Rules of precedence set in stone by Queen Elizabeth I in 1595 still have a dramatic effect on the British royals. Kate Middleton and Meghan Markle don’t just curtsy to the Queen. When the royal family gathers together, the duchesses are also technically supposed to curtsy to royal princesses from birth, such as Princess Anne, Princess Beatrice, and Princess Eugenie. And it’s due to ancient rules of precedence first set in stone by Queen Elizabeth I in 1595, which ranks blood relatives of the monarch above almost anyone else in the family.
“Women of the royal family who marry in like Kate and Meghan gain their titles by marriage and therefore are of a lower rank than those born into their titles,” explains Wendy Bosberry-Scott, Peerage & Baronetage editor at royal experts Debrett’s, which has recently made its online content free for the first time.
“As far as the public is concerned, the most visible representation of this tends to be the order in which they might stand at a public event, or the order in which they might enter or leave a room, or who curtsies to whom,” the spokesperson continues.
Yet it’s not quite as simple as Kate, 39, and Meghan, 40, always being of a lower rank to their relatives. According to Elizabeth I’s rules (and the House of Lords Precedence Act of 1539), men are almost always given precedence over women, with the obvious exception of the Queen, 95.
“When the wives are with their husbands, their status is elevated to reflect the fact that the men are present,” adds Bosberry-Scott. “As the men have a higher rank than the princesses (Anne, Eugenie, and Beatrice) they have precedence, and this higher rank is reflected on their wives, so they are then moved ahead.”
As William is second-in-line to the throne and has a higher royal ranking than Harry, it also technically means that Meghan should curtsy to Kate. “Kate outranks her,” adds the Debrett’s spokesperson. “But we understand this (curtsy) wouldn’t happen unless they meet in public, and we are not aware of that ever happening.”
The one exception to this ancient “marrying into the family” rule surrounds Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall. As the wife of the immediate heir to the throne, Camilla, 74, is of a higher status than Kate, Meghan, or her royal nieces, regardless of whether Prince Charles is in the room.
“Although she does not use the title, Camilla is Princess of Wales and has a higher status,” explains Bosberry-Scott. “This is being shown more and more as we move forward. The Queen has moved to place Camilla in precedence over her granddaughters in recent years, to reflect the fact that she is the wife of the next monarch.”
Despite this, even Camilla’s position in the royal family is still partially dependent on her husband’s physical presence, as she technically ranks below the Queen’s cousin, Princess Alexandra, 84, when the Prince of Wales, 73, is not present.
To further confuse things, Camilla and Kate’s positions will also change dramatically as they eventually step into the role of Queen Consort. When this happens, all the other female members of the royal family will have to curtsy to them, regardless of whether they were born into the royal family or not.
The role of Queen Consort is one that Kate is ready to step into. A family friend tells PEOPLE in this week’s cover story that the Duchess of Cambridge is already prepared to transition into the role of a queen supporting her husband when the time comes. “She is ready to step into those shoes with ease and is perfect for the job,” the friend says. Kate is “more and more impressive as time goes on,” adds a source close to the royal household. “She is a focused and professional woman.”
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