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The Duchess of Cambridge: Curtsy in a Muddle

Now Kate Middleton is part of the Firm as Catherine Duchess of Cambridge, she is plunged into the middle of an etiquette blunder produced by the Queen in 2005. A Royal edict intended to keep peace in the family might now start to backfire spectacularly.

At European Royal courts, the old rules governing the etiquette of curtsies and bows are relatively simple to follow; if the person you greet outranks you, you bow or curtsey; if it is the other way round, they do. The problem might be in deciding whether the person outranks you as titles can be deceiving, but that is nothing a bit of history knowledge can’t remedy.

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Under the old rules, the curtsies within the closer Royal Family were as easy to follow. To keep it with the ladies in order of precedence: Queen, Camilla Duchess of Cornwall, Catherine Duchess of Cambridge, Princess Anne The Princess Royal, Princess Beatrice, Princess Eugenie, Princess Alexandra The Honourable Lady Ogilvy etc. The Queen obviously curtseys to none; Camilla would only curtsey to the Queen, while Princess Alexandra would curtsey to all mentioned before her.

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Trouble started with Lady Diana’s marriage to Prince Charles. Princess Anne and Princess Alexandra were brought up under premises that still pointed to a Royal Princess marrying the heir to the throne. Instead, a mere lady and a chit of 19 years took the place. Hearsay reports that Princess Anne refused point blank to curtsey to her. The situation was exacerbated by Charles finally marrying Camilla.

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Anne and Alexandra went up in flames and the Queen felt compelled to take steps. She changed the pecking order to accommodate the two long serving Princesses in a sort of order of merit. Both Anne and Alexandra are constantly on the move to represent the Queen in public appearances; they each cover several hundred of those appointments every year. And they have done that not for years, but for decades. Camilla just stepped in as a superannuated latecomer.

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Unhappily, the Queen was thinking in terms of Royal birth instead of only merit. Instead of just moving Anne and Alexandra up in the line of precedence in recognition of services rendered, she moved the two scarecrows (Princess Beatrice and Princess Eugenie) up as well. The new structure is so inadequate that it can hardly be remedied except by a major cut. But we shouldn’t expect that cut to happen before William accedes to the crown. The edict has a further glaring omission: It places Camilla in the order of precedence, but it doesn’t assign (for obvious reasons) a place to Catherine.

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How does this all work out now? It’s easy if the Queen is present, as everybody will curtsey (or bow) to the Queen; but in her absence it goes quite literally downwards. If Prince Charles is in the room, everybody curtseys to Camilla even if Prince William is there as well. If Charles is absent but William is there, everybody including Camilla curtseys to Catherine. If William is absent as well, but Princess Anne is there, everybody including Camilla and Catherine curtseys to her.

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If this isn’t complicated enough, nobody really knows what will happen if only Camilla and Catherine are there. As Catherine has better manners and a better upbringing than Princess Anne, though, we might presume that she will curtsey to Camilla out of respect for seniority if nothing else. Nothing would be more embarrassing than if they would both curtsey at the same time. Fun though.

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