16 May 2022

A matter of precedence

The Order of Precedence in the UK is the long-established hierarchy of members of the royal family, clergy, peers of the realm, officers of state, holders of Crown honours, and professionals that underpins British society. It has existed for centuries, and long been formalised into Tables of Precedence, which are used when planning formal events, such as state banquets, guild dinners and diplomatic functions. The simple idea is that a person’s status in society is always acknowledged, and that status is reflected in table plans, formal lists of names and so on.

In the past, the Tables of Precedence were rigidly observed, leading to many anomalous situations where an inherited title or marital status automatically trumped age and experience. Whereas in some situations social rank may still be deemed to be of the utmost importance, at the majority of functions nowadays considerations such as professional status and age are now treated as equally determining factors. The nature of the occasion provides the most telling guide and should offer indications as to the relative significance of guests. Clearly, a guest of honour must be seated so as to reflect his or her status, and, by way of example, the chairman of a host company, the MP of the constituency in which a function is held, a foreign dignitary whose country is being honoured, or a benefactor at a charitable event should all be recognised and seated appropriately.

Royal Guests

The Sovereign of the United Kingdom is always first in the Order of Precedence and there are clear guidelines to be observed when The Queen or a member of the royal family is to attend an official function. Efficient liaison between the host’s office and Buckingham Palace is essential.

The precedence of all others is the Sovereign’s prerogative. Even the precedence of those who appear in the official Tables of Precedence varies from time to time. Moreover, it not infrequently happens that, in the relationship between host and guests, the requirements of courtesy and hospitality override any strict order of precedence.

Precedence: Top Table

Ministers of the Crown and Privy Counsellors should be placed at the top table on formal occasions. Important dignitaries of the established church are placed high among the guests. High dignitaries of other churches should, as a courtesy, be accorded status immediately after those of the same rank from the established church.

When a function takes place within premises belonging to a specific organisation, a senior representative of that organisation should be invited and placed high amongst the guests.

Ambassadors, High Commissioners and Chargés d’Affaires should be placed at the top table, their relative precedence being strictly observed (The London Diplomatic List, published at two-monthly intervals by HMSO, gives a roll of the heads of diplomatic missions in London in order of precedence).

As a general rule diplomatic representatives from countries that do not enjoy diplomatic relations with each other should not be invited to the same function. When, as sometime happens, it is necessary to invite them, care should be taken to avoid placing them near each other.

Seating Plans

The principal guest is placed on the host’s right. Traditionally the principal guest’s wife would be placed on the host’s left, the host’s wife being placed on the right of the principal guest. If wives are present, the second most important guest would be placed on the host’s left.

It is now as likely for the host, or the principal guest, to be a woman, in which case the same basic principles may be applied, with any necessary adaptations employed to achieve the desired balance.

At an official function important members of the governing body should be interspersed among the principal guests. Guests’ partners should be placed according to the precedence of the guest invited in their own right. It is up to the host to decide whether husbands and wives are to be seated together or apart. The former is easier to arrange, but the latter (which is always followed at private functions) gives both husband and wife a chance to meet new people.

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