A history of awkward curtsies to royals

It is the done thing when one encounters the monarch for women to curtsy and men to bow.

“For female British citizens a curtsy when meeting royalty is the norm. It is not compulsory but it can be seen as churlish to refuse, like Cherie Blair or Julia Gillard,” says etiquette coach and expert William Hanson.

Grant Harrold, Prince Charles’ former butler and royal expert, told us it’s, “a personal choice, even the British monarchy website states: ‘There are no obligatory codes of behaviour when meeting The Queen or a member of the Royal Family, but many people wish to observe the traditional forms.’ Whatever you choose to do, I can assure you that you will not be escorted to the Tower!”

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Women who have famously refused to curtsy to the Royal Family include Cherie Blair, when husband Tony Blair was Prime Minister. While visiting Balmoral for the first time in 1997, she allegedly “refused to curtsy to the Queen [Mother]” and also wore a trouser suit (shock horror!) a move the Telegraph claimed “left the Queen Mother ‘mortified.'”

In 2011, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard also famously refused to curtsy but did bow her head, after which she shook the Queen’s hand.

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Speaking on the radio, Gillard said, “The protocol advice to us was you either curtsy or you bow your head, you should do what you feel comfortable with. I felt most comfortable with bowing my head and the Queen extended her hand and so, of course, I shook her hand.”

If you do decide to take a dip, Hanson says the correct way to curtsy is “a small bob, not a low sweeping drop to the floor: if you go down too far, you may never get back up!”

Twirling hands are out too. “The hands should remain by the side (unless shaking hands), the back stays straight, one foot goes behind the other and the head bows as well.”

Need a few pointers? Harrold thinks the Duchess of Sussex nailed the art of the curtsy on marrying into the Royal Family.

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“The Duchess of Sussex has perfected her curtsy and for anybody wanting to get it right, I suggest they watch her, the Duchess of Cambridge or any other royal lady.”

We asked Hanson to give us a few pointers on the curtsies below.

Theresa May

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“Aside from her political work, Theresa May will always be known for her overly obsequious curtsies to The Queen – something our second female prime minister shares with the first.”

[Hanson is referring to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who similarly hit the deck when curtseying to the Queen.]
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“Her right foot usually goes back too far, which causes the low swoop.”

For those looking to avoid a May-esque move, Harrold advised, “If a lady does decide to curtsy, then let’s not get too carried away about how low you go! The depth of a curtsy is a personal choice. I always say ‘Right foot behind the left with a slight bob is sufficient’.”

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“Some ladies bow their heads at the same time, which is acceptable, as well as the other option of maintaining eye contact!”

Princess Eugenie


“Princess Eugenie and her sister are often spotted at Royal Ascot doing a lower than normal curtsy, often with big grins on their faces. A shame, as they can be wearing lovely dresses and looking elegant, then [it’s] ruined by an awkward curtsy.”

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Hanson speculated, “Clearly there is a running sisterly joke going on. “

Dame Joan Collins

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“Dame Joan’s curtsy is not as low as some but her right leg extends too much to the side, meaning she takes up more space than if she had done a more conventional one. Perhaps this is a deliberate tactic to pull focus? If so, it’s tacky as no one should (or could) outshine the Queen.”

Princess Royal

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“The Princess Royal’s curtsy to the King of Spain is rather grand, and again technically too low by usual standards – but both are at a grand event, so a grand curtsy doesn’t look too out of place. Princess Anne is a pro and champion at curtsies, so will have engaged her core sufficiently to handle such a drop. She looks in control doing it, whereas some of the other ladies who go too low just look gangly and awkward.”

Not naming names here.

Little girl

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“The little girl curtseying to the Queen Mother is hilarious and obviously far too theatrical and over the top. But the late Queen Elizabeth is clearly loving it, and she gets away with it.”

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