Ceremonial events in London: From Changing the Guard to the State Opening of Parliament

trooping the colour
The Trooping of the Colour. Credit: Peter Phipp/Travelshots.com / Alamy

From the world-famous Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace to quirky traditions at the Tower of London, there is a spectacular calendar of ceremonial events in London. But what does this symbol-laden pageantry reveal about the city’s past?

Words by Neil Jones

Ceremonial events in London

Changing of the Guard

ceremonial events in london
Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. Credit:m Karol Kozlowski/AWL Images

Foot Guards from the Household Division marching in their red tunics and bearskin hats for the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace is a must-see for any visitor to London. Household Troops have guarded the sovereign and royal palaces since 1660 and today’s iconic ceremony, also known as Guard Mounting, usually takes place every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

Get an early spot at Buckingham Palace gates or on the steps of the Victoria Memorial to watch: the Old Guard form in the palace’s forecourt from 10.30am, joined by the Old Guard from nearby St James’s Palace, before the New Guard marches up from Wellington Barracks to take over responsibilities. householddivision.org.uk

Tower of London ceremonies

The Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London. Historic Royal Palaces/David Jensen
The Ceremony of the Keys

The centuries-old Ceremony of the Keys, when the Chief Yeoman Warder is escorted to lock the gates at the Tower of London at 9.53pm precisely, has become a hot-ticket event. But the Tower has also accumulated numerous less-well-known rituals over the years, such as the Constable’s Dues.

The ceremony of the Constable’s Dues
ceremonial events in london
The Ceremony of the Constable’s Dues. Credit: Historic Royal Palaces/ Richard Lea-Hair

In days gone by the Constable of the Tower enjoyed a variety of perks, not least a portion of the cargoes (ranging from oysters to wine) of ships that had to moor off Tower Wharf when they came upstream to the City. To this day, the captain of any Royal Naval vessel that moors on the wharf ceremoniously presents the Constable with a barrel of wine – which is duly opened and quaffed. hrp.org.uk

The Lord Mayor’s Show

ceremonial events in London
The Lord Mayor’s Show. Andy Sillett / Alamy

“The oldest, longest, best-loved and least-rehearsed civic procession in the world”, the Lord Mayor’s Show is a reminder of the city’s longstanding independent spirit, and one of the most extravagant ceremonial events in London. In the 13th century King John, struggling to control the country, tried to keep Londoners on side by allowing the city special powers, including the annual election of its own mayor in place of a royal-appointed sheriff. Each new mayor journeyed to Westminster to swear loyalty to the monarch: giving rise to today’s flamboyant show, on the second Saturday in November.

The huge procession – livery companies, bands, charities, businesses, HM forces, the Lord Mayor in the dazzling State Coach – wends from Mansion House to the Royal Courts of Justice where the oath of allegiance is sworn, before returning via the Embankment. Check the published itinerary for top vantage points. lordmayorsshow.london

Beating retreat

ceremonial events in london
The Massed Bands of the Household Division perform during the annual Beating Retreat. Credit: PA Images / Alamy

Beating Retreat originated in early times of organised warfare when the beating of drums and parading of Post Guards signalled that camp gates were to be closed and flags lowered for the day. Records for the 17th-century armies of both James II and William III show they enacted such orders.

Practical routine has since transformed into a spectacular entertainment, traditionally performed on Horse Guards Parade, Whitehall, on two consecutive evenings in June: with rousing military music and precision drill by the Mounted Bands of the Household Cavalry and the Massed Bands of the Household Division, dazzling fireworks, and a salute taken by a member of the Royal Family. householddivision.org.uk      

Remembrance Sunday     

ceremonial events in london
King Charles III and the Prince of Wales lay wreaths during the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph in London in 2023. Credit: PA Images / Alamy

In total contrast to other ceremonial events in London, the Cenotaph Service in central London strikes a sombrely reflective note as the King leads the nation in remembrance of the service and sacrifice of all those who have defended our freedoms and protected our way of life.

The occasion grew out of Armistice Day, 11 November 1919, commemorating the anniversary of the peace agreement ending the First World War. Held on the second Sunday in November, it now also encompasses remembrance of later conflicts and service.

The King, as Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, leads wreath-laying at the Edwin Lutyens-designed Cenotaph war memorial in Whitehall. Two minutes silence, bugles, the veterans’ March Past: all are deeply moving. britishlegion.org.uk

State Opening of Parliament

ceremonial events in london
The State Opening of Parliament. Credit: Associated Press / Alamy

The formal start of the parliamentary year (for which dates vary) is a symbolic reminder of the unity of the three constituent parts of Parliament: the Sovereign, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. Yet some aspects of the tradition betray a distinct historical wariness!

Commemorating the foiled Gunpowder Plot (1605), Yeomen of the Guard ceremonially search the cellars of the Palace of Westminster. A member of the Commons is ‘held hostage’ in Buckingham Palace to ensure the monarch’s safe return from Westminster. The official known as Black Rod, sent to summon the Commons to the Lords for the King’s Speech, is at first repelled by a slammed door as a reminder of the Commons’ hard-won independence from the monarch.  

Today’s carefully choreographed ceremony, dating largely from 1852, sees the King escorted in the ornate Irish State Coach to Westminster. Attired with the Imperial State Crown and Robe of State, he reads out the speech written by the government outlining its policies and proposed legislation for the forthcoming parliamentary session. parliament.uk

Trooping the Colour

The Trooping of the Colour. Credit: Peter Phipp/Travelshots.com / Alamy

Trooping the Colour is one of the most famous ceremonial events in London. It can be traced both to the military exercise of parading a colour (flag) before soldiers so that they might more easily identify it as a rallying point in the heat of battle, and to the practice of Guard Mounting. As a ceremonial, it dates from the reign of Charles II, and in subsequent centuries came to mark the monarch’s official birthday too: hence the event, 15 June this year, is also called the King’s Birthday Parade (official royal birthdays fall in summer in the hope of pleasant weather).   

A Regimental Colour is trooped (carried along the ranks) on Horse Guards Parade, and King Charles as Colonel-in-Chief of the Regiments of the Household Division inspects troops. You can join crowds on the edge of St James’s Park overlooking Horse Guards Parade, or along The Mall to watch the colourful processions and the Royal Air Force flypast over Buckingham Palace. Book well in advance to secure tickets for stands at Horse Guards Parade, and to rehearsal events on the two preceding Saturdays. householddivision.org.uk

This is an extract, read the full feature on Jersey and the Channel Islands in the May/June 2024 issue of BRITAIN, available to buy here from Friday 5 April. 

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