The Curtsy Seen ‘Round the World

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The Duke of Cambridge was in Amiens yesterday to commemorate World War I’s Battle of Amiens. Also representing the Brits was Prime Minister Theresa May, and while I wasn’t planning on covering this engagement by itself, there’s been enough news coverage focused on a very specific – and ridiculous – issue that, well, here we are.

Let’s back up quickly to note that we are in the second week of August, which means that we are in a royal news drought. In other words, it’s silly season and people are beginning to grasp at straws.

The issue du jour is that May gave William a very low curtsy when greeting him outside Amiens Cathedral.

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There are a couple things to note about this. No, it’s not technically incorrect for May to curtsy to William – indeed, she has always done so, and it’s a courtesy she has extended to a variety of other members of the British Royal Family when greeting them on formal occasions.

But, it’s also uncommon to offer this sweeping of an obeisance. She could get away with a by far simpler version, such as what you see royals extend the Queen in public, or the by far “shallower” gestures that members of the public offer up from sheer lack of experience and discomfort. Clearly, she chooses not to.


May is being criticized today mainly because there’s nothing else to talk about on the royal front. But it’s showing up two ways, one of which is annoying, and one of which bears a closer look. “Etiquette experts” (no, like, stop) are being quoted in news articles as saying that May looks comical for offering such a dramatic curtsy, and that when royals encounter these moments it is often grounds for private amusement. That may be so, but layering on another level of snobbery here feels like overkill.

May curtsying in an unusual way isn’t news, and it’s not even particularly interesting.

What is interesting is that some are criticizing May for curtsying at all. William, obviously, isn’t the monarch, and thus the argument goes that this particular show of respect is one thing in the presence of the Queen, and quite another in the presence of her grandson. (It should be noted that a curtsy is completely voluntary in this day and age, even when facing the Queen.)

The optics, quite simply, of the PM showing this much deference for a member of an institution that, let’s be honest, many find outdated are problematic. Because when you set aside the usual financial arguments, people don’t really have an issue with members of the BRF themselves so much as what they represent and the trapppings that go alongside them. The PM, like the Queen, has a very specific role to fill and there are absolutely perception boundaries on autonomy and influence.

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The idea that a woman older and, at this point, more important than William would quite literally lower herself before him isn’t insignificant. It’s going to hit fans of the Windsor clan one away, and agnostic or critical Brits yet another. But equally as important in this day and age, it’s going to send a very clear image around the world – one in which there aren’t many monarchies left and still less understanding of how this delicate balancing act plays out – in which this going to look absurd. Outdated. Tone deaf.

Today is really not a big deal. May did nothing wrong, and it’s her choice to greet William however she chooses (within reason). But when the question is posed whether these signs of deference to rank based on birth have a place in a modern government, I’m going to go with no. May, or any Prime Minister, acknowledging the position of the monarch doesn’t bother me. But her grandson? A handshake is fine.

3 thoughts on “The Curtsy Seen ‘Round the World

    1. He is second in line to the throne. In this case, yes, he is the grandson of a monarch. I have argued that extending the courtesy of a curtsy (or bow) to the monarch is one thing, but that the optics of the PM extending that to other members of the BRF is problematic. William’s place in the line of succession has no bearing on that so long as he doesn’t hold the top job, and the potential longevity of his grandmother in no way changes that. It’s an opinion with which I’m sure some will disagree, but it’s not one borne out of confusion over who William is.

  1. Thomas Bock

    I have a outside view on that incident as I am german and at the moment in the UK. I remember greetings of other PM´s to the Queen and I can´t remember one of more submissionviness than this one. Prince William is not the head of the state, is younger and Mrs. May is the elected representitive of the executive power of the british peoples I wonder about this very deep curtsy. It reminds me on an asian tradition but not commensurate to her position of a western head of government.

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