The key point for anyone receiving an invitation (technically a command when it comes from the Sovereign see p 21) is that it will include comprehensive guidance as to what form the event will take. The aim of the Royal Household is to make people comfortable and ensure they have a good experience. Guests are told exactly when to arrive and given advice about what to wear. Any special request can be accommodated, such as wheelchair access or food allergies.
Once at the event, members of the Royal Household are on hand to guide guests throughout. The net result is that people are far less likely to encounter any awkward moments at a royal event than at some other formal events where the hosts may be less experienced. The key recommendation is to relax, follow instructions and not to drink too much alcohol because of overexcitement or nervousness.
The modern tone of the monarchy is to be accepting and open. However, those invited to royal events usually want to do their best to be correct. Specific dress codes, such as black tie (see pp 187–189), should be adhered to.
It is generally best to err on the more conservative side when interpreting dress codes. For example, if black tie is specified, then women may want to wear a long dress, rather than a short cocktail dress, and not choose fabrics which are transparent or in other ways very revealing. It is not always necessary to wear hats with day dress at more informal lunches. By the same token, although more women opt for dresses or skirts, trouser suits are acceptable. The key thing is to ask for extra guidance, which is given readily by the relevant office (noted on the invitation).
Decorations should be worn at formal events, such as state banquets, especially if the decoration was one awarded by The Queen. Instructions are written on the invitation. Rules for the wearing of, for example, papal decorations or memberships of other orders should be checked and may not be correct.
State banquets are also the moment to wear tiaras, if you have them, or other jewellery, but it is not essential to struggle to acquire finery. Being as neat and tidy as possible, which costs nothing, is more important.
Royal events vary in their format, but guests should arrive punctually. They are then shown into a large reception room. Once guests have assembled, the Royal Family arrives, often with no fanfare. If it is an event attended by a large number of royal persons they enter in reverse order, most junior to most senior, with The Queen last of all.
Those who are to be presented are discreetly marshalled into position by members of the Royal Household, who will have been circulating. The usual form is a series of semi-circles rather than straight rows like a formal receiving line. Guests should try to be empty-handed, having put down any drinks or bags. Women should curtsy and men bow from the neck. The royal personage will offer their hand, in which case shake it with a light contact. Answer any question posed but do not launch into a subject or talk at any length as this holds up the proceedings.
It is made very clear when the event is over. This will have been indicated on the invitation and guests may notice that the royal personages have quietly made their exit before members of the Household start to steer people away. By tradition guests should not leave before any of the Royal Family. If it is essential to leave before members of the Royal Family, then a guest should let the relevant private office know in advance.
In practice, at a large reception, held, for example, in the long enfilade of rooms at St James’s Palace, guests may simply be able to slip away.
Buckingham Palace garden parties are held in the afternoon and there are a set number that are organised every year. There are also Scottish garden parties, and sometimes others in particular years, for example at Sandringham.
At Buckingham Palace guests arrive from 3.15pm and are shown into its huge gardens. The royal party arrives punctually at 4pm and a band plays the National Anthem. The royal party usually splits up and circulates among the throng, with lanes of people formed by the Bodyguard for The Queen.
Guests may be picked out and brought forward to be presented by members of the Household (males always have rolled umbrellas) or other attendants. If this happens it is correct to explain briefly who you are to the member of the Royal Household who will present you: ‘Your Majesty, Lady Victoria Smythe, chairman of the Friends of the Elderly in Buckinghamshire.’ It is also best practice to mention it if you have encountered the member of the Royal Family before. For example, ‘I had the honour of being presented to Your Majesty at the opening of our drop-in centre five years ago, ma’am’
Anyone who feels strongly that a colleague or associate should be presented, maybe because their work has been outstanding, may approach a member of the Household, perhaps a lady-in-waiting, and ask if that person may be presented.
Tea is served in various marquees. Ordinary guests just queue up to be served and are then free to wander at will. The gardens at Buckingham Palace are well worth taking advantage of, with their lakes, borders and wooded areas, as they are not otherwise open to the public. Some preselected individuals, for example ambassadors, are invited to have tea with the royal party at five o’clock in a designated tent or location. Shortly before six the royal party returns to the palace and the National Anthem is played again, signalling that the party is ending. Guests are shepherded towards the exits.
It is not considered necessary to write a thank-you letter after a royal garden party. For other events guests may write to the person who asked them, that is whose name was on the invitation, such as the Lord Steward of the Household or, in the case of formal or state events, the Lord Chamberlain. In the letter a guest may ask him to ‘kindly convey my/our thanks to Her Majesty The Queen.’
Photography is not permitted officially in royal palaces. For most events there is an official photographer from whom photographs may be ordered, and many occasions will be videoed, with the film for sale as a souvenir. Cameras may be removed in palaces. With the advent of smartphones people inevitably do take photographs but these should have no place at more formal events and are frowned upon at garden parties. Any photographs to mark the occasion should be taken outside the gates before the event begins.