for organizing ceremonial activities including state visits, investitures, garden parties, the State Opening of Parliament, weddings and funerals.[2]

During ceremonial activities, the Lord Chamberlain carries specific symbols that represent his office. These symbols include a white staff and a key which must be worn at the hip pocket. During a royal funeral, the white staff has been symbolically broken over the grave of the deceased monarch. This was last done by The Earl of Clarendon, who broke his staff over the grave of the King George VI in 1952.[2][8]

The Lord Chamberlain also regulates the design and the wearing of court uniform and dress and how insignia are worn.

List of Lords Chamberlain of the Household from 1399

Name Entered
Notes Reference
Thomas Erpingham, from 1400 Sir Thomas13991404[9]
The Lord Grey of Codnor14041413[9]
The Lord FitzHugh14131425[9]
The Lord Cromwellc.14251432First period in office[9]
The Lord Bardolf14321441[9]
Sir Ralph Boteler,
from 1441 The Lord Sudeley
The Lord Saye and Sele14471450[9]
The Lord Cromwell14501455Second period in office[9]
Thomas Stanley,
from 1456 The Lord Stanley
The Earl of Salisbury14601460[9]
The Lord Hastings14611470First period in office[9]
[unknown]14701471Second reign of Henry VI
The Lord Hastings14711483Second period in office[9]
The Viscount Lovell14831485[9]
Sir William Stanley14851494[9]
Lord Daubeney14941508[9]
The Lord Herbert,
from 1514 The Earl of Worcester
The Earl of Arundel15261530
The Lord Sandys15301540[9]
The Lord St John15431545Created The Earl of Wiltshire in 1550 and The Marquess of Winchester in 1551[9]
The Earl of Arundel15461550[9]
The Lord Wentworth15501551[9]
The Lord Darcy of Chiche15511553[9]
Sir John Gage15531556[9]
Sir Edward Hastings
from 1558 The Lord Hastings of Loughborough
The Lord Howard of Effingham15581572[9]
The Earl of Sussex15721583[9]
The Lord Hunsdon15851596Founded the famous Lord Chamberlain's Men for whom Shakespeare wrote for most of his career. [9][5]
The Lord Cobham15961597[9]
The Lord Hunsdon15971603[9]
Lord Thomas Howard,
from 1603 The Earl of Suffolk
The Earl of Somerset16141615[9]
The Earl of Pembroke16151626[9]
The Earl of Montgomery,
from 1630 The Earl of Pembroke
The Earl of Essex16411642[9]
The Earl of Dorset16441649[9]
[vacant]16491655Position became vacant at the start of the Interregnum and the Commonwealth
Sir Gilbert Pickering, Bt16551659Lord Chamberlain during The Protectorate[9]
The Earl of Manchester16601671[9]
The Earl of St Albans16721674[9]
The Earl of Arlington16741685[9]
The Earl of Elgin and Earl of Ailesbury16851685[9]
The Earl of Mulgrave16851688Created The Marquess of Normanby in 1694 and The Duke of Buckingham and Normanby in 1703[9]
The Earl of Dorset16891697[9]
The Earl of Sunderland16971697[9]
[vacant]16971699The King did not accept the resignation of the Earl of Sunderland
The Duke of Shrewsbury16991700[9]
The Earl of Jersey17001704[9]
The Earl of Kent, from 1706 The Marquess of Kent17041710Created The Duke of Kent in 1710 and The Marquess Grey in 1740[9]
The Duke of Shrewsbury17101715[9]
The Duke of Bolton17151717[9]
The Duke of Newcastle17171724[9]
The Duke of Grafton17241757[9]
The Duke of Devonshire17571762[9]
The Duke of Marlborough17621763[9]
The Earl Gower17631765Created The Marquess of Stafford in 1786[9]
The Duke of Portland17651766[9]
The Earl of Hertford17661782First period in office; created The Marquess of Hertford in 1793[9]
The Duke of Manchester17821783[9]
The Earl of Hertford17831783Second period in office; created The Marquess of Hertford in 1793[9][10]
The Earl of Salisbury,
from 1789 The Marquess of Salisbury
The Earl of Dartmouth18041810[9]
The Marquess of Hertford18121821[9][11]
The Duke of Montrose18211827First period in office[9][12]
The Duke of Devonshire18271828First period in office[9]
The Duke of Montrose18281830Second period in office[9]
The Earl of Jersey18301830First period in office[9]
The Duke of Devonshire18301834Second period in office[9]
The Earl of Jersey18341835Second period in office[9][13]
The Marquess Wellesley18351835[9]
The Marquess Conyngham18351839
Earl of Uxbridge18391841Succeeded as The Marquess of Anglesey in 1854
The Earl De La Warr18411846First period in office[9]
The Earl Spencer18461848[9][14]
The Marquess of Breadalbane18481852First period in office[9][15]
The Marquess of Exeter18521852[16]
The Marquess of Breadalbane18531858Second period in office[9][17]
The Earl De La Warr18581859Second period in office[9][18]
The Viscount Sydney18591866First period in office[19]
The Earl of Bradford18661868[20]
The Viscount Sydney18681874Second period in office; created The Earl Sydney in 1874[21]
The Marquess of Hertford18741879[22]
The Earl of Mount Edgcumbe18791880[23]
The Earl of Kenmare18801885First period in office[24]
The Earl of Lathom18851886First period in office[25]
The Earl of Kenmare18861886Second period in office[26]
The Earl of Lathom18861892Second period in office[27]
The Lord Carrington18921895Created The Earl Carrington in 1895 and The Marquess of Lincolnshire in 1912[9]
The Earl of Lathom18951898Third period in office[28]
The Earl of Hopetoun18981900Created The Marquess of Linlithgow in 1902[9]
The Earl of Clarendon19001905[29]
The Viscount Althorp, from 1910 The Earl Spencer19051912[30]
The Lord Sandhurst, from 1917 The Viscount Sandhurst19121921[31]
The Duke of Atholl19211922[9][32]
The Earl of Cromer19221938[9]
The Earl of Clarendon19381952[9]
The Earl of Scarbrough19521963[9]
The Lord Cobbold29 January 196330 November 1971[9][33]
The Lord Maclean1 December 197130 November 1984[9][34]
The Earl of Airlie1 December 198431 December 1997[35]
The Lord Camoys1 January 199831 May 2000
The Lord Luce1 October 200015 October 2006
The Earl Peel16 October 2006present[3]

See also


  1. Handley, Miriam (2004). The Lord Chamberlain Regrets…: A History of British Theatre Censorship. London, England: British Library. pp. 3–17, 86–87, 140, 149, 162, 169. ISBN 0712348654.
  2. "The Lord Chamberlain". Monarchy of the United Kingdom. Retrieved 30 May 2011.
  3. Appointment of Lord Chamberlain at the Royal Household official website, 2006 Archived 19 July 2006 at the Wayback Machine
  4. Bucholz, Robert O., ed. (2006). "Introduction: Administrative structure and work". Office-Holders in Modern Britain: Volume 11 (Revised), Court Officers, 1660-1837. London: University of London.
  5. Zarrilli, Phillip B. (2006). Theatre Histories, An Introduction. New York, NY: Routledge. pp. 157–158, 188. ISBN 0-415-22727-5.
  6. Thomas, David (2007). Theatre Censorship: From Walpole to Wilson. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. pp. iix–xiii, 2, 4, 36, 53–57, 182–188, 205, 216–225. ISBN 978-0-19-926028-7.
  7. Lewis, Anthony (29 September 1968). "Londoners Cool To Hair's Nudity Four Letter Words Shock Few At Musical's Debut". New York Times. Retrieved 10 December 2017.
  8. "Great Officers of the Household". Debrett's. Archived from the original on 10 October 2010. Retrieved 30 May 2011.
  9. "Lord chamberlains of the royal household in the Oxford DNB". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 6 February 2011. (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  10. "No. 12430". The London Gazette. 8 April 1783. p. 1.
  11. "No. 16581". The London Gazette. 7 March 1812. p. 450.
  12. "No. 17772". The London Gazette. 11 December 1821. p. 2405.
  13. "No. 19221". The London Gazette. 16 December 1834. p. 2266.
  14. "No. 20621". The London Gazette. 10 July 1846. p. 2533.
  15. "No. 20894". The London Gazette. 5 September 1848. p. 3275.
  16. "No. 21297". The London Gazette. 2 March 1852. p. 670.
  17. "No. 21403". The London Gazette. 18 January 1853. p. 137.
  18. "No. 22106". The London Gazette. 2 March 1858. p. 1207.
  19. "No. 22279". The London Gazette. 24 June 1859. p. 2471.
  20. "No. 23137". The London Gazette. 13 July 1866. p. 3984.
  21. "No. 23450". The London Gazette. 15 December 1868. p. 6654.
  22. "No. 24071". The London Gazette. 3 March 1874. p. 1452.
  23. "No. 24721". The London Gazette. 13 May 1879. p. 3311.
  24. "No. 24841". The London Gazette. 4 May 1880. p. 2836.
  25. "No. 25485". The London Gazette. 30 June 1885. p. 3000.
  26. "No. 25558". The London Gazette. 12 February 1886. p. 677.
  27. "No. 25615". The London Gazette. 10 August 1886. p. 3853.
  28. "No. 26644". The London Gazette. 16 July 1895. p. 4022.
  29. "No. 27232". The London Gazette. 25 September 1900. p. 5891.
  30. "No. 27866". The London Gazette. 22 December 1905. p. 9171.
  31. "No. 28581". The London Gazette. 16 February 1912. p. 1169.
  32. "No. 32525". The London Gazette. 22 November 1921. p. 9245.
  33. "No. 42909". The London Gazette. 1 February 1963. p. 979.
  34. "No. 45536". The London Gazette. 3 December 1971. p. 13243.
  35. "No. 49948". The London Gazette. 4 December 1984. p. 16413.

Further reading

  • Stephens, J.R. (1981). The Censorship of English Drama 1824–1901. Cambridge University Press.
  • Johnston, John (1990). The Lord Chamberlain's Blue Pencil. Hodder & Stoughton. ISBN 0-340-52529-0.
  • de Jongh, Nicholas (2000). Politics, Prudery and Perversions: The Censoring of the English Stage 1901–1968. Methuen. ISBN 0-413-70620-6.
  • Shellard, Dominic; Nicholson, Steve; Handley, Miriam (2004). The Lord Chamberlain Regrets ... A History of British Theatre Censorship. British Library. ISBN 0-7123-4865-4.
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