Maids of Honour were the junior attendants on a Queen in the royal households of England and later of the United Kingdom. Anne of Brittany is said to have instituted the Queen's Maids of Honour at the court.
Traditionally, a Queen regnant had eight Maids of Honour, while a Queen consort had four.
A Maid of Honour was a maiden, meaning that she was unmarried, and was usually young. Lady Jane Grey, for example, served as a Maid-of-Honour to Queen Catherine Parr in about 1546-48, when Jane was only about ten to twelve years old.
Maids of Honour should not be confused with Maids of the Court. Maids of Honour were almost always in their sixteenth year or older. Anne Bassett was deemed too young to be a maid of honour to Anne Boleyn, but she gained a place under Jane Seymour. Under Mary I and Elizabeth I, maids of honour were at court as a kind of finishing school, with the hope of making a good marriage. Maids of the court could be younger. Elizabeth Knollys was a maid of the court at the age of nine.
Some of the Maids of Honour were paid, while others were not.
In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the title 'Maid of Honour in Waiting' was sometimes used.
A Queen mother often also had Maids of Honour. In 1915, for example, Ivy Gordon-Lennox was appointed a Maid of Honour to Queen Alexandra.
At her coronation, Queen Elizabeth II had Maids of Honour who attended her throughout the ceremony, especially carrying the trains of her robes.
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 of the Bedchamber are in regular attendance, but the Mistress of the Robes and the Ladies of the Bedchamber are normally only required for ceremonial occasions.
"Maid of Honour" led to the American English term "maid of honor", usually the best friend of a bride who leads her bridal party.
The term also refers to a small cake, the recipe dates from 1525 and the reign of Henry VIII.