Kate's Sitting Room: Who Curtsies to Whom?

Kate’s Sitting Room: Who Curtsies to Whom?

tess kate's clothes contributor small iconTess Mize is a freelance writer, Navy wife, and new mom. Aside from being an avid royal watcher and Anglophile, she loves literature, theatre, yoga, and a good glass of wine. She was raised in the Southeast but currently lives in California with her husband, daughter, and dog.



Our topic this time comes to us courtesy of Julie, who left the following comment on my first post:

I have always wondered this and never found any info on it. They always make such a big deal about the women curtsying, and who curtsies to whom. What about the men? Do they have to bow, and who bows to whom?

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry attend a Commemoration event at Saint Symphorien Military Cemetery

That is an excellent question that could take us down quite a winding road of discussion. I’ll try to keep it focused, as ever, in the interest of brevity.

Who bows and curtsies to whom is determined by the order of precedence—which should not be confused with the order of succession. Precedence is determined generally by one’s place in the order of succession, but it can be tweaked slightly by the reigning sovereign. For example, spouses of members of the royal family do not have a place in the order of succession, but can move up in the order of precedence upon their marriage. Similarly, their place in the order of precedence can also be affected by whether or not they are accompanied by their spouse at an event.

Upon William’s marriage to Catherine, she became (by virtue of their union) William’s counterpart in all of his royal titles. While her titles place her equal to him in the order of precedence when she is accompanied by William, when he is not present, the females who are royal by birth rank higher than she does. So when William is with her, she only curtsies to HM the Queen and the Duchess of Cornwall. When William is not present, however, Kate must curtsy to the HM the Queen, the Duchess of Cornwall, the Princess Royal, Princess Alexandra, and Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie.

Generally speaking, this change affects wives of male royals more than it affects husbands of female royals. A man does not assume the title of his wife upon marriage, and therefore retains the place in the order of precedence he has occupied since birth. The main modern exception to this rule is Prince Philip, since the Queen has placed him second only to her in the order of precedence. This means Prince Philip ranks ahead of every other man, including Prince Charles, who would otherwise be second (and, in some situations as prescribed by law, he does rank ahead of his father, although these situations are rare).

It is difficult to find another modern example of a man whose position in the order of precedence changed upon marrying a royal—Princess Anne’s former husband, Mark Phillips, famously refused a title when they were married. Because of this decision, their children, Peter and Zara, also do not hold titles, although they are thirteenth and sixteenth, respectively, in the order of succession. Despite Zara’s place in the orders of succession and precedence, her husband’s status was not affected, and so Mike Tindall would be required to bow to everyone in the royal family and would receive a bow or curtsy from no one.

I believe that, because of the relative fluidity of the female order based on marriage, there is more supposed angst over who curtsies to whom. I also believe most of the implied tension is manufactured by the press in the longstanding tradition of selling papers by pitting women against each other and fabricating competition where there is none. It makes a great story to say that the blood princesses are “furious” at having to curtsy to a commoner by birth, but I highly doubt it causes the amount of drama the tabloids would have us believe.

So to wrap up: we’ve got the Order of Succession, which largely determines the Order or Precedence (although not in all cases). But if that wasn’t confusing enough, there is also a Private Order of Precedence entirely determined by HM the Queen, for when the royals are out of the public eye. I imagine it sticks closely to the Official Order of Precedence. But wouldn’t it be hilarious if, every now and then, the Queen just handed around a hat with numbers in it to determine that day’s order of precedence? Everyone pins their number on and bows or curtsies to anyone with a higher number than them. I think that would be a fun game!

Hope that answers your question, Julie! Next time, we’ll look into the art of the royal thank you note! Don’t forget to comment with any of your questions!

18 Responses

  1. Miol Mor

    Maybe it’s just me but … This is fascinating – as well as amusing when imagining Her Majesty handing out numbers :P Thank you for your explanations!
    A brief follow-up question: How goes the ‘pecking order’ (I mean no disrespect, but Order of Precedence does not seem to fit in this context) where foreign royalty is concerned? I’d guess that a queen would not courtesy to another queen/king, and that princesses courtesy to kings/queens. But how about princess to prince(ss)? Do they courtesy to each other or just shake hands – or better jet: hug it out? And whatever is appropriate in that context, is the ranking of the Duchess of Cambridge that of a princess in this ‘pecking order’, even in the absence of Prince William, or does she rank as a Duchess under those circumstances?
    If you know the answer, I’d love to know. Thank you :-)

    1. Alejandra Ramírez

      What an excellent question!
      I think all foreign princes and princessess curtsy to foreign onarchs, Mary of Denmamrk curtsies to Maxima, who is Queen of the Netherlands

    2. Tess

      Hi there! Thanks for your question. I honestly didn’t look too much into the politics of foreign royals–I felt to best answer Julie’s question to focus on the British Royal Family’s internal protocol to keep it a bit simpler. I’m interested in the answer, though I think Alejandra’s suggestion seems quite plausible to me!

      Additionally, and on a slightly different note, even though this is the “official procedure,” its entirely possible that there are various private arrangements between royals to omit the need for curtsies or bows between them–among the younger royals, perhaps. But since the palace had never commented on such matters, I decided to stick to summarizing what I found to be the official protocol, whether or not it’s religiously adhered to by the royals themselves. That doesn’t really relate to your question but I wanted to mention it somewhere, so thanks for giving me the opportunity to expand on some of the complexities!

      1. Miol Mor

        Hi Tess,
        Thank you so much for taking the time! My brain is still stuck on the picture of Her Majesty handing out numbers and my face -accordingly- remains to be set in ‘broad smile’ mode. I guess that such protocols, if they ever existed, have long been relaxed. I love the article you wrote and I’m looking forward to your next installment. Till then: stay safe and be well (you and yours, of course) and cheers right back at you :)

        1. Tess

          I’m so glad you enjoyed my little joke! It would be hilarious, so I have decided to believe that it happens. :P
          Thanks for reading the column and for your good wishes! Same to you!

  2. Andrea

    Do we have any evidence of Kate actually curtseying to anyone in the british royal family other than the queen and the Duke of Edinburgh? Have we ever seen her curtsey in public to Charles, Camilla, Anne, Beatrice etc?

    1. Tess

      Hi Andrea!
      I added this to my reply to Miol Mor above, but it relates more directly to your question, so I’ll paste it here:
      “…though this is the “official procedure,” its entirely possible that there are various private arrangements between royals to omit the need for curtsies or bows between them–among the younger royals, perhaps. But since the palace had never commented on such matters, I decided to stick to summarizing what I found to be the official protocol, whether or not it’s religiously adhered to by the royals themselves.”
      I haven’t seen any photo evidence of the curtsies you mention, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve never happened. Unless the family specified to Kate after her marriage that they wouldn’t hold her to the letter of protocol when it comes to solo appearances. I imagine the younger generation of royals is far from dogmatic about following interpersonal protocol, but since we’ll never know exactly how they’ve arranged things amongst themselves, I decided to lay out how things would go if they followed protocol to the letter.
      Thanks for your question!

  3. Karen119

    I wonder how the York girls can dislike Catherine because she is a commoner. Their mother, after all, is a commoner who happened to marry one of HM’s sons. (I am admittedly not a Sarah fan at all.) I have a question that involves Albert and Charlene of Monaco. As they are Serene Highnesses do they bow/curtsey to kings and queens? Would royals who rank lower than sovereigns (I’m thinking from the Prince of Wales on down) bow/curtsey to a Serene Highnesses? Thanks for your always entertaining and thought provoking pieces!

    1. Tess

      Hi Karen!
      I chose not to look too deeply into how foreign relations plays into the curtsying business–it was complicated enough just sticking to the BRF’s system! So I’m afraid I don’t know–and I’ll admit, I’d be a bit daunted to try and summarize that here, so I probably won’t attempt that for this column. My instinct regarding Their Serene Highnesses of Monaco, however, would be that since the Sovereign Prince of Monaco is the head of state, he would rank equal to a king or queen, despite having the title of Prince. Not sure how that would affect who bows to whom when monarchs meet, though. I imagine anyone lower than a head of state would bow or curtsy to a reigning monarch (so I imagine Prince Charles would bow to the Sovereign Prince of Monaco and his wife, although I’m not 100% certain).
      I’m so glad you enjoy this column! Thanks for your feedback!

  4. Sonja from Bavaria

    What a great post, I really enjoyed it!
    May I ask, in which situations Charles is second to the Queen so ahead of Philip? I am really curious as I think this is a strange situation – the son ahead of the father.

    Also Tess, I hope your baby is doing well!

    1. Tess

      Hi Sonja!
      Sorry for my delayed response–I just saw your comment! I don’t know exactly the specific situations that would place Charles ahead of Philip, but I imagine it would occur if HM and Charles ever did a joint address to Parliament or some similar function of State. Philip doesn’t have an official state function beyond being the spouse of the monarch, so while I doubt Charles would ever demand his father should bow to him, there are situations which would place him higher in the official pecking order. Again, it would only be a matter of strict protocol, and I imagine the people involved would choose to forego the personal formalities. It must be awkward to have these questions of who bows to whom when the people involved are your parents, siblings, cousins and other close relatives. :) Sorry I can’t give a more definite answer on that!

    2. Tess

      Also, thank you for asking about the baby! She is doing very well indeed. Growing so fast, and she makes me smile a hundred times a day! :)

    1. Suze

      Hi, Tess,
      Ok, my bad, especially being a royal watcher – particularly the Young Brits. {“TRH” Hee, hee! :D ] Please let me know to whom the D/C is curtseying in the picture above. P. William is present, so this person must have ranked above the Cambridges.

      BTW, how do you watch French royalty? If you’ve found it, please let me know: my family is supposed to have been royals. Or are you;re a Francophile…? TY – er, Merci! Suze

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