The Royal family spend much of their time attempting to convince the British public that they are a modern and forward-looking institution. But, now and again, the hidebound cat of tradition sneaks out of the bag and shows their people just how tightly the British monarchy still clings to some of its most anachronistic customs, how it still lionises birth and breeding over talent or usefulness and how it still imposes barely credible, highly sexist and feudal practices on its members.
The latest reminder of these uncomfortable truths has come this weekend in the leaking of the details of a document that the Queen has recently caused to be circulated among the upper echelons of the Royal family, an updated copy of the Order of Precedence, an official paper which lists, in descending order, the rank that different members of the Royal family hold.
With snobbish predictability, the document says that Princess Kate, because she was born a commoner, must defer and curtsey to all ‘Blood Princesses’, including Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, when she is not in the presence of her husband William. If Kate is with William, then she assumes his rank, and the tables are turned, and all Royal ladies – excluding the Monarch, must curtsey and scrape to her.
The situation with Camilla is a bit more complex. If Charles is absent and William is present, then Kate outranks Camilla, via her husband, and the older woman should curtsey to Kate. If neither William nor Charles is there, then Kate curtseys to Camilla because Camilla is, basically, posher.
The curtsey – the female equivalent of a bow, in which the legs are crossed, the skirts lifted and the head bowed – was last seen to be publicly performed by Kate when she greeted Prince Philip on the balcony of Buckingham Palace after the Trooping of the Colour ceremony two weekends ago, but it is far from the case that the curtsey is reserved only for formal occasions.
A great deal of curtseying and bowing goes on behind closed doors in the Royal palaces, and its not just staff members who are required to formally show their deference to the Monarch and senior Royals.
Zara Phillips, who many would see as the ultimate modern royal, having eschewed her royal privileges (she is 12th in line to the throne) and achieved success in her own right, said in a 2008 interview with Majesty magazine: "I curtsey to her every time I see her. The thing with my grandmother is she is still my grandmother and she's very approachable, but she's also from an era where that was how it was done. But there aren't many people who know how it's done. I know because I have grown up with it."
Refusing to curtsey to the Queen was a big issue for Cherie Blair, wife of ex-PM Tony Blair and a staunch republican, who left the Queen Mother "mortified" when she failed to curtsey to the Queen and wore – gasp! - a trouser suit on her first visit to Balmoral in 1997.
When the Order was last updated, after Prince Charles’s second marriage, in 2005, Sophie was reported to be upset that she now had to curtsy to Camilla. “She didn’t like it one bit,” a senior courtier was quoted as saying.Edward’s wife had previously enjoyed her position as the second-highest ranking woman in the Royal family because neither of the Queen’s other sons, Charles and Prince Andrew, were married.
However, after Charles remarried, the Queen changed the Order of Precedence “on blood principles” so that neither Princess Anne nor Princess Alexandra, the granddaughter of George V, would have to curtsy to Camilla when her husband was not present.
The Order of Precedence also affects many other aspects of royal protocol, such as who arrives first at an event. For example, Camilla was forced to wait in the drizzle outside the Guards Chapel, Windsor, for the arrival of Princess Anne at a memorial service in 2006, because Charles had not accompanied her.
Whilst Kate is being publicly celebrated for reinvigorating the monarchy, the new Order of Precedence will unfortunately serve to revive the whispering campaign against her on the basis of her non-aristocratic origins.
The anti-Kates, the aristocratic crew who look down on Kate and still snarkily whisper ‘doors to manual’ when she enters a room on the basis that her parents were airline workers, have never quite forgiven her for debarring one of their number from becoming the future Queen, and they will draw succour from the leak of this new document which shows that at some level, at least, the ancient institutions are on their side, and that they can carry on calling Kate and her sister the "wisteria sisters" - "highly decorative, terribly fragrant and with a ferocious ability to climb".