Bright Ideas and True Confessions: How and What to Do and Why
Etiquette

The Concept of "Presence" and You
Ælflæd of Duckford

As with any other rules of etiquette these are suggestions of ways in which social actions may be accomplished without offending or embarrassing the parties involved. I'll use "king" for ease in my examples. The same rules would apply for the queen, crown prince or princess, and with descending degrees of formality, to ruling barons, dukes, duchesses, and other nobility.

Entering the Royal Presence

If you were in a castle, and the king were in one of the chambers thereof, you would enter the king's presence if you entered that room. We are often in outdoor settings, or in single large halls without side-chambers. Therefore we have designated the area ten feet around the king's person as his presence. The king (and likewise the queen, prince and princess) is in a circle with a twenty-foot diameter. This is quite a large area. By law and custom, no person may enter this presence without rendering courtesy to the crown. "Rendering courtesy" here means to acknowledge by a bow or curtsy that the person holds a position of honor.

If you wish to speak with the king and he is not busy, wait just outside the presence until you are bidden to approach. You might make yourself more obvious by kneeling or bowing or curtsying. Staring is not good. If you must speak to get the king's attention (although this isn't usually necessary) you might try "Forgive me, your Majesty, but. . ." or "Your Majesty, may I approach?"

There may be times when you need to speak with the king and you are unable to gracefully arrange it yourself. You might ask the herald or seneschal to approach the king on your behalf to arrange a time and place, and ask them to have you sent for when the king has time to hear you (or hang around and see if they're able to get you in right away).

Departing

If the king is already in conversation with another person before you leave, simply bow or curtsy and back off a few steps before leaving the presence. If you are leaving at the end of your own audience and the king is left alone, you need to say something. There's a wonderful old stock phrase-"by your leave." It means "with permission" or "if you will allow me (to go, in this case)." You can say "By your Majesty's leave," and then bow and go. Don't say "by my leave"-that's telling the king he has your permission. [You may be "taking your leave" but that's a different "leave." You want the king's leave (permission/let) to leave (go away).] If this leaving is all too complicated for you, try "I thank your Majesty for your time" or something with a particular reference to the conversation. (Try to avoid "I'll see you in court.")

The Thrones

The thrones also have a presence. It is not ten feet in all directions, but ten feet or so in front (maybe more in a room with a long, clear aisle). If you pass before the empty thrones, you should bow a little. If this makes you feel silly, just don't pass within ten feet of the front of the thrones. At some events the thrones are very makeshift and not proper thrones at all. In such cases, sometimes the crowns might be left on the chairs, to lend to the dignity of the temporary "thrones." Honor the crowns. At some events a log or rock might be used as a temporary throne. Feel free to ignore such rocks and logs. Use your discretion in all things. If you don't have any discretion, the best thing is to just stay away from the thrones and the crowns.

Don't sit in a throne if it's not yours, unless you outrank the owner. If the king sits in the baron's throne while the baron is up, that's acceptable. It's not quite as acceptable for the baron to sit in the king's throne. If you are a high-ranking noble and you are invited to sit beside the king or queen for a chat, judge the situation through your knowledge of your area's customs. If you're just a buddy, not a duchess, not a baron, and you're invited to sit in the throne, it would be better if you very politely refused and sat in another chair instead, or on a cushion. It's possible that the king or queen who made the invitation isn't quite aware of the appearance it can give for the thrones to be used as just chairs.

If you're standing behind or beside the thrones in court (as a guardsman, sword bearer, or other attendant) don't talk, fidget, drink beer, etc. (This point was added by a member of the Queen's Guard. I accept it gratefully and pass it on.)

The King's Approach

If you are traveling along and the king is coming your way, you should clear the path, stop and bow, kneel, or at least lower your head. If you are in a crowded passage, stand to the wall with your eyes lowered. If the king is in conversation with companions, say nothing; be quiet. If the king is silent you might want to offer a greeting. Addressing him is sufficient-you say "Your Majesty," and he may nod or just say "my lord" or "good day." After his passing, continue on your way.

If you are with a group of people and you're the only one who knows the king is coming toward you, warn the others quietly so that they are prepared to move, bow, or whatever is appropriate. In such a situation, it is acceptable to interrupt a superior. Right in the middle of a duchess's sentence "Your Grace, the King-" is not rude. You can apologize after the king passes. She'll probably thank you.

If you're sitting and the king comes, stand and bow. Bowing from a seated position is better than nothing, but the same rules taught in the early 20th Century about standing when a lady enters the room work with royalty in the SCA. Stand up when the king enters, and don't sit until he sits. As long as he's standing, you do too, unless he asks you to sit down again. [1]

If you are engaged in some activity within the presence, continue quietly, politely and respectfully. For example if you're entering a tournament and the lists table is within the presence, acknowledge the king and then approach the table and transact your business. if you're at the table and the king comes by, acknowledge his approach and finish your business. An excellent show of respect is to keep quiet in the presence. Don't chat with another person or make idle noise. Neither scratch nor spit. Bow or curtsy upon leaving the presence, whether or not the king is watching your departure.

Adjusting for Over-Familiarity

Prince Charles bows to his mother and calls her "ma'am." He has always done it, so it doesn't embarrass him. In the Society, though, we or our friends become royalty all of a sudden. One minute you're "hey you, where's my duct tape" and the next minute you could be "your Royal Highness." With someone you don't know other than as king it's easy to remember to bow, and you're not likely to accidently use his mundane name when you don't even know it. If your close friend becomes royalty you need to be even more careful to be formal, not only because it's easy to forget, but because you will set the tone for others.

Degrees of Formality

This goes for anyone and not just royalty: Try not to go up to someone who outranks you and just be chummy and familiar. Even if you are mundanely chummy and familiar, at an event give the person the courtesy due his rank. Then he has the option to invite you to be less formal. He may just be in the mood to be formal and will accept "your excellency" or "your lordship" and go on with his business. He may say "Please, just call me Gunwaldt" or "Bud will do." If so you can both feel comfortable. If you initiate the conversation at a level which is too familiar and equal, how can a chivalrous person politely ask you to be more formal and show more respect? It would be very awkward, and probably the person will just smile and wish you had done differently. There is no gracious manner in which to raise the level of formality.

Analysis of Success Rates

Here's another confession coming: I have committed all the sins outlined in the above article myself. I have also been royalty and experienced the whole range of actions from the other end. The exchanges in which both parties act their roles carefully add so much to the atmosphere we are trying to create that just writing this article is making me feel guilty for every time I've failed to be as formal as I could be. I will fail again, but not as many times as I would have had I not thought this out and written it down.

If you have a difficult time learning these behaviors, watch someone who is very good at them, and do what you think that person would do in each situation. Christopher of Hoghton comes to mind; both as king and as a duke, he is very courtly and formal, without being intimidating.

Footnotes:

[1] Society members are all regular guys, and most become self-conscious about formal behavior, so all of this will probably be watered down in actual practice, but you might as well be prepared for formal behavior for when there's a king who wishes to play his end with full formality.



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