‘I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service…’
So The Queen promised on her 21st birthday, and so she has done throughout a life that has indeed proved long: on 21st April she will become the first British monarch to celebrate her 90th birthday.
Throughout her reign, The Queen has not only served her public but also set an example through her conduct and consideration for others. Every year she meets thousands of people from around the world and from all walks of life, combining warmth and humour with the protocol required of formal occasions. She is also called upon to deliver speeches, attend openings and charity events and to host state banquets, garden parties, lunches, dinners and receptions.
What can we learn from a public figure whose every step is subjected to intense scrutiny? During her lifetime, The Queen has adapted to many changes, from the austerity and restraint of the post-war era to today’s instantaneous news and social sharing. In the face of personal tragedy, an often capricious press and political volatility, she has very rarely put a foot wrong – and we’ve picked up some royal etiquette tips along the way:
Meeting and Greeting
The practice of the 'royal walkabout' first became commonplace during The Queen's reign, allowing members of the public to exchange words, offer bouquets and have photographs taken with members of the Royal Family. When meeting people for the first time, The Queen favours a traditional single-handed handshake, and whether it's the US president or a young charity beneficiary, she always makes eye contact and smiles warmly.
Public engagements and formal events require The Queen to talk to hundreds of strangers in any given day, so she has had plenty of practice in mastering the art of small talk. She is rumoured to favour 'Have you come far?' as an opening line, showing that asking a simple question can be a reliable way to begin a conversation.
When asked to cut a fruit cake at celebrations for the WI's 100-year anniversary, The Queen found herself struggling with the knife. She dealt with the incident with characteristic good humour, joking with the crowd and enlisting the help of her daughter, Princess Anne, and daughter-in-law, the Countess of Wessex.
The Queen is a prolific and generous hostess, and takes a personal interest in preparation for events at Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle. Preparations for a state banquet begin six months before the event, and include polishing 1,000 glasses, folding around 170 napkins and creating 20 flower displays. Four royal garden parties also take place each year, at Buckingham Palace and Holyrood House. Each garden party caters for around 8,000 guests, who will consume around 27,000 cups of tea, 20,000 sandwiches and 20,000 slices of cake.
While we suspect The Queen's social media accounts may be administered by others, her online presence is nonetheless an important means of communicating with the public and demonstrating the relevance of the Royal Family. The British monarchy has a presence on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter, sharing news, photographs and videos. The Twitter account @BritishMonarchy shows how to combine openness with restraint on social media, and to great effect: it now has over 2 million followers, and The Queen's birthday even has its own hashtag, #Queenat90.
When called upon to deliver a speech, The Queen is most comfortable reading from notes. She is generally resistant to florid language, and favours honesty over sentimentality. Most of her speeches are prepared by private secretaries, but she reviews the draft and consults the Duke of Edinburgh on alterations and amendments. The exception is the televised Queen's Speech at Christmas, which is very much composed in her own voice, drawing on her personal experiences and concerns.
In the ITV documentary Our Queen at 90, the Duchess of Cambridge revealed how nervous she had been about choosing a present for The Queen ahead of her first Christmas at Balmoral. Deciding on a jar of special marmalade, the Duchess said how much it meant to her to find it laid out on the breakfast table the following morning. It is this very human face, visible in The Queen's delight at the wedding of her grandson, or when her horse wins a race, that endears her to her public and penetrates the necessarily formal guard of her role.
What should you do if you meet the Queen?
If you're invited to a royal event such as a garden party or reception, members of the Royal Household will be on hand to guide you throughout, so relax and follow their instructions.
Royal events vary in format, but guests should arrive punctually. Those who are to be presented are discreetly marshalled into position by members of the Royal Household. The usual form is a series of semi-circles rather than straight rows like a formal receiving line. Guests should try to be empty-handed by putting down any drinks or bags.
Women should curtsy and men bow from the neck. The Queen will offer her hand, in which case one should shake it with a light contact. Answer any question posed but don't talk at any length as this holds up proceedings.
For more information on etiquette for royal invitations and events, Debrett's Handbook is a highly detailed reference guide.
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