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Navigating The Treacherous Straits Of Elizabethan Manners

Updated September 15, 2017 25.8k views13 items

England was the clear winner of the latter half of the 16th century. Flourishing under the reign of their industrious and stylish monarch, Queen Elizabeth I, it was between 1558 and 1603 that England emerged as the world’s first real superpower. 

Elizabethan England also saw the birth of a cultural and courtly movement that makes even the most stringent and alien ritualized historical decorum look like totally reasonable practices. Sure, England was winning history at the time, but some of the rules of aristocratic etiquette they and the rest of the world operated under were straight up bananas. Their social decorum and crazy Elizabethan manners belied the growing strength of Elizabeth’s England. It’s almost as though the monarch needed an outlet for silliness just to keep her head on straight while she was busy taking over the rest of the world.

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  • Kissing Your Own Hand Was A Sign Of Respect

    These days, the practice of kissing your own hand as a sign of deference and reverence for the upper class has obviously gone out of fashion. During the height of Queen Elizabeth’s rule, however, it was not only encouraged, forgetting to kiss your hand made you look like an ungracious jerk.

    In fact, the practice of kissing one’s hand as a means of public deference was so common that some writers of the period actively complained about pretentious people going overboard with the kissing gesture whenever they met someone. It’s also important to remember that there was no actual kissing going on. The gesture was purely symbolic and even the kiss was meant to be “pretend.” 

  • There Were So, So Many Wrong Ways To Remove Your Hat

    Anytime someone found themselves in the presence of a cultural superior, good taste dictated that they remove their hat. Of course, it wasn't as simple as getting your hat off your head, you had to take it off exactly correctly, and then hold it in a respectable manner.

    In order to get the move correct, gentlemen needed to grab their hat by the brim with their right hand and then drop their arm directly. Then, gentlemen should pretend to kiss their left hand. “For since this is the hand belonging to the heart, he thus performs an act of cordiality; consider also that by this behavior he will not only appear attractive and gracious to all observers, but will also escape any appearance of imperfection …” Once the hat was doffed, it had to be held facing the right thigh, so as to cover up a potentially sweaty hat band.

  • Courtly Reverence Was A Matter Of Physical Safety

    Any person who was hoping to take a few steps up the social ladder in Elizabethan England eventually needed to meet the monarch. When doing so, there was a rigid series of steps required to display your respect for the nation’s ruler. These were not just due to the king or queen’s inflated ego, however. They were intended to keep the monarch safe.

    So when you approached the king, you had to make sure that you kept your hands down at your sides. If you were wearing a cloak or riding cape, it was important to see that it was an even length on both sides, and - when you knelt before the king or queen - to grab it with your hands and hold it slightly aloft.

    This seemingly irrational and ostentatious display was actually to meant to assure the monarch that visitors weren’t hiding a weapon. The various bows were meant to not only display their reverence, but give the guards several angles on the visitor.

  • You Always Had To Keep The Upper Class On Your Right

    In Elizabethan England, the right side was considered a place of honor, while the left side was for the masses. When meeting the king for the first time, visitors were compelled to kneel several times after entering the room before actually reaching the monarch’s presence. At each bow, people were instructed to keep the king or queen on their right side, lest the monarch be led to believe that their visitor has notions of superiority. 

    The monarch was also often seated just to the right of center at banquets and formal functions, in order to signify his or her prominent place in society. In the moments when the monarch did a Sorkin-style walk and talk, their partners were instructed to walk on the monarch’s left while also keeping a step or two behind their glorious leader. If the monarch wanted to make a left, their visitor actually had to take a step backward in order to maintain their inferior position.