For the past week, my friends have been asking me: “Why is the Queen laughing?” They’ve seen the picture of Queen Elizabeth in conversation with my husband Ferenc, Hungary’s ambassador to the UK, during one of the first-ever “virtual” meetings at Buckingham Palace on Friday.
Her Majesty had asked us how we enjoyed our ride in one of her ceremonial horse-drawn carriages and my husband exclaimed that it was wonderful but very strange – a tremendous number of people had stopped as we passed to wave or take photographs.
He was shocked. The Queen found this funny. Maybe she was thinking about how the same thing always happens to her. It was a shock in itself to find ourselves in the Queen’s presence. When an ambassador arrives in London, he or she usually presents their credentials to the monarch very quickly, in a formal ceremony that has changed little since Queen Victoria’s reign.
Royal protocol dictates every detail, from where to stand and how many steps one must take at a given time, down to the hand in which the Letter of Credence must be held (the left). Coronavirus has changed everything, even at Buckingham Palace. Due to the pandemic, the Queen moved to Windsor Castle last March, leaving Covid-stricken London, and has not held any audiences since.
When we arrived from Budapest in May, it was in a city in lockdown, quite unlike the London of my imagination. I love it here, but I am longing to see the city’s real face.
We have done our best to carry out diplomatic duties. We held some social events at the Embassy in Belgravia over the summer, when it was allowed, but with all the usual social distancing restrictions.
In the circumstances, weren't expecting to meet the Queen. So the call from the palace – with less than a week’s notice of the ceremony – to say she would start seeing ambassadors (by now 26 were waiting in line) came out of the blue.
My husband was calm. He had his outfit picked out: a black coat with matching black waistcoat (I have since learnt that it is strictly prohibited to pair the coat with a light colour waistcoat – a style reserved for the Ascot Derby) with all necessary accessories, including pocket squares.
Me? I opened my wardrobe and rifled through my outfits in panic, trying to find one that would be appropriate. A dress by Nanushka, a Hungarian designer, ticked all the boxes of the royal dress code: below-knee hem, long sleeves, closed cleavage. I was good thus far, but I also needed a hat.
Having never before attended an event where a hat was necessary, I started my hunt somewhat timidly. I learnt a great deal, fast. I learnt, for example, that a single hat can have the same price tag as a second-hand car. It might be lovely and elegant, but it would still be a hat I was likely to wear once in my life.
Salespeople told me it was rare to wear hats this time of the year; perhaps I should come back before Ascot? Sadly, I could not take this friendly advice. I needed a hat and I needed it immediately.