diana bows out - and curtseys are out, as well

Having lost her HRH, the Princess of Wales has slipped a long way down the palace pecking order. Emma Cook explains the intricacies of royal manners

No wonder the Princess of Wales fought so hard to keep her HRH. Having agreed to relinquish it as part of her divorce settlement, the woman who was once groomed to be the future Queen will now be expected to show a little humility. Thanks to royal protocol, it is no longer necessary for friends or staff to bow or curtsey in Diana's presence. Technically, she is now in the humiliating position of having to curtsey to her two sons and (worse) to her ex-husband and a whole host of minor royals.

Pedantic and antiquated? Certainly, but that's the nature of the game. In private as well as public life, the royal court is riddled with intricate rules and rituals. Nigel Evans, editor of Majesty magazine, explains: "It comes from the idea that the Queen is never off duty. Even in a private residence, if she walks into a room, everyone has to stand up." And that includes her husband and sons.

All the royal family, except the Queen Mother, must bow or curtsey to the Queen. The Lord Great Chamberlain takes the act of deference a stage further: when the Queen opens Parliament he walks backwards as a sign of respect. "She guides him with her eyes," says Evans, "so he doesn't go off balance."

Protocol is defined as the set of rules of behaviour that govern any formal occasion, not just royal ones. It can seem absurd. Yet much of it is still adhered to among "polite society" and strictly followed at formal public dinners. Liz Brewer, PR and society schmoozer, says: "There are lots of funny little quirks and rules. I don't think there's a book that lays them down anywhere. But if you don't know about them then somebody jolly well makes you aware of it and you feel pretty uncomfortable."

Pity the poor ingenue who joins the glitterati at a banquet and dares to speak to someone sitting to her right. "At a dinner party you talk to the person on your left for the first course, if you're a woman, and during the main course you switch to the right. It's a free-for-all during pudding," explains Liz Brewer. "If somebody breaks that you know they don't know how to behave. It hasn't been explained to them."

Hugo Vickers, royal historian and author of Royal Orders, insists that such rules are designed to make life easier: "It is helpful to have a formula which can get you over the basic introduction. It gives people the chance to assess each other before they go on to something more interesting."

Liz Brewer agrees: "It's useful to know other people's level of importance - by where they sit, for example." People in the know are aware of the pecking order: royals are at the top of the precedence list with baronets then knights at the bottom of the pile.

While some of these customs are functional others seem downright silly. If you're dining in the company of the Queen, it is frowned upon to carry on eating after she finishes her meal. According to Nigel Evans, she will often push a bit of food around her plate until everyone else has eaten up. Liz Brewer explains that if a royal member attends an event, no guests should leave until they have departed. "It can make life difficult," she admits. "Once at the American residency in Regent's Park I was sitting next to Princess Michael of Kent. I was breast-feeding at the time and had to get away by midnight. In the end I turned to her and explained why I had to go. One laughed about it and it was fine."

It seems the only people totally au fait with these perplexing rituals are the royals themselves - a pretty impressive accomplishment, according to Hugo Vickers. He waxes lyrical about one particular public greeting between Prince Charles and the Queen Mother: "As she approached, he bowed. As he shook her hand, he kissed it. She swept his hand up to both cheeks and he then kissed her on both cheeks. It was a very well choreographed movement."

An extension of these intricate conventions is diplomatic protocol. When Nelson Mandela arrived in London last week he was met by a Lord in Waiting who represents the Queen and therefore takes precedence over any political minister. (This was one formality, says Vickers, that greatly annoyed Margaret Thatcher.)

At foreign banquets, everyone is placed according to precedence: the more important you are, the nearer you'll be to the host. In the past, this has caused more than a few bruised egos and dramatic exits.

"If you were an ambassador and you felt wrongly placed you might, on behalf of your country, feel the need to turn your plate over and just leave the table," says Hugo Vickers. "Certainly Lord Dudley, the Duke of Windsor's friend, 'turned his plate' at several dinner parties and pushed off." The Foreign Office deny, with inevitable diplomacy, that such a thing could ever happen today. "If it did everybody would fall about laughing," said one spokesman sniffily. He added, rather unconvincingly: "We have no dogmatic way of doing things or any codes of behaviour that are set down." When protocol is associated with elitism, people are keen to deny its existence.

The cultural commentator Peter York is keen to emphasise that protocol has nothing to do with snobbery. "We're talking about a focused formality, which is absolutely not the same as the British class system. Protocol serves its purpose. It's a confidence creator and gives a sense of 'event' to certain things in life."

Some argue that a certain amount of "focused formality" is essential, even for those who don't know their bobs from their bows (a bob is just a nod of the head, a bow is from the shoulders). It creates that necessary distance and respect when we first encounter strangers and professionals. Or at least it used to do so. But with the vogue for matey first-name terms, formal codes of conduct are rapidly dying out.

Dr Bruce Charlton MD, psychology lecturer at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and contributor to the anthology Gentility Recalled, laments this development. "When someone walks into a surgery they should know how the doctor will address them. Then there's no uncertainty or worry and they can concentrate on the matter in hand." Only last week, he recalled with irritation, a receptionist on the end of the phone immediately called him "Bruce". "It was somebody I'd never seen before - I was flabbergasted. I find it manipulative, as if other people are trying to get on to a level of familiarity that they haven't earned.

"Things are more friendly and relaxed, these days, but other problems have arisen as a result. If you walk into a pub or a canteen only very extrovert people are going to be able to circulate. I'm quite convinced that formal manners actually act as a better social lubricant." Hugo Vickers agrees: "Protocol is quite sensible really. It's all done to smooth the path so everyone knows who they are."

Sadly, in Princess Diana's case, this may well add insult to injury.

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