The royal pecking order

Precedence is a carefully observed royal rite

by Patricia Treble

The one who must be obeyed

Reuters; Getty Images

Just before the wedding starts, the royal family will arrive at Westminster Abbey. As they always do at such glittering events, members of the house of Windsor will automatically recreate the line of succession in reverse for the long walk to their grade-A seats. The supporting cast of lesser royals—the Kents and the Gloucesters and children of the late Princess Margaret—go first followed by the Queen’s immediate family, also in backwards order of importance—Anne, Edward, Andrew and Charles with their spouses and children. Elizabeth II, with Prince Philip, takes the best spot, at the end. “The star of the show comes last,” explains Brian Hoey, an author with an encyclopedic knowledge of royal protocol. Once the service is over, the family leaves, this time with the Queen in the lead with everyone else following.

Precedence is a carefully observed royal rite that can be a minefield for the uninitiated. And part of the confusion is of the Queen’s making. In 2005, Charles married Camilla Parker Bowles, which automatically placed his former mistress, now wife of the heir to the throne, ahead of all other royal women except the Queen on the royal pecking order. “Technically, the other ladies below [Camilla], when she’s with her husband, should curtsy to her,” Hoey explained. Courtiers reported that the two senior princesses, Anne and Alexandra of Kent, the Queen’s cousin, staged a mini revolt. “Anne? She is never going to curtsy to her,” Hoey said. “That’s not going to happen.”

To calm the waters, the Queen changed an internal household document called “Precedence of the Royal Family to be Observed at Court.” While male precedence remained that of the line of succession, the ladies’ rules were upended to put those born royal ahead of Charles’s wife. Now, when Camilla attends communal royal events with her husband, she gets the customary No. 2 spot, behind the Queen. But if she’s solo, then the female rules kick in and she plummets to No. 6, behind Anne, then Beatrice and Eugenie—daughters of Andrew, duke of York—and next Alexandra of Kent.

And that change, if not altered further, has a knock-on effect for William’s bride-to-be. “When she accompanies her husband, she will be behind Camilla, but above the princess royal (Princess Anne),” says Hoey, whose new book We Are Amused deals in part with the precedence conundrum. However, “when she’s not with her husband, she will drop down after the duchess of Cornwall” to the No. 7 spot. At least one thing remains the same: while lesser royals should technically make an obeisance to their superiors on the pecking order, in reality, they only curtsy or bow to the one person whom everyone respects and obeys—the Queen.




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