Congratulation letters are a common feature of archives, celebrating milestones like getting a new job, having a baby, or winning awards and honours. There are many bundles of these letters and telegrams in the archive of George Villiers, the 6th Earl of Clarendon (1877-1955) which pat him on the back at moments including the birth of a son (July 1916), and being appointed Governor General of South Africa (1930). They range from paid-by-the-word concise telegrams to long and effusive letters, but they’re pretty predictable – there aren’t too many ways to say congrats on your new job after all.Until I came across this, in a pile of about 100 letters celebrating Lord Clarendon’s appointment as Lord Chamberlain of the Household.
The congratulatory fish was sent to the Earl by the Fisher family from Ednam House Hotel in Kelso, Scotland. Hopefully it arrived in London in lots of ice.
The Lord Chamberlain post was the culmination of the 6th Earl’s long career in government and public service. It also reflected the Hyde and Villiers’ families longstanding connections with the royal household which went back to the 1st Earl of the 1st creation, Edward Hyde, who not only served as Lord Chancellor to Charles II in the 1660s, but was the grandfather of two queens: Mary and Anne. More recently, the 6th Earl’s own father, the 5th Earl, Edward Hyde Villiers, had served as Lord Chamberlain from 1900-1905.
The job is an onerous one. As the most senior officer in the royal household, responsibilities include organising all ceremonial activity, including coronations and the State Opening of Parliament. Before 1968, the Lord Chamberlain also acted as the official theatre censor and bane of playwrights, with the power to ban plays when it was “fitting for the preservation of good manners, decorum or of the public peace“.
The 6th Earl was Lord Chamberlain for 14 years until officially relinquishing the role on 21 October 1952 at the age of 75, on medical advice. He was the second longest-serving Lord Chamberlain of the 20th century and during his term was responsible for the ceremonial for royal events including the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip in 1947 and the 1952 funeral of King George VI.
These papers, of the Earls of Clarendon of the second creation, are currently being catalogued and will be available to readers in 2022.