So, it’s your big moment – maybe the single most important one of your life! You’re about to meet the actual Queen of England in the flesh. And while you’re putting on a brave face, you’re secretly terrified that you’re going to say or do the wrong thing. Maybe you won’t actually end up being thrown in the Tower of London, but all the same, the embarrassment of putting a foot wrong would be truly mortifying. Well, don’t worry – we’ve got your back. If you’re ever lucky enough to be granted an audience with the longest-reigning monarch in British history, here’s a guide to 20 of the most important rules to keep in mind to avoid an excruciating faux pas.
20. Don’t be late
Whatever you do, don’t keep the Queen waiting. The monarch is a stickler for punctuality so you should always make sure you turn up for your royal encounter long before she’s even in the vicinity. And as Russian president Vladimir Putin found out, the royal sure holds a grudge if you break this cardinal rule.
Putin has a reputation for being tardy. Even so, it was still a surprise that he kept the Queen waiting nearly quarter of an hour for his first state visit to Great Britain back in 2003. Her Majesty got her revenge, though. When it came to their next meeting, she decided a little tit-for-tat would show Putin who was boss, turning up 12 minutes late.
19. Do take your sunglasses off
The Queen tends to meet most of her subjects indoors. So you wouldn’t think that this particular rule would need to be addressed that often. Of course, when you’re one of the most important women in the fashion industry, style always trumps necessity. And back in 2018 Vogue magazine’s notoriously headstrong editor Anna Wintour certainly wasn’t taking off her famous sunglasses for anyone, not even when sitting next to Britain’s longest-reigning monarch.
One particular expert on royal etiquette certainly wasn’t happy about this. Former butler to Prince Charles Grant Harrold told news agency the Press Association, “Ms. Wintour should know that to wear sunglasses when talking to another person, with no medical reason, is unacceptable.” Yet the Queen didn’t seem to mind this rule being broken. Photos of the royal and Wintour suggest they got on like a house on fire.
18. Do let her take center stage
Vladimir Putin and his then-wife Lyudmila outdid themselves during their encounter with the Queen in 2003. Not only did they keep the royal waiting for 14 minutes, but they also broke another notable rule: never upstage Her Majesty. So how exactly did the presidential couple try to take center stage?
Well, on this occasion, it wasn’t the Russian premier creating the controversy. Instead, his wife ignored royal etiquette by sporting a hat much wider than the Queen’s. And it was even in a similar cream color, too. The monarch tried to play the pair at their own game at their next meeting when it came to being punctual, but she refrained from retaliating with her sartorial choices.
17. Don’t touch her
It seems as though Russian presidents have little regard for royal etiquette. Long before Putin rudely kept the Queen waiting, his predecessor Boris Yeltsin had also ignored another rule by attempting to place his arm on her waist. But Elizabeth II managed to impressively swerve this inappropriate form of human contact.
Anyone introduced to the Queen is explicitly told that you should never try to touch her. Yet that didn’t stop Yeltsin from trying again just two years on. On this occasion, the president was being a little more chivalrous. But his attempt to take off Her Majesty’s coat was still a major no-no.
16. Do address the Queen as Your Majesty
The Queen, Elizabeth II, Mrs Windsor? There seems to be a dozen potential ways you could address the head of Britain’s most famous family. But if you find yourself saying “hello” to the monarch who’s been on the throne since 1956, then to get it right you should use “Your Majesty” the first time and “Ma’am” thereafter.
Of course, this brings up another major dilemma. How one earth do you pronounce “Ma’am?” Well, apparently it rhymes with “ham.” You should also use this word when addressing any other female member of the royal family. But instead of following “Your Majesty,” it should come after “Your Royal Highness.”
15. Don’t initiate conversation
“Don’t speak unless you’re spoken to,” appears to be the mantra for the Queen and the rest of her family. Ex-butler Harrold told website Insider, “Royals are supposed to begin the conversation. You’ll notice they start it, so they can be in control of the time. They have to take control.”
Mind you, there is one exception to this rule. Harrold explained, “I’ve never seen a member of the royal family ignore a child. If a child calls out to them, nine out of ten times they will go over. It’s different to our grandparents’ time, when children were seen and not heard. It’s a different world now.”
14. Do steer clear of personal questions
Unless you’re someone without a filter, then this particular rule appears to be a no-brainer. Yes, unsurprisingly, anyone talking to the Queen should avoid asking any questions about personal matters. So if you’re wondering what her feelings are on the whole Harry and Meghan debacle, you’ll have to keep wondering.
If you are cheeky enough to try and get some inside information, then there are two ways the Queen is likely to deal with you. According to Harrold, royals faced with a question they don’t like will either develop selective hearing or occasionally answer “no comment.” But if they’re feeling in a particularly good mood, then they may also use a funny remark as a face-saving digression.
13. Don’t talk about politics
But it’s not just the inner machinations of Buckingham Palace that’s off-limits when it comes to conversation with the Queen. That’s right: there are at least four other things you never ever talk about when in the monarch’s company. And that’s politics, financial matters, religion and, surely the most obvious no-no, sex.
At this point you may be wondering what is considered to be a respectable topic of conversation during a royal encounter. Well, if you’ve been stuck in traffic on the way to your meeting, then that’s fine to discuss. Likewise whether the sun is shining or not. As both travel and weather are apparently small-talk favorites.
12. Do curtsey
First impressions count, so if you want to impress the Queen immediately, then make sure you know how to greet her. Although it’s not considered official protocol, royal experts believe that some form of physical gesture should be made before speaking with the monarch. For the men, it’s usually just a tiny nod of the head – a kind of mini-bow.
Women meeting the Queen have it a little more complicated, though. Yes, the curtsey is much tougher to execute than a small bow. And that’s why some subjects can get it hopelessly wrong. See former British prime minister Theresa May, who both bowed and curtseyed during one particular encounter with the royal.
11. Don’t offer your hand first
The Queen isn’t averse to shaking her subjects’ hands. But you should always let the monarch initiate such a gesture first. And if you’re wanting a hug or a quick peck, then forget it. Well, unless you happen to also be a royal yourself. Or a star of Hollywood’s golden age.
In 2018 the Netherlands’ Queen Máxima decided to break royal protocol by giving her British counterpart a kiss on the cheek. The Dutch are renowned for being a little more tactile than their European cousins, after all. But luckily, Queen Elizabeth II didn’t seem to mind this rather bold approach. Likewise when The Black Stallion actor Mickey Rooney gave her hand a smooch in 2014.
10. Do form a semicircle if in a group
You probably don’t have to worry too much about this specific rule if you’re ever granted an audience with Her Majesty. And if you’re having a private meeting, then you don’t have to concern yourself about it at all. But if you’re being introduced to the Queen en masse, apparently you should form yourselves into a particular shape.
Yes, subjects waiting to bow or curtsey to the royal don’t tend to stand in a straight line together. Instead, they are usually asked to form a semicircle. But to make matters much easier, officials usually orchestrate the positions to prevent the Queen from having to walk along a misshaped queue.
9. Don’t leave an event before the Queen
Invited to a royal event that the woman who’s sat on the throne for nearly 70 years is also attending? Well, don’t expect to make a quick getaway. Those given the honor of being in the same room as Her Majesty must wait until she’s had enough before even thinking about leaving.
Of course, with the Queen now well into her 90s, it seems unlikely she’d be staying out until the early hours of the morning. And there is at least one way an early release can be granted, too. But you have to ask for official permission from a private secretary to receive it.
8. Do smile
While some royal rules seem unnecessarily complicated, this particular one couldn’t be more easier to adopt. Yes, if you find yourself coming face to face with the Queen, then make sure you turn any frowns upside-down. For anyone greeting the monarch should do so with the best and biggest smile.
Unless the Queen is having a particularly bad day, chances are that she will reciprocate this facial gesture, too. The royal is known for both beaming warmly and looking each member of her adoring public that she meets square in the eye. And she’s also proved on several occasions that she likes a good laugh.
7. Don’t take pictures
It should go without saying, of course, but don’t expect to take a quick selfie in the Queen’s presence. She may be one of the world’s most-snapped famous faces. But as you can understand, the royal doesn’t appreciate having a camera stuck in her face at every opportune moment.
During a trip to Germany in 2015 locals were explicitly told to put their cameras away. And if you’re thinking of boosting your Instagram followers with a cheeky snap around one of her many residences, think again. Snaps taken inside the likes of Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle are strictly forbidden, too.
6. Do watch your alcohol intake
The Queen is no stranger to the odd tipple. According to Darren McGrady, her one-time chef, the royal enjoys a glass of sweet wine with most meals. And she’s partial to a gin and Dubonnet, too. But all in moderation, something which anyone who gets to enjoy drinks with the Queen should bear in mind.
Yes, chances are that you may need something to steady the nerves during the occasion. It’s not every day you get to share the same space with Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, after all. But as etiquette guide Debrett’s states, overindulgence can lead to overexcitement, so maybe stick to nothing stronger than orange juice.
5. Don’t turn your back on her
Turning your back on someone is the height of rudeness, whoever that person may be. So don’t even think about making such a move should your attention wander while in front of the Queen. And that’s not the only obvious sign of distraction you need to look out for, either.
That’s right: if you suddenly find yourself thinking whether you’ve left the gas on or what to have for your evening meal, try your best not to gaze away while doing so. The Queen is a big fan of eye contact. So anyone in her presence should make sure they stay focused on her famous face at all times.
4. Do let her eat first
You may be tempted to tuck into the delicious food that the Queen’s personal chefs have served up if you find yourself dining with Her Majesty. But taking even a tiny bite before the royal has done so is considered a major no-no. And you also shouldn’t sit down until the monarch has taken to the table.
If you happen to be sitting right next to the Queen, then you will only command her attention for one course. The monarch spends the starter engaged in conversation with the person on her right before turning to her left for the main course. Who knows to whom she speaks when it comes to dessert?
3. Don’t explain to her who you are
Received an invite to one of the prestigious garden parties that the Queen holds every year? It may feel like you need to immediately justify why you’re in her presence if you happen to get talking to the royal. But there’s no need to give the monarch your life story.
Royals are typically briefed about who they are greeting and given a quick summary of their achievements beforehand. Of course, Her Majesty can’t possibly converse with everyone in attendance at these events which are typically staged at Buckingham Palace. So officials arrange for her to speak to just a select few individuals.
2. Do leave your hands free
Make sure that you’re not glugging back a glass of Champagne when the Queen heads your way. And also put that bag on the floor no matter how expensive it may be. Anyone who’s been granted an audience with the monarch should be empty-handed at the time.
So why exactly does royal protocol dictate that your hands should always be free? Well, perhaps it means that you’re always ready to shake hands if the Queen decides to bestow that particular honor upon you. Or possibly more importantly, it also reduces the risk of you mortifyingly spilling your drink all down the royal’s outfit.
1. Don’t walk ahead of her
Now in her mid-90s, Queen Elizabeth II isn’t as sprightly as she used to be. So you may have to slow down your walking pace considerably if you happen to be going for a little stroll with the royal. For it’s considered a definite no-no should you ever outpace the Queen.
Donald Trump obviously didn’t read the rulebook when he visited the Queen in 2018. The 45th President of the United States made headlines after being filmed leaving the monarch for dust during an inspection of the royal guard at Windsor Castle. After Trump ignored her directions, the Queen was forced to walk around him when he abruptly stopped.