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Is Royal Protocol Still Relevant?

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?


For more on etiquette, plus some well-humoured tweets Follow William Hanson on Twitter @WilliamHanson or visit his website for more information

Why not tell us what you think on modern royal protocol in the comments box below, or leave a question if you have any?

  • Linda Roberts

    Some of the reforms are sensible, such as the abolition of walking backwards, but I think that all this modernisation could well go too far. It is the thin end of a very worrying wedge. I really am afraid that Charles will do away with even more protocol and tradition, and I think William will be even worse. Our heritage and history is being gradually eroded and eventually destroyed. Not good.

    • Ted Martin

      We live in a rapidly changing world. For sure, Charles will have a very hard act to follow, and sadly he is younger than I, so I will probably not be around when William (whom I would prefer of the two) gets there. I fully agree the “walking backwards” was well to be eliminated with.

  • Ted Martin

    Julia Gillard Is no longer the PM, there have been two since she was tossed.

  • Reinaldo Martinez

    Protocol is what tells the difference between a King or Queen, and a President or First Lady. The notorious difference is that Monarchs come across a long line of descendants, carrying with them customs, traditions, History and mementos of the whole chain of rulers. Presidents and Fisrt Ladies, usually chosen by way of who has the best campaigners and image consultants, only bring their personal traits of carácter. They can hardly have the strong, deeply felt connection with their people, like Monarchs have. Therefore, protocol, as the pointer of class, ough to be preserved. It is now somewhat flexible, and adaptable. But it should never perish.

  • Reinaldo Martinez

    Att. WEBMASTER. Everytime I attempt to Access the Royal Central website a system message pops out indicating that the site provides no certificate of security. I must always need to click the “do you want to continue” button. It`s not annoying, or worrying. It’s just to let you know, so perhaps there is a renovation pending. Thanks for the piece.

  • P A Moore

    tradition is part of our heritage.We are losing far too much of our identity and culture.We should hold on to all aspects of our traditions and not change for other cultures.

  • Stephen Savage

    The Royal familiy have always been adept at evolving to retain a place in our society. Our present Queen’s reign has been so long that it is inevitable that many many changes have occurred.

    The trick, is to judge the timing correctly, to avoid scandal and dissent, which She has done brilliantly, her successors should take note and learn.

  • joann

    I think that people should stop calling Catherine by her maiden name Middleton. She

  • Limeyfrog

    They are not ‘chosen by God’, they are the descendants of a spare mad German arm of the family chosen after the previous in-bred lot failed to reproduce. They should be treated as we wish to be treated and no more. When will UK have a republic? Some of us can’t wait.

  • PrinceHarrysDad

    Oliver Cromwell had the right approach to the royals….

    • Robert James George

      Think the Russian way beat Cromwell and the French. Out of sight of the masses, no creation of martyrs, just brought to an end.

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