Matthew Bell: The curtsy is fighting for its very life

Our writer bows to the convention of bobbing to the Queen

Related Topics

Alarums! Royal protocol has been breached once more, and the chatterati is all in a tizz. The latest atrocity was committed by Julia Gillard, the Australian Prime Minister, when she failed to curtsy to the Queen. She wasn't even wearing a hat! But we'll leave that to one side for now.

What's got the courtiers spluttering is that Ms Gillard shook hands with the Queen on Wednesday, when everyone knows that a) you never touch the monarch, and b) a woman is supposed to look down, dip her head and bob her knees. For men, it's a bow, though only from the shoulders, not from the waist.

Or is it the other way round? And that is the problem with etiquette – nobody can quite remember what to do. In the starched tension of the moment, knowledge of arcane court ritual has a habit of evaporating. This is why Buckingham Palace's advice is simple: "Do whatever feels comfortable." And in Ms Gillard's defence, this is what she was doing.

The trouble with curtsying is that few people could ever say it "feels comfortable". Zara Phillips, the Queen's granddaughter, who wears jeans and drives a Range Rover Sport, says she can do it only because she grew up with it, but that not many people know how to do it.

This is because curtsying has always been a contrivance, which is anyway sort of the point. The word is a shortening of courtesy. As an act of deference, it stems from the 17th century, when the curtsy and the bow were more or less the same – an extravagant gesture like those performed in Restoration comedies, one leg behind the other and a big sweep of the arm. Only when ladies' skirts got bigger did it become a more elaborate operation. Maintaining your balance while slightly lifting your skirt and bending your knees is – I can only imagine – not easy.

To confirm this, I speak to the etiquette expert Mrs Harbord – she of the reality TV series Ladette to Lady. Curtsying, she says, is not instinctive: it has always been something you learn. "The first rule is practice. When I worked at finishing school many years ago, at Winkfield Place, curtsying was still a regular occurrence. It's just not something we do any more. But it was always something you had to practise at home."

The second rule, she says, is never to wear a tight skirt. Sarah Brown overcame that obstacle by performing an exemplary curtsy to the Duchess of Cornwall in 2007 despite wearing a power suit. No doubt she was mindful not to be associated with Cherie Blair, who committed the least forgivable gaffe 10 years previously, by failing to curtsy to the Queen on arriving at Balmoral. On Her Majesty's home turf, that was just plain rude.

Mary Killen, etiquette expert for The Spectator, says curtsying has another purpose. "It can be helpful to people in a social occasion if people starting dropping to their knees like a pack of cards, because it signals that there is a royal present. It also clears the way so that those at a distance get a chance for a good gawp."

She believes there has been a renaissance in interest in good manners, and is hoping to open a finishing school in the offices of The Lady magazine in central London, at which curtsying would be taught.

Defenders of Ms Gillard say that she was just being consistent. As a republican who has called for ties with the monarchy to be severed once the Queen's reign ends, she had a duty not to defer. To be elected as a republican, only to start bowing and scraping on meeting the Queen, might have smacked of hypocrisy.

The trouble with ignoring protocol is one of perception. If what you feel most comfortable with is flaunting the rules, that can say a lot about you. It can say you are arrogant and disrespectful. And not wearing a hat was clearly no accident.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Election catch-up: I’m not saying the Ed stone is bad – it is so terrible I am lost for words

John Rentoul

General Election 2015: The SNP and an SMC (Salmond-Murdoch Conspiracy)

Matthew Norman
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living