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Did the Queen of England really have to bow before the Duchess of Alba?

Cayetana de Alba’s many titles led to more than a few myths about protocol

The Duchess of Alba curtsies before the king and queen of Spain.
The Duchess of Alba curtsies before the king and queen of Spain.

Yes, she was the woman with the most titles in the world. But no, the Queen of England did not have to curtsey to her.

Cayetana Fitz-James Stuart, who has died at the age of 88, was a duchess several times over, nearly 20 times a marchioness, another so many times a countess, and, what’s more, she was a viscountess, grand duchess and even a condestablesa. In total, she counted on more than 40 titles and held multiple decorations and honorary titles such as honorary citizen of Andalusia and of Seville. She was also awarded the gold medal of Madrid, and was the honorary mayoress of Liria.

All of this made her the person with most honorary titles in Spain, even more than the king and queen. But in contrast to the oft-repeated myth, she still had to curtsey in the presence of the Queen of England or any other monarch for that matter.

“There is no higher status than the queen (or king),” says Carlos Fuente, the director of the University Institute of Protocol at the Camilo José Cela University. “If the Duchess of Alba came face-to-face with the Queen of England, or of Spain, she would have to curtsey, as has happened in the past, in fact.”

The text reads: “Did you know that the Queen of England had to curtsey before the Duchess of Alba, given that she holds more nobility titles?”
The text reads: “Did you know that the Queen of England had to curtsey before the Duchess of Alba, given that she holds more nobility titles?”

There are few images of that moment, but it did happen. An article published by EL PAÍS on October 19, 1988 recounting a meeting between the Queen of England and the Duchess of Alba at a gala dinner describes the moment the pair coincided at an official function:

“The Duchess of Alba’s greeting” (EL PAÍS. October 19, 1988)

Last night in El Pardo palace the Queen of England hosted a gala dinner in honor of the king and queen, in return for the dinner they held the night before in the Royal Palace. The number of attendees at both events was around 150. Among those at the Royal Palace were the Duke and Duchess of Alba. Cayetana de Alba offered her respects to her old friend with a curtsey.

The sovereign and the duchess spoke of their childhoods in London, when the father of Cayetana was ambassador in the court of Saint James and the then-young girl would visit the princess at Buckingham Palace. The duchess described the visit of the Queen of England as “wonderful” and “fantastic,” calling it “a unique event.” They had not seen each other since those times. In the Royal Palace, the duchess bowed before the British sovereign, in contrast to the popular belief that the number of titles bestowed on her means that she has preference over the Queen of England in a hypothetic hierarchy of honors. “That is just literature,” Cayetana de Alba said yesterday, while she awaited the arrival of Elizabeth II at the Prado Museum.

What is true is that, in spite of the titles she possessed, the Duchess of Alba did not have a special place in the order of protocol. As is explained by Gerardo Correas, the president of the International School of Protocol and director of the Porotocol section at the European University, “a lot of legends have been created with respect to this. In Spain there is an order of precedent for authorities – a royal decree from 1983 – but it is just that, for the authorities, and the Duchess of Alba does not appear there. As such, in the order of precedence at an official event, she should be located according to the preference of the organizer.” But Correas adds that “given the ‘quality’ of her titles, she was without a doubt the number one in the world, given the number of honors from Spain that she had.”

The Duchess of Alba is received by Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall.

As we have seen more than once, even though the king and queen of Spain hold fewer titles, the Duchess of Alba always greeted them with a curtsey, “as is set by tradition, although these days it is a gesture that is used less and less often,” explains Correas.

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