The Queen is not up for grabs
— Sean Carey
Don’t kiss the Queen! This was the advice given to guests at the Royal wedding by officials at Buckingham Palace. If you did attend the big day, there could have been some awkward moments if you got it wrong.
Officials at Buckingham Palace had instructed guests, who were due to attend the wedding between Prince William and Catherine Middleton, not to attempt to touch or kiss the British sovereign.
Historically, almost all of those who have broken the taboo have paid a price.
In 1992, the British tabloids dubbed the then Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, the ‘Lizard of Oz’ after he placed a hand on the Queen’s middle back at a public reception, and there was another rumpus when his successor, John Howard, was accused of a similar misdemeanour at Canberra’s Parliament House in 2000 (although, intriguingly, US First Lady Michelle Obama was not pilloried in the same way when she carried out a similar gesture on the royal upper back at a Buckingham Palace G20 reception in 2009).
So when is it OK to touch the British sovereign? The custom that prohibits touching or kissing the Queen is not an absolute. Whenever a transaction occurs, it seems that the crucial point is that it reflects and maintains the social status and social distance of both parties.
The night before the Royal wedding between Prince William and Catherine Middleton, a gala dinner was held at the five-star Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hyde Park for members of the British Royal family. Guests also included some of their counterparts from overseas – mainly royals from Europe, but also those from more distant parts of the world, including the Sultan of Brunei and his wife.
According to press reports, the Queen arrived ‘fashionably late’ to meet members of her own flock and the other royals. When I watched the evening news bulletin on the BBC it was impossible not to notice the kisses bestowed on her cheeks by an immaculately coiffed, flame-haired woman in a long flowing robe. The kisses offered to the British monarch were followed immediately by a curtsy. Familiarity and subordination were thus simultaneously conveyed through the combination of gestures.
But even more intriguing: who was the woman, who was permitted to kiss the British monarch? It turns out that it was the evening’s host, Lady Elizabeth Anson, founder of UK-based events company, Party Planners, and the Queen’s first cousin.
The following day, after all the other guests at the Royal wedding were seated in Westminster Abbey, the Queen arrived and after exchanging pleasantries and (gloved) handshakes with various high-ranking Church of England clergymen (note: no women), more kisses were planted on the Queen’s cheeks. This time it was by her two grandchildren, the bridegroom, Prince William, and his brother and best man, Prince Harry as well as their father, Prince Charles. The Duchess of Cornwall, also in attendance, did not attempt to kiss the Queen, but simply curtsied in the traditional manner – bending the knee with the weight on the front foot.
So we now know how the customary royal greeting rule works in practice: at public events the Queen can offer handshakes to commoners (including metaphysically significant clergy). However, she is not a bestower but only a recipient of kisses from those who are classified as ‘blood relatives’, foreign royals as well as her husband, Prince Phillip, who, to the best of my knowledge, has only once kissed his wife in public (on the cheek at the Millennium celebrations at the Dome — now the O2 Arena — in Greenwich).
But this behavioural rule does not stretch to include those who have married into a royal lineage. For example, Queen Magrethe of Denmark is entitled to kiss the royal cheek, but her husband, Prince Henrik, a former diplomat and the son of a French Count is not. In fact, he found this out the hard way in 2000 when in an attempt to follow the example of his wife saw the Queen peel away and offer an outstretched hand for the kiss instead. It was a compromise, but no one should be in any doubt as to who was setting the agenda.
By contrast, junior British royals display somewhat different social behaviour than the head of the Windsor family. In a genuflection towards British (and Western) popular culture where love and romance (rather than economic or political interests) in a marriage are perceived to be paramount and traditionally sealed with a public kiss, a very reluctant Prince Charles was forced by the crowd into pressing his lips to those of his new wife, Diana, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in 1991.
This gesture has been repeated at royal weddings ever since. And now the Royal newlyweds, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, went as far as having not one kiss on the lips but two.
So while the Queen is not up for grabs, is the second in line to the throne setting a new precedent?
One thing is clear: both monarchists and republicans would be wise not to underestimate the power of such rituals on the popular imagination. Out of small gestures power and authority are borne.
Dr Sean Carey is research fellow in the Department of Social Sciences, Roehampton University.
A version of this article has appeared on the Anthropology Work blog