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.
I found my luck in a refined department store where I met a lovely stylist. We clicked right away and I learnt even more: how to put on a hat on my own, without help; the difference between summer and winter hats; the uses of wide-brimmed hats (styled for summer cocktail parties, not an audience with the Queen); how to achieve the rakish 45-degree tilt for the type of hat I ended up choosing; and that it is considered an outright blasphemy to wear a hat that only looks like a hat – an ornate headband otherwise known as a fascinator.
Due to the simplified protocol – with the Queen to be on video chat from Windsor, rather than in the palace audience room – gloves were unnecessary, which came as a relief. I taught myself to curtsy by following a video on YouTube.
The Queen’s carriage arrived to collect us from the embassy last Friday morning, complete with red-coated coachmen. I almost fell out as I got in: it was so rickety that for a split second it seemed the whole thing would just fall on to me. I assume the suspension is designed this way so that people can enter with ease.
Having no previous experience, I was not aware of this. A dear friend asked whether we had safety belts. We did not, but there are grips covered in the same blue velvet as the rest of the interior, which passengers can hold on to in case the horses are going too fast. Or if they bolt, I guess.
Exiting the carriage upon arrival CREDIT: Tekla Szocs, Embassy of Hungary in London
The palace had thoughtfully prepared warm blankets and hot-water bottles for us in case we were cold.
Once at the palace, we awaited a signal to enter the audience room. I had read that Queen Elizabeth II is a charismatic character, sweeping anyone and everyone off their feet at personal audiences.
What I found astounding was her ability to transfer this presence through a video call. The Queen was very friendly, inquisitive and well-prepared. She was easy to talk to and relaxed. My husband mentioned her great-great-grandmother, Countess Claudine Rhédey (1812-41), who was loved and revered for her beauty and kindness. The Countess fell in love with her future husband, handsome Duke Alexander von Württemberg at a ball in Vienna, but they had to wait five years to be wed due to the Countess’s unequal social rank. Claudine’s was considered a morganatic match, even though the Rhédey family was among the most prominent and highest-ranking noble families in Hungary.
Alexander spent those five years of waiting learning Hungarian to impress his beloved.
When they were finally married they were happy and had three children (their granddaughter, Mary of Teck, married King George V). Claudine was tragically killed while pregnant with their fourth child when her carriage turned over and she was seriously hurt.
According to the legend, Alexander had his wife’s heart embalmed, then put it in a small golden box, which his will stated was to be placed in his grave with him when he died.
The Queen clearly knew and remembered this sad story. She was one of the first international visitors to Hungary after the country regained its freedom in 1989 (she and the Duke of Edinburgh visited in 1993) and an exhibition dedicated to Claudine was created in her honour.
She asked Ferenc what his plans were as ambassador. Well, that was a difficult question – after this year, who dares to plan in advance? Actually, my husband dares, at least for next year, when we will be celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the establishment of British-Hungarian diplomatic relations.
We would like to celebrate this important milestone throughout the whole year and head for another 100. The Queen was happy to hear that. She was also happy to hear that our children like going to school here.
Our almost six-year-old son, Frank, has such a beautiful accent. It is funny listening to him and my daughter asking for a glass of water: Berta, 12, says it in a very American way (she started elementary school in New York City, where my husband was posted for four years), but Frank pronounces the word “water” with British elegance.
When the audience was over, we bowed and curtsied, then walked to the door, turning back to bow and curtsy to the Queen once more, before leaving the room. On the way back to Belgravia I was so excited I almost fell out of the carriage again when I spotted a little boy about my son’s age, waving enthusiastically.
I could not help but lean out of the carriage and wave back. The next day, Ferenc and I found ourselves all over the papers: the Queen’s first digital audience was quite the newsmaker.
It seemed Her Majesty had found a way to outsmart the virus and continue working. And us? After eight months in London, we had finally arrived.