The Queen is not up for grabs

Guest Post by Sean Carey

Don’t kiss the Queen! Officials at Buckingham Palace 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.

Queen Elizabeth II with the Obamas, 2009. Flickr/Creative Commons
Queen Elizabeth II with the Obamas, 2009. Flickr/Creative Commons

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. There was another rumpus when his successor, John Howard, was accused of a similar misdemeanour at Canberra’s Parliament House in 2000. Intriguingly, US First Lady Michelle Obama was not pilloried in the same way when she she put her arm around the Royal upper back at a Buckingham Palace G20 reception in 2009.

So when is it okay 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 the evening’s host was Lady Elizabeth Anson, founder of the 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. 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.

Queen Elizabeth II, wearing gloves, shakes Pope Benedicts hand, 2010. Flickr/Creative Commons
Queen Elizabeth II, wearing gloves, shakes Pope Benedict's hand, 2010. Flickr/Creative Commons

So, 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. It was a kiss on the cheek at the Millenium 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. He found this out the hard way in 2000 when, in an attempt to follow the example of his wife, he 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. The Royal newlyweds, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, went as far as kissing on the lips not just once, but twice.

So while the Queen is not up for grabs, it seems that the second in line to the throne has set a new precedent for Royal kissing at the wedding.

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.

Sean Carey obtained his Ph.D. in social/cultural anthropology from the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He is currently research fellow at the Centre for Research on Nationalism, Ethnicity and Multiculturalism (Cronem) at Roehampton University. He writes for the Guardian, Mauritius Times, New African and New Statesman.

2 thoughts on “The Queen is not up for grabs

  1. Dani

    Interesting post.

    I sometimes see pictures of Wills and Harry greeting their father, uncles, Peter Phillips, and select young boys with double cheek kisses. Is that a royal thing, an upper class British thing, or simply a Harry and Wills thing?


  2. Sean Carey

    Dani, that’s a very good question. My view is that the double kiss reflects the influence of French culture on British culture – at least British culture from the middle-class upwards – since the 1970s. The most likely explanation is that the Royals have absorbed that practice so as to have something in common with their subjects. That would fit with a wider pattern of changes in Royal practices. For example, when Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne in 1953, she really did speak the Queen’s English as defined by Received Pronunciation (RP), the standard English of England, though not of Scotland or Wales. Since then her accent has modified and is no longer quite so ‘high’ (or ‘posh’). However, Prince Charles still speaks in a marked RP accent, and his first son William also to some extent. Prince Harry, however, does not. He sounds like any other well-educated English young man.


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