The Importance of Etiquette
Many formal vestiges of the royal courts and aristocratic systems of old are no longer observed as strictly as they once were - when a breach of protocol could have serious and lasting repercussions for the offending party and their families and descendants. Yet there are still a considerable number of Dos and Don'ts when mixing in the highest social circles, addressing dignitaries or attending royal events.
For example, if a royal guest is expected to attend an event - a charity ball, state dinner or similar - protocol demands that all guests arrive before the royal party, and none are to leave before the royal party, except in certain circumstances or when permission has been granted in advance.
Similarly, there are still special requirements for seating arrangements when royal or noble persons are present. For example, it's customary for a host to give his normal position to a visiting monarch, and then to be seated on their right-hand side. Additionally, royal guests take precedence over non-royal guests, and those with official noble titles are given precedence over those without or those of lower rank, according to the social hierarchy. (i.e. Dukes rank higher than Earls, who rank higher than Lords etc...)
With all these customs and protocols, it can be confusing to know the right way to behave and speak when royals and nobles are present. So, here's a short guide to modern conventions for addressing royalty and nobility.
How to Address Royalty
Kings & Queens
When addressing a King or Queen, in the first instance they should be addressed as Your Majesty, but after that initial acknowledgement, they should be addressed as Sir or Ma'am.
Alexandre Benois, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The pronunciation of Ma'am, as explained by Helena Bonham Carter playing Queen Elizabeth in the film The King's Speech is, 'Ma'am, as in ham, not Ma'am, as in palm.' According to Debrett's, one of the world's leading authorities on etiquette, 'Pronunciation to rhyme with ‘palm’ has not been correct for some generations.'
When referring to a monarch, where you would normally say him or her, it is correct to use His or Her Majesty, or The King / The Queen. When speaking directly to a monarch, where you would normally say you, it's correct to say Your Majesty.
In referring to other members of the royal family, the form of address is His Royal Highness or Her Royal Highness, and then to specify their rank or title. For example, when speaking about the heir to the British Throne, Prince Charles, he would be referred to as His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales.
When a couple is being introduced or referenced, the form is to use Their Royal Highnesses
In a verbal address to royals other than the reigning monarch, it's customary to replace you with 'Your Royal Highness', and your with 'Your Royal Highness's'. Again this only applies in the first instance, after which it is customary to use Sir or Ma'am.
Bowing & Curtsying
Upon meeting or being presented to the monarch or high-ranking dignitary, men should bow and women should curtsy, and the same applies when taking their leave.
According to today's etiquette specialists, the modern way for men to bow as a gesture of reverence and respect is to simply nod the head, with arms held straight by the sides. This is now preferred to the older style of bowing from the waist, sometimes represented in period dramas, when the knights and subjects would bow almost to the floor, often with a flourish of their feathered hats.
For women, the modern curtsy is also a more discreet and dignified gesture than the lavish deep curtsies of the medieval royal courts. These days, the correct way to curtsy is to place one foot behind the other, and then perform a discreet 'bob', rising slowly. Unlike the bow, the curtsy maintains eye contact. It's generally accepted that the depth of curtsy and the length of time it's held are indications of the depth of reverence and respect.
Incidentally, the requirements for bowing and curtsying are not only for the non-royal masses. Many of the highest-ranking members of royal families are required to bow or curtsy to their superiors. For example, even high-ranking members of a Royal Family are required to bow or curtsy to the reigning monarch, rulers of other countries, or higher-ranking royals.
Addressing Royalty in Writing
When writing to a King or Queen, the envelope should be addressed to His Majesty The King, or Her Majesty the Queen, and the salutation within the letter should be Your Majesty. For other members of royalty, envelopes should be addressed to His or Her Royal Highness, followed by their specific title or rank, and the salutation within the letter should be Your Royal Highness.
These protocols refer to letters addressed directly to the members of the royal family, however, in reality, letters are more often sent in the first instance to a Private Secretary or equerry.
How to Address Nobility
While the rules around addressing those with noble titles are regarded much more informally in modern times, there are still some conventions that are custom at official events.
Antoine-Jean Duclos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Here are the terms of address for the main noble titles;
Duke & Duchess
Both a Duke and a Duchess are addressed as Your Grace, unless they are also a royal, in which case the appropriate royal address is used. It is also permissible to use Duke or Duchess when speaking to them directly.
Marquess & Marchioness
When referring to a Marquess, the term to use is The Most Honourable, followed by their official title, eg The Marquess of Bath, or the Marchioness of Bute.
When addressing them in writing, the formal address is My Lord Marquess and Madam, with less formal terms being My Lord, Dear Lord, My Lady or Your Ladyship.
Earls, Counts, Viscounts & Barons
The remaining noble ranks all share a similar formal address, that of The Right Honourable (followed by their particular title).
Similarly, the verbal forms of address are My Lord or Your Lordship for Earls, Counts, Viscounts and Barons, and My Lady or Your Ladyship for Countess, Viscountess and Baroness. (The wife of an Earl is a Countess.)
While these conventions are less widely known than they once were, particularly by those who don’t mix in royal or aristocratic circles on a regular basis, they’re still regarded as the correct terms to use in official or formal events or correspondence. And while any errors may not have quite the same repercussions as in medieval times, they endure as a gesture of respect and reverence - for both etiquette and history.
If learning about the proper ways to address the Nobility has made you interested in finding out about acquiring a prestigious Noble Title of your own get in touch using the enquiry form in the sidebar or you can contact our Geneva office directly between 10.00-19.00, Monday to Friday on +41 225 181 360.