Proper Behavio(u)r When You’re Hanging Out With The Queen: Royal Protocol Explained

As reported in The New York Times and other sources this week, Queen Elizabeth II was not amused by the behavior of certain Chinese officials during their visit to Buckingham Palace last October. According to videotaped comments she made in conversation with a Metropolitan Police commander at a garden party on Tuesday, the Queen considered some members of President Xi Jinping’s entourage to be downright rude to her ambassador.

So, how is one expected to behave when visiting the palace? Are there rules of etiquette regarding personal comportment when in Her Majesty’s presence? In a word, yes.

Although not written in stone and not precisely defined, there are a number of etiquette rules one is expected to adhere to when dealing with the Queen of England and other high-ranking royals. The royals’ own website clearly states that there are no “obligatory codes of conduct when meeting The Queen or a member of the Royal Family,” but courtesy is most certainly expected. Additionally, the site suggests that upon meeting the Queen, men should briefly bow their head, and women should place one foot behind the other, bend forward, and perform a curtsy.

Fortunately, the curtsy business is not as strict as it was during the 15th to 17th century reign of the House of Tudor. Back then, men and women were required to bow low and curtsy deeply when encountering the King or Queen. Upon taking their leave, three extreme bows or curtsies were demanded, usually while exiting the room backwards so as not to turn one’s back on a high-ranking royal.

King Edward VI
Rachel Kelly, a public relations expert at the U.K.’s official tourism bureau, outlined a few modern royal etiquette rules to ABC News. When introduced to the Queen, you may initially refer to her as “your majesty.” After that, you may call her “Ma’am.” Additional distaff royals may be addressed as “your highness,’ says The Atlantic magazine.

Never touch the Queen unless she touches you first. This means no hugging, no kissing, and by no means should you ever shake Her Majesty’s hand unless proffered to you. If and when that happens, grip the Queen’s royal hand gently, and allow her to determine the heartiness of the handshake.

The no-touching rule generally applies to other royals, too. When American basketball player LeBron James wrapped a sweaty arm around the Duchess of Cambridge after a game in New York in 2014, the breach of etiquette did not go unnoticed. When the 6ft 8in athlete asked Prince William what size shoe he wore, and the prince replied ‘Half the size of yours,’ the British press went into a tizzy.

LeBron James with the royals after a 2014 basketball game in NYC
Notable etiquette expert William Hanson told The UK Daily Mail

“Americans are much more tactile than we Brits and this is another example of an American being too touchy feely with British royalty. You’d have thought they’d have learned by now.”

Tea and/or crumpets with the Queen

Taking tea and dining with royalty comes with its own set of rules. Fortunately, they have evolved considerably since dinner à la Russe was served during Queen Victoria’s 63-year reign. According to Etiquipedia, dining with Queen Vic was considered by some to be an ‘onerous honor.’ As was the wont of the day, each course of a meal was served first to the monarch, then to her guests. Food historian Annie Gray noted the following:

“For many people eating with her [Queen Victoria] was purgatory. Everyone was served after the Queen and when she had finished all the plates were cleared for the next course. If you were the last person served often you wouldn’t get a chance to eat anything before your plate was taken.”

As for having tea with the Queen, one should always place the cup on the saucer on the table when not actively taking a sip. Royal Central notes that one should not raise their pinkie finger whilst sipping afternoon tea with Her Majesty, but does not explain why.

The younger generation of royals seems to have a different take on the whole protocol thing. On the occasion of his 21st birthday, Prince William, the eldest son of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, said the following to the BBC:

“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.”

Prince William is a bit more relaxed about royal protocol
[Photo by Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP Images]