Very Few Know The History of The Queens Guard, Goes Back to 15th Century

 
 
SHARE:

Sadly, recent incidents of troubling interactions with tourists plus security concerns have resulted in the British authorities removing the guards in many cases from points of direct public interaction.

Millions of tourists who flock to Buckingham Palace to see the famous changing of the guard, or guard mounting ceremony, are awed by the pageantry, but few really know the history of this time-honored tradition.

Selected soldiers have protected Britain’s monarch since the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509), but it was not until 1689 that the genesis of the modern ceremony began at the outset of the reign of William III and Mary II.

Henry holding a rose and wearing the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece, by unknown artist, 1505
Henry holding a rose and wearing the collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece, by unknown artist, 1505

These first ceremonies took place at the Palace of Whitehall but were shortly moved to St. James’s Palace. Finally, they found their way to Buckingham Palace when Queen Victoria made her court there in 1837. The Queen’s Guard remained at St. James’s, but a detachment was sent to protect Buckingham Palace.

The Old Palace of Whitehall by Hendrick Danckerts, c. 1675
The Old Palace of Whitehall by Hendrick Danckerts, c. 1675

The ceremony is, in effect, the Old Guard from St. James’s and Buckingham being relieved by the New Guard from the Wellington Barracks. The whole event is accompanied by soldiers playing music which provides a sense of grandeur and awe.

London: The Coldstream Guard outside Buckingham Palace standing guard early in the day just before the changing of the guards
London: The Coldstream Guard outside Buckingham Palace standing guard early in the day just before the changing of the guards

It should be noted that the changing of the guard ceremony occurs at other royal residences such as Windsor Palace, but the most famous one is at Buckingham.

The band of the Grenadier Guards, led by a Drum Major of the Coldstream Guards, marches past the front of Buckingham Palace during the Changing of the Guard ceremony.
The band of the Grenadier Guards, led by a Drum Major of the Coldstream Guards, marches past the front of Buckingham Palace during the Changing of the Guard ceremony.

The ceremony has evolved through history. For example, the bearskin hats commonly associated with the guard arrived in the 18th century in order to provide a more menacing appearance to the sentries.

The gold strap which rests on the mouth was not meant to retain the hat but rather to provide protection for the face. These fell out of fashion for regular military use but were retained for use in the ceremony in 1832, which is reflective of the ceremony that exists today.

Illustration of a Grenadier Guard, 1889
Illustration of a Grenadier Guard, 1889

Today, a division of guards will stand watch for up to 48 hours with two sentries (or four if the Queen is home) standing as sentinels for two-hour shifts.

The guards are typically from the Foot Guards of the Household Division, which includes the Grenadier Guards, the Coldstream Guards, the Scots Guards, the Irish Guards, and the Welsh Guards.

The massed band featuring members from the bands of the British household divisions.Photo: Jon CC BY 2.0
The massed band featuring members from the bands of the British household divisions.Photo: Jon CC BY 2.0

While these different guard divisions might have a similar uniform, they may be differentiated by their different colored plumes, buttons, and badges.

It is important to note and is something that is lost on most tourists, that these guards are fully functional military units and are not simply ceremonial. Their automatic weapons are functional although they are not typically loaded.

Old and new sentries. Coldstream Guards and Queen’s Colour Squadron (RAF) posted at the Tower of London
Old and new sentries. Coldstream Guards and Queen’s Colour Squadron (RAF) posted at the Tower of London

Many a cheeky tourist who has annoyed or harassed a guard too far will find them suddenly come to life shouting “Make way for the Queen’s Guard!” or “Stand back from the Queen’s Guard.”

Despite the stoicism of the guard, they can sometimes be playful. Often, the band accompanying the guard will play unorthodox tunes such as We Are the Champions by Queen, or music from Game of Thrones, or Abba’s Dancing Queen. On August 31, 2018, they played Respect in honor of the passing of Aretha Franklin.

Guards perform during the changing of the Guard in front of the entrance of Buckingham Palace on June 4, 2013 in London, UK
Guards perform during the changing of the Guard in front of the entrance of Buckingham Palace on June 4, 2013 in London, UK

Sadly, recent incidents of troubling interactions with tourists plus security concerns have resulted in the British authorities removing the guards in many cases from points of direct public interaction.

Any military unit in the British Commonwealth can act as the Queen’s Guard. Consequently, throughout history there have been instances when different military units have participated in the ceremony such as the Gurkhas and the Royal Marines. The Royal Navy even took part for the first time on November 26, 2017.

Members of the Blues & Royals: Household Cavalry.
Members of the Blues & Royals: Household Cavalry.

For Commonwealth nations, only those nations that have the Queen as the head of state have participated, except for one instance of the Royal Malay Regiment participating in 2008.

The ceremony has historically been a male affair since women had not previously been allowed to serve in close combat roles. However, in April 2007, the first women served as part of the detachment for the guard at Windsor Palace as part of the Royal Air Corps.

But the ceremony at Buckingham remained without a female presence until June 26, 2017, when the first woman led the changing of the guard.

Changing of the guard
Changing of the guard

The soldier, Megan Couto of Canada, was invited as part of a Canadian contingent to honor the 150th anniversary of the country. When interviewed she said, “I’m just focusing on doing my job as best I can and staying humble. Any of my peers would be absolutely delighted to be Captain of the Queen’s Guard and I’m equally honored.”

Since the United Kingdom has allowed women to apply for all military roles since October 2018, it is to be expected that future guard mounting ceremonies will start to see the presence of more women.

 
© Copyright 2019 - War History Online