Barack and Michelle in Windsorland

  • Share
  • Read Later
Daniel Hambury / AP

Hold the hugs Michelle Obama with the Queen at Buckingham Palace in 2009

Her arrival is often signaled by trumpet fanfares, gun salutes or the strains of "God Save the Queen," but within the privacy of her own homes another sound presages Her Majesty's approach: the pitter-patter of tiny feet. During their stay at Buckingham Palace this month, President Obama and the First Lady will discover that Queen Elizabeth II is rarely parted from her panting devotion of corgis and dorgis (corgis crossbred with dachshunds). Canine outriders announce her appearance a good few seconds before she enters any room and circulate among her guests like Victorian children: seen, unheard and slightly pungent.

The Obamas met the Queen at her London residence once before, ahead of a 2009 summit of the G-20 nations, but this will be their first experience of the full-on hospitality Britain's royals extend to state visitors to the U.K. And as POTUS and FLOTUS may suspect after observing recent Windsor-family nuptials, nobody does hospitality quite like the Queen. In the mixture of grandeur and eccentricity, tradition and cautious adaptation, tiaras and dog hair awaiting the First Couple behind palace doors, they could spot a wealth of clues not only about their host but also about their host country.

Yet it would be easy to overlook those clues amid the pressure of remembering laws of etiquette that, just for example, advise against hugging Britain's monarch. ("The move [was] a departure from what is considered appropriate protocol," sniped the British establishment's favorite newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, after Michelle Obama laid an arm around the regal waist two years ago.) In light of these concerns, here are a few pointers about what to expect.

The bare bones of the visit are these: The Obamas will arrive in London on May 24 and depart two days later. They will almost certainly lodge in Buckingham Palace's Belgian Suite, quarters last occupied by William and Kate on their wedding night. They might care to remember there is no such thing as privacy at royal premises. (Tony Blair famously sired his fourth child at the Queen's Scottish retreat, Balmoral; his wife Cherie had left her "contraceptive equipment" at home, she revealed in her autobiography, after finding on a previous visit that a maid had unpacked her "unmentionables.")

The Obamas will doubtless enjoy an audience with the Queen, possibly a luncheon. Never speak across the table, though the ebullient Prince Philip tends to do so, or feed the dogs beneath it. The Queen is bright and acerbic and, though particularly fond of discussing the breeding and racing of horses, is game to talk about subjects as evidently remote to her as scuba diving and rock music.

On May 25 the President is set to address both houses of the British Parliament in Westminster Hall, only the fourth dignitary invited to do so since World War II. (The others were Charles de Gaulle in 1960, Nelson Mandela in 1996 and Pope Benedict XVI last year.) The preceding evening, the Obamas will be guests of honor at a state banquet.

Such banquets are curious affairs, attended by politicians from the visitor and host countries and an array of worthies with connections to the guests of honor or the diplomats who represent them at the Court of St. James's. Numbers are made up by functionaries from the royal household such as the Master of the Horse and the Keeper of the Privy Purse and an assortment of red-faced gents and well-spoken ladies with family diadems perched atop bird's-nest hairdos and evening gowns of surpassing ugliness. The air is frigid, the dishes delicious, the wines magnificent. The Queen and her spouse sit at the apex of the massive U-shaped table, flanked by their guests of honor and senior members of the royal family. (The newlyweds have not yet decided whether to attend.) An orchestra plays, and toward the end of the meal, bagpipers noisily circumnavigate the room. After speeches — and Obama will win points for brevity — come the toasts. Guests are expected to stand and listen to the national anthem before raising their glasses.

Therein lies the key to understanding any adventures in Windsorland. The Queen ranks high among the world's most gracious and generous hosts, but that grace and generosity are based on assumptions about her hereditary right to set the rules. Obama exercises far greater powers than she over a much larger nation than hers, yet the Queen — like some of her countryfolk — retains a sense of historic pre-eminence. The sun may have set on the empire, but at some level, Britons are like the royal corgis: they still consider themselves top dogs.