If The Queen Invites You To Dinner… Inside The Private World of the Royals

Don’t go to bed before her Maj, get ready to talk about horses, and keep your skirts below the knee. If it’s supper at William and Kate’s, you can relax a little.

Steve Parsons/PA/Landov

The British people are well used to seeing their Royal Family out and about on duty at formal events, but their life behind closed doors has long been a source of fascination.

And while the young royals are consciously striving to lead more normal, informal lives, for the older generation life is still lived very much according to customs and routines that would seem more at home in the nineteenth century, than the twenty-first.

The Queen, for example, is well-known among her family and friends for strictly adhering to a rigid domestic timetable.

She wakes at 7am (on holiday at Balmoral she is woken by a piper playing the bagpipes under her window at the appointed hour), breakfast (kippers or kidneys on brown toast) is served at 8am and lunch is at 1pm sharp.

Tea (lapsang souchong and a piece of toast) is at 4:30pm and a pre-dinner drink (usually a Dubonnet) is served at 7:30pm.

Dinner at home is at 8:30pm and must be finished by 10pm to allow time for digestion, as the Queen is put out if she is in bed—she sleeps in a separate room to Prince Philip—any later than 11:30pm, as it threatens the smooth running of the next day’s cycle.

If she is out for dinner with friends in London—which she still does two or three times a month, most often at the homes of her racing friends—she will be on the way home in good time.

“Everything had to be finished by 10, and she was out the door at 10:15,” says a guest at one of these soirees, “And all she wanted to talk about were the horses.”

It’s not a bad schedule for an 89-year-old, we feel sure you’ll agree, and, judging by the Queen’s remarkable good health, the disciplined life suits her.

According to one source, the Queen likes to do her own washing up at the bothy she and Philip use as a private retreat in the grounds of Balmoral. “It’s a bit of a novelty” says the source. This is in stark contrast to the day-to-day the Queen is accustomed to, being waited on hand and foot. This is just one aspect of the remarkably formal life, by modern standards, which she still leads.

In an interview for a new book, The Royals in Australia by Juliet Rieden, Sir William Heseltine, 85, who worked for the Royals for 30 years and served as the Queen’s private secretary from 1986 to 1990, recalled that the Queen even has the very old-fashioned expectation in her domestic life that no-one in her company go to bed before her.

Sir William wrote, “For Diana the long royal evenings were agony. There’d be an hour or so in the sitting room of everyone sitting around making conversation, and nobody felt it right to go to bed before the Queen did. And Diana was driven to such extremes that she’d excuse herself and go to bed, which was thought to be rather bad form, going to bed before the Queen.”

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Hesseltine’s comments were made specifically in the context of the difficulties Princess Diana had in adjusting to Royal life (when the Queen was a sprightly 70-something, and no doubt staying up later than she does these days) but they are an illuminating insight into how far what one may typically think of as ‘Royal’ protocol invades even the everyday of domestic royal life.

The Queen still expects for example, her female family members—including Kate and Camilla—to curtsy when they enter her presence, even when the encounters are informal.

She is also known to disapprove in general of hemlines rising more than an inch or two above the knee, a stipulation well-known to regular female visitors such as Kate, Camilla and the York princesses, Beatrice and Eugenie.

Prince Charles is known to be deeply enamored by the pomp and graces of royal protocol. Dinner is always served at his private home, Highgrove, in the main dining room along formal lines—butlers and footmen behind each chair—if there are any guests present. Despite this, he and Camilla have developed the modern habit of binge-watching box sets and have successfully introduced the Queen to the joys of multi-channel TV. A recent photograph showed the Queen’s Sky TV controller close at hand on her sitting room table.

Indeed, part of the reason Camilla kept her own house even after they married was because she finds the endless formality of life at Highgrove to be rather wearing.

“She likes to have her own place to disappear off to when he goes off on his mini-tours or whatever,” says a source, “She finds the formality of life at Highgrove a bit much sometimes, and needs to escape to ‘normal’ life. Charles does actually run it very much like a royal palace. There’s butlers and footmen and all that jazz.”

William and Kate self-consciously run the most relaxed of the royal family homes.

Last year, Will and Kate extended this informality to Christmas. Christmas at Sandringham is heavily focused around God and duty, but last year Kate successfully lobbied for her family to have Christmas lunch at her own home.

With a new baby to consider, the Cambridges are believed to have the Queen’s blessing to host their own more informal Christmas lunch for Kate’s family again this year.

First names are used in exchanges between the family and staff, and the kitchen and utility rooms are integrated within the house—rather than being hived off into distant staff quarters as in formal royal life.

Says one source of the new informality on display at Anmer Hall, their palatial country pile, “Kate thinks it’s important that George and Charlotte grow up knowing how to boil an egg and load a dishwasher.”