London Ceremonies and Traditions
The euphoric reaction to the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012 underlined just how much we Londoners love our pomp and ceremony. London is steeped in over 2,000 years of history and many of the capital's longest-standing traditions are still very much alive. Head to London's palaces, courtyards, parks and castles for ceremonies embedded in history - unique days out or moments of regal nostalgia. A number of annual parades regularly adorn the capital's most ancient sites, from Trooping the Colour to the State Opening of Parliament. Read on for an in-depth look at some of the city's most spectacular rituals.
Changing of the Guard
Perhaps the epitome of London's surviving pageantry can be found in this daily ceremony
A hugely popular spectacle, the Changing of the Guard takes place at a range of royal locations in and around London daily during the summer (April-July) and on alternate days for the rest of the year. There is no ticketing, so make sure you get there early. Ever since 1660 Household Troops have guarded the Sovereign Palaces. The Palace of Whitehall was the main residence until 1689 and was guarded by the Household Cavalry (they can still be seen here today; outside Horse Guards Arch). The court moved to St James's Palace in 1689 and when Queen Victoria moved into Buckingham Palace (1837) the Queen's Guard remained at St James's Palace and a detachment guarded Buckingham Palace, as it does today.
Buckingham Palace, Buckingham Palace Road, SW1
Changing the Guard takes place inside the railings of the forecourt to Buckingham Palace. The Foot Guards provide a colourful display in their red tunics and bearskins and are accompanied by a band throughout. During the 45-minute ceremony the New Guard replaces the Old Guard and a detachment is left at Buckingham Palace with the remaining New Guard marching on to St James's Palace. For a good view, get there early and position yourself near the railings of the Victoria Memorial. The Changing of the Guard is free to watch and takes place every other day at 11.30am and lasts approximately 45 minutes. Dates alternate each month; odd days one month, even days the next. Check website for details of specific dates before you visit.
St James's Palace, The Mall, SW1
Part of the Old Guard marches from St James's Palace to Buckingham Palace at 11.15am and returns at 12.05pm. Please note that this Changing of the Guard only occurs on days when the guard at Buckingham Palace is changed.
Horse Guards Parade, Whitehall, SW1
For a chance to see the Queen's Life Guard, head for the separate ceremony that takes place daily throughout the year at Horse Guards Parade, on the site where the London 2012 Olympic beach volleyball was held. A similarly colourful spectacle, this is a 25-minute ceremony. The Guard march from Hyde Park Corner, via Constitution Hill and The Mall to Horse Guards Parade. Changing the Guard at Horse Guards Parade is free to watch and takes place daily at 11.00 (Mon to Sat) and 10.00 (Sun).
Windsor Castle, Windsor and Maidenhead, SL4
William the Conqueror chose to build a castle at Windsor more than 900 years ago to defend the western approach to the capital. As one of the Queen's official residences Windsor Castle still plays a formal role in State and official occasions. To share in the pageantry of this palatial residence you can watch the Changing the Guard as they march up through the town to the castle, accompanied by a band, when the Queen is in residence. When the Queen is away, they Mount Guard by the Henry VIII gate in winter, and on Castle Hill in summer.
The 'official' birthday of the Queen is celebrated in this iconic June ceremony
Horse Guards Parade, Whitehall, Westminster, London, SW1A 2AX
Tube: Charing Cross Station, Embankment Underground Station, Westminster Station
Dates: 14th June 2014
Often cited as the ceremonial event of the year, the Trooping the Colour marks the 'official' birthday of the Queen. Her actual birthday is 21st April (see below) but it is a long-standing tradition to publicly celebrate her birthday on a summer day. This tradition dates back to the early 18th century when the Colours (flags) of the battalion were carried (Trooped) past soldiers to reinforce the colours of their regiment so that they would recognise them in battle. Ever since 1748 this ceremony has also marked the Sovereign's birthday.
Trooping the Colour takes place in June when the Queen leaves Buckingham Palace to her arrival at Horse Guards Parade when a gun salute is fired from Green Park. The action centres on Horse Guards Parade, where the Queen receives the royal salute and inspects the troops. Following a performance from the massed bands the 'Colour' is carried down the ranks and the Queen leads the troops to Buckingham Palace. The Queen then appears on the balcony of Buckingham Palace at 1pm to watch the RAF (Royal Air Force) fly past, which is accompanied by a gun salute at the Tower of London.
Members of the Royal Family attend and a number of tickets are sold in advance each year. However, if you arrive early, you can grab a good view of the troops along the route from Buckingham Palace to Horse Guards Parade, via The Mall. Alternatively you can watch the two rehearsals - The Major General's Review and The Colonel's Review - for free, minus the Royals! These rehearsals take place before the big event itself. The Major General's Review occurs on the Saturday two weeks before the official parade. The Colonel's Review takes place on the Saturday a week before the parade.
TICKETS: The Ballot for tickets for seated stands around Horse Guards Parade opens in January and closes in February. Applications should be made in writing, during January and February only, enclosing a stamped self-addressed envelope to: Brigade Major, HQ Household Division, Horse Guards, Whitehall, London SW1A 2AX.
Cannons signal Her Majesty's actual birthday in Hyde Park
Green Park, Piccadilly, Hyde Park, London, W1J 9DZ
Tube: Green Park Station
Dates: 21st April 2015
The Queen usually celebrates her actual birthday, 21st April, privately, but the occasion is marked publicly by gun salutes in central London: there's a 41-gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21-gun salute in Windsor Great Park and a 62-gun salute at the Tower Of London, all taking place at midday. The Queen's Birthday Gun Salutes take place on her actual birthday, ahead of her official birthday in June which is marked by Trooping the Colour. At Hyde Park the Queen's Birthday Gun Salute is carried out by the King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery who ride into the park from the north by Marble Arch along North Carriage Drive, line up abreast and gallop down the parade ground to roughly opposite the Dorchester Hotel. The Troop itself arrives at around 11.45am ready to fire the first round at midday. The guns are then unhooked and the salute is fired off. Duty performed, the horses gallop back up towards North Carriage Drive. The band arrives separately and can usually be seen from about 11.30am. It is a spectacular show of pomp and ceremony and it's also the only time when you will see horses legally at a full gallop in Hyde Park - with a ton and a half of cannon in tow. Happy Birthday Liz!
State Opening of Parliament
Ceremony to mark the beginning of the new parliamentary year
Dating back to Medieval London, this spectacular annual ceremony marking the beginning of the new parliamentary year takes place May (prior to 2012 it took place in October or November) and features peers and bishops in traditional robes and a royal procession involving the State Coach (visible to the public). The Yeomen of the Guard (royal bodyguards since 1485) are responsible for searching the cellars of the Houses of Parliament before the Queen arrives - a duty undertaken ever since the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605 when Guy Fawkes tried to blow up Parliament. The televised ceremony that follows takes place in the House of Lords.The proceedings begin with Black Rod (the Queen's Messenger) calling 250 members of the House of Commons to the House of Lords.
The door is initially slammed in his face before being re-opened. This reminds people that the Commons can exclude everyone but the Sovereign's messengers. The Queen reads the Queen's Speech from the Throne in the House of Lords. This speech is prepared by the government of the day and outlines the forthcoming policies for the year. The Queen then returns to Buckingham Palace. The Royal procession starts at Buckingham Palace (11am), follows The Mall to Horse Guards Parade and Whitehall and then Parliament Square. A gun salute is fired at 11.15am from Hyde Park. A good vantage point is St James's Park.
Lord Mayor's Show
River barges are piled high with explosives in this annual parade
The annual Lord Mayor's Show has been taking over the streets of London for nearly 800 years now. The parade involves over 6,000 people, bands, over 140 decorated floats, costumed performers and a gilded State Coach that the Lord Mayor travels in. If you aren't sick of fireworks by this time (the show traditionally takes place in November, just after Bonfire Night), this is possibly the most dangerous and amazing of all the public shows in the capital. River barges are piled high with explosives and set adrift on the Thames with several brave men on board.
The fireworks are let off between Waterloo and Blackfriars Bridges, not far from the scene of Guy Fawkes' attempted crime. Wrap up warm and head for the river. The best vantage points tend to be around the Embankment and Gabriel's Wharf. If you are really on the ball get there early and grab the best seats in the house in the public gallery of the Oxo Tower. The Lord Mayor is required to swear an oath of loyalty to the Queen (in the presence of the Lord Chief Justice) at the end of the parade which runs from Guildhall to the Royal Courts of Justice. Spectators are welcome.
The procession leaves Guildhall at 10.50am for Mansion House. At 11.05am it leaves Mansion House and travels via St Paul's Cathedral, the Royal Courts of Justice and Victoria Embankment before returning to Mansion House at 2.35am. The fireworks display on the Thames occurs between Waterloo and Blackfriars at 5pm. These times are subject to change. Search the events guide for the latest details.
Ceremony of the Keys
Nightly lock-up of the Tower of London by the Beefeaters
Every night the Tower of London is locked up by the Chief Yeoman Warder who, dressed in Tudor uniform, makes his way to the gates from the Byward Tower at exactly 9.53pm to meet the Escort of the Key, clad in the familiar Beefeater uniform. The pair tour the various gates, locking them ceremonially, before being challenged by a sentry at the Bloody Tower archway. "Who goes there?" asks the sentry. "The Keys," replies the Warder. "Whose keys?" "Queen Elizabeth's Keys." "Pass Queen Elizabeth's Keys. All's well."
Once all the Tower gates are locked, the Last Post is sounded by a trumpeter and the ceremony is concluded. This ceremony represents a 700-year-old tradition and lasts no more than 10 minutes. The Chief Warder represents the Yeoman Warders (more commonly known as 'Beefeaters') who have looked after the Tower since the 14th century. Today they perform the role of tour guide in addition to their ceremonial duties.
Tickets for this ceremony are free but you need to apply 6-8 weeks in advance. Write to: The Ceremony of the Keys, Waterloo Block, HM Tower of London, London, England, EC3N 4AB, stating the names of the attendees and enclosing a self-addressed envelope, together with the requisite British Postage Stamps, or a minimum of two International Reply Coupons (American Postage Stamps are not valid in the UK). Visitors need to arrive at the West Gate by 9.30pm. Ceremony takes place at 9.53pm throughout the year.
Easter service sees the Queen hand out money to pensioners
On Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday, the Queen gives Maundy money to a group of pensioners from one diocese each year. In the early 20th century, the Royal Maundy Service occurred at Westminster Abbey, but today the service and tradition is held in a different church (usually a cathedral) every year. Westminster Abbey was the site of 2011 Royal Maundy, while in the Queen's Diamond Jubilee year the event took place at York Cathedral. The 2013 service is at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford.
The Royal Maundy ceremony is held in the presence of the Yeoman of the Guard and traces its origins to the Last Supper when, as St John recorded, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples. Maundy money started in the reign of Charles II with an undated issue of hammered coins in 1662. Today's recipients of Royal Maundy - as many elderly men and women as there are years in the sovereign's age - are chosen because of the Christian service they have given to the Church and community. Four Maundy Children (two boys and two girls) are also present. The pensioners are given two purses by the Queen - one white purse containing the Maundy coins (sets of one penny through to four penny silver coins totalling the same number of pence as the years of the sovereign's age), and one red purse containing £5.50 (£1 representing the money for redemption of the monarch's gown, £3 in lieu of the clothing once given, and £1.50 in place of the food once presented).