Thursday, 24 May 2007
The Hat and the Crown
During the recent State Visit by Our Sovereign Lady to the United States I watched with interest the first meeting between HM and the First Lady and noted that the latter presented no curtsy. I contrasted this with a meeting, which I fondly recall, betwen The Queen and Nancy Reagan some years earlier at which the then First Lady made the controversial decision to make this deferential gesture.
As an American citizen and wife of the President of the United States, Mrs. Reagan was neither obliged nor expected to curtsy. That she did so was a clear demonstration of her impeccable breeding and her deep respect both for Her Majesty and for the Crown.
Nevertheless, the subject of deference caused me to ponder further and, whilst contemplating the age-old custom of hat-doffing, which at one time evolved into an elaborate and dexterous artform, I recalled that the Quakers had traditionally claimed the right to remain 'hatted' at all times -- on the ground that doffing one's hat was a courtesy to be afforded only to God. Indeed, it is alleged that upon receiving a firmly-hatted William Penn, King Charles II removed his own hat, declaring: "it is the custom that only one person remain covered."
The privilege of remaining hatted is claimed as a (dubious) right by some members of the peerage. The 18th Baron Kingsale is said to have "walked to and fro with his hat on his head" in front of William III on the grounds that it was his right. Simon Winchester notes that Lord Forester "has a document that appears to be a license granted at the time of Henry VIII giving all the heirs of John Forester of Watling Street the right to keep a covered head in kingly presence." However Winchester states that both Kingsale and Forester suffered from ringworm, resulting in disgusting heads which no Sovereign would wish to see; thus the privilege of remaining 'hatted'.
Winchester continues that a Victorian Lord Kingsale tried to assert this right in the presence of the Queen-Empress, causing Her Majesty to declare: "It may be your right to keep your hat on before a monarch, but I am a lady, too. Your action is most impolite. Take it off at once." Apocryphal perhaps -- but amusing nonetheless.