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The Queen looking askance

Today marks the 62nd anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey.

If you were ever invited to a Royal event, would you know how to behave? Probably not. But, just in case you are, here are a few pointers that might just help you bluff your way through the day:

When meeting any member of the Royal Family, you will be expected to bow or curtsey. Men bow from the neck. (Bowing from the waist, if you don’t know what you’re doing, may well result in you ‘head-butting’ an unsuspecting royal who might be stepping forward to confide something amusing. So take care.) Women curtsey by placing one foot behind the other and just gently bobbing. Don’t go down too far or else you may never come back up. Women can opt to bow instead of the traditional curtsey, though it would be the unconventional choice, so is not recommended.

Anyone with republican tendencies will probably not be in the position of courting royalty; they’ll be too busy manning the barricades or stoking the braziers outside one of the royal palaces. But mention the possibility of a ‘gong’ and things have a tendency to change very quickly.

Veteran Labour politicians with a chance of a peerage are prone to trot out the old cliché: “I bow to no man but I’ll make an exception in the case of Her Majesty.”

When discussing the etiquette involved in bowing to royalty, you will not take offence when someone of a republican persuasion insists that it is a shameful and unconscionable show of obeisance. Listen to them, smile politely and say, “How lovely”. Entering into an argument is fruitless and even the Royal Family will not stoop to argue their case. Republican types are best ignored.

If you happen to be a citizen of a country where the British Royal Family is not your monarchy, then that is your misfortune. But be aware that although strictly you do not have to bow, scrape or curtsey, it can seem churlish not to. Former Australian Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, failed to do anything except stand there gawping when meeting the Queen on the latter’s visit in 2011, and former Prime Minister’s wife Cherie Blair was infamous for her reluctance to curtsey. The Queen was not noticeably fazed by any of this, and neither should you be if you notice anyone else petulantly refusing. Simply make a mental note to strike them off your dinner party list.

When meeting the Queen, she must be addressed as ‘Your Majesty’, followed by ‘Ma’am’. All other members of ‘The Firm’ are addressed ‘Your Royal Highness’, followed by ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’. The exception is Princess Michael of Kent, who has a boy’s name, and can thus be addressed as either.

Do not extend your hand to members of royalty; let them extend their hand to you. Don’t take it personally if no hand is proffered. They shake hundreds of hands a day and can’t greet everyone personally – although if you are courting the friendship of one of their relatives, this probably isn’t a good sign for the future. It might be because you’ve said pardon or worn brown shoes on a Thursday at Clarence House. You’ll only have yourself to blame.

If you are having tea (never ‘taking tea’, remember that), wait to be seated until the Queen, or any female royalty, have sat down first – regardless of your own sex. Tea in the royal household is at 5 o’clock, rather than 4 o’clock like in many other houses. Do not ask why or make remarks that you’re hungry as you’ve had to wait so long for this, or you’ll be evicted quicker than you can say ‘Paul Burrell’. (As it happens, tea is served later for the simple reason that they prefer it – as their dinner is later than most, at 8.15pm.)

Any dialogue with royalty requires that you gracefully allow them to steer the topics and direction of conversation.

Asking direct questions used to be frowned on, but today the rules are slightly more relaxed. Yet it is not good practice to ask anything too personal. Broadcaster John Humphrys made two errors when recently meeting Her Majesty at the official opening of BBC Broadcasting House: he asked her a direct, personal question about the Duke of Edinburgh’s health – while his arms were folded. No chance of a knighthood there in the foreseeable future, then.

Do say: “Did Your Majesty enjoy lunch?”

Don’t say: “What did the corgis have for lunch today?”

If you refer to a member of the Royal Family in conversation, then use either their title or honorific:

“The Earl of Wessex was particularly interested in the Zumba class.”


“I told His Royal Highness he could join in later.”

Avoid using the pronoun “you”. Opt instead for “Your Majesty” or “Your Royal Highness”:

“Would Your Majesty like to view the interfaith, multi-use skate park now?”

Avoid referring to the Royal Family as “The Royals”: it’s just a bit common and sounds like a sitcom.

Royal Invitations

If you have managed to befriend a member of royalty, your new social position may come with invitations to events at one of the royal palaces.

Invitations from the Queen are not really ‘invitations’. They are commands. Unless you have exceptional mitigating circumstances, such as being dead or close to death, they are not declined.
In almost all circumstances, guests will be contacted by telephone well in advance to warn them of the date, so invitations are never turned down. As with normal invitations, you should reply in the third person and replies should be handwritten and sent back within a couple of days.

A reply should read something like:

Mr Toby Martin Hughes presents his compliments to the Lord Chamberlain and has the honour to obey

Her Majesty’s command to attend a luncheon at Buckingham Palace on Friday, 14th May at 1 o’clock.

Garden Parties

Perhaps one of the best known of royal functions is the garden party.

Four garden parties take place each year: three at Buckingham Palace and one at the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. These parties are given to reward and acknowledge those who have made significant contributions to their communities or worthy causes (i.e., charitable volunteers, teachers, doctors and nurses). Yet there will also be members from the diplomatic corps and selected guests of the Royal Family, who might include you.

Although the gates of Buckingham Palace open at 3pm, the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh arrive at 4pm on the West Terrace, and when they reach the steps down into the gardens, the National Anthem plays and everyone stands very still. Resist the urge to sing the anthem. Even if you’re a football player.

The anthem also plays at 6pm to mark the end of the event – a terribly smart way to get rid of your guests, although (sadly) this tactic should not be deployed at your own events.

What is thought to be the world’s longest tea tent (400 feet long) is erected down one side of the grounds at Buckingham Palace to serve guests finger sandwiches, tea, scones and pastries.
Rushing to the tent upon arrival and piling up a plate is not the done thing. The correct approach is to amble casually to the tent, acting as if you attend every garden party.

Her Majesty has her own private enclosure at her garden parties where dignitaries and politicians are entertained. If you have the good fortune to be invited in, don’t take out your mobile phone and start taking pictures. You will find yourself quickly escorted away.

Guests have the unique opportunity to relax and explore the gardens, which are normally shut to the general public. Yet if you get asked (by a normal guest) whether you want to tour the gardens, you should say with a slight sigh, “Well, all right, although I have seen them many times before.”


For more directions on decorum, pick up The Bluffer’s Guide to Etiquette®