I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to meet Their Royal Highnesses, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge during their recent visit to Australia. As this was my very first royal ‘meet and greet’ I enquired as to the correct form of address – Your Majesty, Your Royal Highness, Your Grace or perhaps simply, Sir? Was I expected to curtsey, to bob or just nod my head?
Royal greetings and salutations, like fashion, change with the times. During the period leading up to 1066, British monarchs were generally addressed as Lord or Milord. According to the Oxford Dictionary the etymology of Lord can be traced back to the Old English word hlāford which originated from hlāfweard meaning ‘bread- keeper’ or ‘loaf-ward’, reflecting the Germanic tribal custom of a chieftain providing food for his followers.
In 1066 the new monarch, William the Conqueror (c. 1028 to 9 September 1087) expected his subjects to address him as Sire. The word ‘sire’ and the French ‘(mon)sieur’ share a common etymologic origin, both being related to the Latin senior and was generally accepted as the correct form of address for reigning kings in the England, France, Italy, Germany and other parts of Europe. It was used to address a superior, a person of importance or in a position of authority or the nobility in general.
Majesty is derived ultimately from the Latin maiestas, meaning greatness. According to several accounts, including Robert Lacey’s ‘Great Tales from English History’, Richard II, (6 January 1367 – 14 February 1400) was the first English King to demand the title of ‘Highness’ or ‘Majesty.‘ He also noted that previous English Kings had been content to be addressed as ‘My Lord.’ Perhaps King Richard adopted the change as a way of reinforcing his elevated status over his unhappy subjects.
Around 1519 King Henry VIII (28 June 1491 – 28 January 1547) decided Majesty should become the style of the sovereign of England. Majesty, however, was not used exclusively; it was arbitrarily alternated with both Highness and Grace, even in official documents.
To bow your head, or bow down on bended knee before your king was certainly a sign of respect. The action displays submissiveness, breaks eye contact and exposes the neck – a symbolic acknowledgement that the King is superior. The action itself is recorded throughout history and is frequently seen in religious settings.
A curtsey (also spelled courtesy, or even incorrectly courtsey) is a traditional gesture of greeting in which a girl or woman bends her knees while bowing her head. The movement required to perform a curtsey has developed over time, with the style of dress dictating the depth and steps required. Hooped skirts and tight corsets made it impossible for women to bend too far forward, just as modern plunging necklines require a little decorum!
It would appear though that both men and women were expected to acknowledge their monarch by performing one of the above movements, a tradition that continues to this day. In fact even the Duke of Cambridge, on his wedding day, bowed to his grandmother,and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge,provided us with her first princess curtsey.
Thankfully, I was not required to master this manoeuvre as a simple nod was all that was required. A blessing for all concerned, for though it is made to look easy, I possess two left feet and am sure would have embarrassed more than just myself! As for introductions, protocol dictates that you commence with ‘Your Royal Highness’ and then ‘Sir’ or ‘Ma’am’ should the conversation continue, which lucky for me it did! It was a really wonderful occasion and I felt very privileged and humbled to meet such a friendly and much respected royal couple.