Ever since William The Conqueror obtained the crown of England, Monarchs have always been held in the highest regard and treated with the uttermost reverence and deference. That is, until now. Over the last few decades, we’ve seen such a rapid change in royal protocol and its considered importance, and here we explain how, why and what this means.
Royal Protocol originates from he historical belief that Monarchs are chosen by God and therefore, should be treated with the utmost deference, as the closest thing on Earth they had to God. Royal protocol extends much further than common courtesy and even further than standard social etiquette, it is literally a law unto itself.
Royal Protocol was used to govern things like simply not touching the Monarch to more complex rules, some of which are still ‘enforced’ today.
Many people regard protocol as archaic, unnecessary and misplaced in the 21st-century, others say the Monarchy wouldn’t be the same without it, whatever people’s opinion, it has declined and continues to do so and whether this is a good thing remains to be seen. On the one hand, it is modernising the Monarchy, making it more relevant to more people and less ‘stuffy’, on the other it’s demolishing centuries of tradition. The trick is to strike a balance, which is what’s being done.
One of the most notable pieces of court etiquette that Her Majesty herself has insisted be done away with is having to walk backwards when exiting Her presence. For obvious reasons, Her Majesty decided this had to go after seeing so many awkward exits, nowadays this is reserved merely for the most formal of occasions (the State Opening Of Parliament when the Lord Chancellor hands her the speech and at Investiture Ceremonies).
When visiting the UK, Michelle Obama was said to have committed a breach of protocol when she put her arm around The Queen during a photo, though The Queen did respond in kind. Some commentators in the UK were thrown by this, others outraged.
Other rules include the requirement that when dining with Her Majesty, all plates are cleared as soon as she has finished eating. Unfortunately, this is worsened by the fact that The Queen is a quick eater, fortunately Her Majesty has a plate of salad to the side she can pick at to give other people a chance to finish their meals before they’re robustly cleared away. This is something that is still very much enforced today, much to the amusement of regular attendees at court.
It’s always a question of relevance with regards to protocol, and whether it’s still sensible to keep certain aspects. When we asked etiquette and protocol expert, William Hanson how attitudes to protocol have changed over the years, he explained: “Since Her Majesty ascended to the throne in 1952, the following 60 years have seen a remarkable loosening of attitudes to deference and respect.”
Mr Hanson also detailed how perhaps, the Royal Family are learning from the past: “The late Diana, Princess of Wales, was never allowed to live with her husband-to-be before the marriage, whereas with the now Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, this was very much encouraged.”
“The protocol that is still in place ensures a certain level of respect can be achieved – respect that is very easily earned by the Royal Family. They are not just a family with [some] power and money, but a reminder of what puts the Great in Great Britain and our history and heritage.”
Perhaps the most thorny of protocol issues is bowing and curtseying. This particular rule of thumb has caused controversy like I can’t tell you. People who meet members of the Royal Family are often told in advance the correct protocol, some conscientiously object and choose not to bow or curtsey. The Royal Household’s position on this is that people should communicate in a way that they are comfortable with. General protocol rules state that if Her Majesty is your Monarch, then you should curtsey to her and her family; otherwise, simple politeness is the order of the day.
The main non-negotiable for a protocol is address. It is commonly held that even if you choose not to bow or curtsey, you should at least uphold the fundamental concepts of address. For The Queen, the correct form of address is ‘Your Majesty’ at first, then ‘Ma’am’, (pronounced rhyming with jam, not farm) after that. Similarly for other members of the Royal Family, it is ‘Your Royal Highness’ at first and then ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’ after that.
Active defiance of the protocol has not just been reserved for just members of the public. Australia’s Prime Minister Julia Gillard openly chooses not to curtsey to The Queen when she visits, even though she is the head of Her Majesty’s Government in Australia. Julia Gillard openly advocates Australia becoming a republic and has suggested that the end of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign would be “probably the appropriate point for a transition”.
Protocol is relevant to modern royals, too. By custom, citizens of any of the realms of which Her Majesty is Head Of State should bow or curtsey to any titled member of the Royal Family, including the highly-held modernisers ‘William & Kate’. Having said that, William himself has said that he doesn’t take too much to protocol, at one point to remark: “I am and always will be an HRH. But out of personal choice I like to be called William because that is my name, and I want people to call me William – for now”.
For the moment, protocol remains on its carefully balanced pedestal, like a set of scales balancing tradition and relevance – who knows what Prince Charles will do away with and choose to keep? And then, just how much will William and Catherine modernise?
Why not tell us what you think on modern royal protocol in the comments box below, or leave a question if you have any?