A Great Leap: The Life of a Valet

Oh Alfred, aren't you awfully tall to be in service? (Downton Abbey season 3)

Have you wondered if Julian Fellowes exaggerated the competition to be head footman, valet to Lord Grantham or head housemaid, just for the sake of downstairs drama? Guest blogger Tara Austen Weaver provides insight and (perhaps) a little vindication for our dear puppetmaster series writer.

It was not for the pleasure of brushing lint off Lord Grantham’s dinner jacket that Thomas schemed so long and hard to become a valet (does anyone remember the stolen dog? Pathetic, really). The life of a valet extended far beyond the fastening of cufflinks and the cleaning of shoes (shoe cleaning was done by the footmen, silly, everyone knows that).

Well-groomed metrosexuals of today have nothing on the gentlemen of Lord Grantham’s era. Englishmen of rank were kept stylish—though it might not have been their own doing. A handbook of the era notes, “If his master has no clothes sense, the valet will select suitable clothes, making sure they are clean … and maintained in good repair.” He would also consult with the tailor, perfumer, and linen-draper on behalf of his master.

Perfumer? Linen-draper? Poor Matthew had no idea what he was giving up when he said he had no need of a valet.

Though much of a valet’s work had to do with maintaining the wardrobe of his employer (the perils of which poor Alfred quickly learns when given the wrong soda crystals) there were errands to run on behalf of his master, messages to deliver, personal and private business entrusted to his hand. A valet travels with his master, carries the money, pays the bills.

But perhaps the biggest coup in securing the position—the cherry that Thomas was surely after—is this. Unlike other servants, a valet was not under the supervision of the butler, he reported directly to his master.

What’s a stolen dog or two, when it means getting out from under Carson’s thumb?


A handbook of the era notes, “If his master has no clothes sense, the valet will select suitable clothes. Cleotilde