When Meghan Markle and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, curtsied in unison to the Queen on Christmas Day, the American actress got high marks for mastering one of the most confounding aspects of royal life. Meghan and her sister-in-law-to-be tucked one leg behind the other and gracefully bent at the knee at the same time—with Meghan adding a deferential bowing of her head for good measure.
But according to the convoluted and complicated rules of royal protocol, after Meghan marries Prince Harry, some high-ranking members of the family will have to curtsy to her.
These rules are almost always followed when the family is at a state occasion or, as evidenced by Meghan’s baptism by fire, celebrating Christmas in Sandringham. The strictest protocol dictates everyone must either bow or curtsy to the Queen. Then, according to Order of Precedence, the order of who bows to whom goes down in order of the Queen’s sons (by birth order, so oldest first), then her grandsons, her brothers, her uncles, her nephews, and lastly, her cousins.
As in every family, there are exceptions made for favorite grandsons. William, who is third in line to the throne, is said to have gained precedence over the Queen’s younger sons in recent years. (When was the last time we even saw Prince Edward?)
Wives of the Queen’s sons are typically given higher rank than her daughters and granddaughters. But the Queen updated the Order of Precedence “on blood principles,” in 2005, when Prince Charles married Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, so that her daughter, Princess Anne, would not have to bow her when Charles was not present. Hmm.
However, this rule only applies when the woman’s husband is present, otherwise wives get bumped on down the list. These rules also determine how members of the aristocracy enter and leave a room during formal occasions. (In case you were wondering, no one leaves before the Queen and when she stops eating, the meal is over.)
Now, back to Meghan and Harry. When they’re married and attending an event together with the Queen, Prince Charles and Camilla and Charles’ sister Princesses Anne, Prince William’s cousins Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice, Meghan would only curtsy to the Queen, Prince Charles, and Camilla, while Anne, Eugenie, and Beatrice would actually curtsy to her. After all, when Harry is in the room with her, she assumes Harry’s rank. (Yes, this will be the first time a British royal will have to curtsy to American, and I’m guessing that isn’t going to go over all that well.)
But if Harry wasn’t present for any reason, Meghan would have to curtsy to everyone, including “blood princesses” like Eugenie, Beatrice, and Anne.
While the rules dictate Meghan must always curtsy for her future sister-in-law, Catherine, it’s unlikely this occurs in private. For other women in the royal family, it will depend on the presence of their royal husband. Meghan would need to curtsy to Sophie, Countess of Wessex, only when Prince Edward is also in the room.
And for more on the upcoming royal wedding, don’t miss the 10 Things We Know About Meghan Markle’s Wedding Dress.
Diane Clehane is a New York-based journalist and author of Imagining Diana: A Novel.
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