The Queen and Mrs. Obama: Did the First Lady Break Protocol?

The Queen and Mrs. Obama: Did the First Lady Break Protocol?

The rules are set in stone and so the eagerly watching British media sputtered when the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, briefly put her hand on the back of the Queen Elizabeth II as the two chatted at a reception. Etiquette is quite stern about this: “Whatever you do, don’t touch the Queen!!!” In 2007, John Howard, then prime minister of Australia, got plenty of criticism for apparently putting his arm around the Queen to direct her through a crowd. He denied actually touching her but photographs did make it look like his arm came quite close.

Of course, there are corollaries to this. One must certainly touch the Queen if the monarch offers her hand . On Wednesday, Michelle Obama put her hand on the Queen only after the Queen had placed her own hand on the First Lady’s back as part of their conversation. So there is room for theological argument as to whether the American reciprocity of touch is allowable given the social dynamics of the situation. Still, the sight of anyone apparently touching the Queen in anything more than a limp handshake is enough to send the British twittering.

Another defense for Michelle Obama, of course, is that she is not a subject of the Queen. The First Lady of the United States is not required to curtsey before her or to any other crowned head. In any case, the touch lasted just a second or two, and the Queen did not seem particularly perturbed — though she appeared slightly surprised as she drew away.

So where does this rule about not touching the Queen come from The sovereigns of England and France, at some point in their country’s long histories, claimed a divine right to rule, a right often amplified by titles bestowed by the Pope in Rome. That touch of holiness once gave the occupant of the throne the supposed ability to cure certain diseases, most famously, scrofula, a terrible skin ailment which was called “the king’s evil.” Thus, the miraculous contact had to be conserved. And so, whether a touch or a nod or a gaze, royal favor, like that of God, is not a subject’s on demand; it is dispensed by kingly prerogative.

With reporting by Simon Robinson / London