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A lady-in-waiting (also called waiting maid) is a female personal assistant at a noble court, attending to a queen, a princess or other noblewoman. A lady-in-waiting is often a noblewoman of lower rank (i.e., a lesser noble) than the one she attends to, and is not considered a servant. Their duties varied from court to court.
In Tudor England, ladies-in-waiting were divided into four separate systems: great ladies, ladies of the privy chamber, Maids of Honour and chamberers. The ladies of the privy chamber were the ones who were closest to the queen and thought to be the highest level of unpaid ladies-in-waiting. Most of the other women were considered Maids of Honour. The Maids of honour were the single, unmarried ladies-in-waiting. Female relatives were often appointed because they could be trusted confidantes to the queen; Lady Margaret Lee was a Lady of the Privy Chamber to Anne Boleyn, just as Lady Elizabeth Seymour-Cromwell was to Queen Jane Seymour. The duties of ladies-in-waiting at the Tudor court were to act as royal companions, and to accompany the Queen wherever she went. There were many jobs that required the ladies-in-waiting such as: being proficient in the "modern" dances, languages, instruments, reading, writing letters for the queen, sewing/embroidery, etc. Tudor queens often had a large degree of say in who became their ladies-in-waiting. Usually ladies-in-waiting came from families that were highly thought of in good society, noble families, or trustworthy friends of the family.
This attitude was very different from ladies-in-waiting to French queens under the later Bourbon dynasty. There, ladies-in-waiting often acted as glorified but distant companions to the Spanish and Polish wives of Louis XIV and Louis XV. Under France's last Bourbon queen, Marie-Antoinette, several of her favorite ladies-in-waiting — notably Yolande, Duchesse de Polignac — acquired huge influence and wealth for themselves. In later years, the ladies-in-waiting became discreet companions to the royal ladies of Europe, a practice which continues today.
In the Royal Household of the United Kingdom the term Lady-in-Waiting is used to describe a woman attending a female member of the Royal Family other than the Queen Regnant or Queen Consort. An attendant upon one of the latter is styled Lady of the Bedchamber or Woman of the Bedchamber, and the senior Lady-in- Waiting is the Mistress of the Robes. The Women are in regular attendance, but the Mistress of the Robes and the Ladies of the Bedchamber are normally only required for ceremonial occasions. There were formerly three offices, including Maids of Honour.
In Cambodia, the term 'ladies-in-waiting' refers to high ranking female servants who served food and drink, fanned and massaged, and sometimes provided sexual services to the King. Conventionally, these women could work their way up from being maids to become ladies-in-waiting, concubines, or even to possibly succeed as queen. However, the six favorite court ladies of King Sisowath of Cambodia were probably initially drawn from the ranks of classical royal dancers of lower class. He was noted for having the most classical dancers as concubines. The imperial celestial dancer, Apsara, was one of these. This practice of drawing from the ranks of royal dancers began in the Golden Age of the Khmer Kingdom. 'Srey Snom' is the Cambodian term used to describe the Khmer 'lady-in-waiting'.
The term is colloquially used in film and stage, to describe an actress whose role consists of very little action or involvement.