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British Billy explains Trooping the Colour

A company of Welsh Guards, recognizable by the leeks on their collars and five-button groupings on their jackets, denoting their status as the most junior of the five Foot Guards regiments. (courtesy photo)

A company of Welsh Guards, recognizable by the leeks on their collars and five-button groupings on their jackets, denoting their status as the most junior of the five Foot Guards regiments. (courtesy photo)

The Queen inspects her Guards in Queen Victoria's ivory-mounted phaeton of 1842. (courtesy photo)

The Queen inspects her Guards in Queen Victoria's ivory-mounted phaeton of 1842. (courtesy photo)

ROYAL AIR FORCE LAKENHEATH, England -- I am not one of those cats who enjoys getting dressed up. I spend copious amounts of time on personal grooming, but I draw the line at costumes. However, pomp and pageantry are part of the fabric of British ceremonial life, and the Queen's birthday parade, traditionally known as Trooping the Colour, is British pageantry at its finest.

Although Her Majesty the Queen's birthday is April 21, it has long been the tradition to celebrate the sovereign's birthday publicly on a day in the summer, when good weather is more likely. Bearing in mind the well-known unpredictability of the British weather, I must admit I think this may be rather optimistic, but it should be fine this Saturday, June 11, if the forecasts are to be believed.

The custom of trooping the colour was introduced in 1805. However, due to the illness of King George III, it was suspended from 1811 to 1820. The ceremony was restored on the accession of King George IV and has, thankfully, has thrived ever since. The Queen has attended Trooping the Colour every year of her reign, except in 1955 when a national rail strike cancelled the event.

Trooping the Colour is carried out by fully-trained and operational troops from the Household Division (Foot Guards and Household Cavalry) on Horse Guards Parade in Whitehall, London, watched by members of the Royal Family, invited guests and members of the public.

The 'colour' referred to in the name of the parade is the flag of one of the British Army regiments. In medieval times, when a great deal of fighting went on, battles were fought between soldiers who had no specific uniform and wore either their ordinary clothes or armour.

Battles were frequently lost because soldiers were unable to distinguish between members of their own forces and those of the enemy. They were rarely able to recognise their own leaders, and identification symbols were clearly needed to overcome the problem. The bright 'colours' were used as rallying points so they would be visible above the smog and dust of battle. It became customary to carry these 'colours' down the ranks at the end of a day's march. The colours came to express the spirit of the regiment and were held in the highest regard.

The royal procession leaves Buckingham Palace at 10:40 a.m. and moves down the Mall to Horse Guards Parade in Whitehall, arriving exactly as Big Ben strikes 11 a.m. The colour of only one regiment is trooped each year, and this year it's the turn of the 1st Battalion Scots Guards.

All five regiments of Foot Guards are drawn up on the parade ground. As Queen Elizabeth reaches the saluting base, the British national anthem is played and a gun salute is fired in nearby Hyde Park. She then inspects the assembled military, returning to Buckingham Palace, via the Mall, at 12:30 p.m. Finally, at 1 p.m., the Queen appears together with the Royal Family on Buckingham Palace balcony for a fly past by the Royal Air Force, the final phrase of Trooping the Colour itself. The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and the Red Arrows are regular participants of this annual event.

As you can imagine, the ceremony is popular with both the British and visiting tourists, and although tickets are scarce and have to be applied for in January, you can get a good view from St. James's Park or along the Mall. If you are planning on being in London, be prepared for delays and detours. If you want to watch the procession in person, you'll need to be in place very early.

I shall be watching from the comfort of home, as the event is always televised. I find the uniforms fascinating, particularly the traditional bearskin helmets worn by the Queen's Foot Guards for ceremonial occasions. The foot-high bearskins are worn with the ceremonial scarlet tunics by the Grenadier, Welsh, Irish, Scots and Coldstream Guards regiments. Apparently they were originally designed to add height and impressiveness to the wearers.

I hear that there are plans afoot in the Ministry of Defence to find a suitable artificial fibre for the bearskins following complaints from animal rights campaigners. The MoD has been experimenting with alternatives but they have found that fake fur does not have the same qualities as the real thing.

According to one MoD bearskin expert, the fake helmet looks like a 1960s Beatle wig. It just doesn't look right and if the wind blows, it sticks up. The rain soaks into the fibre and it ends up an extremely heavy piece of sodden material on somebody's head. In hot electrical conditions, all the hair stands up. That sounds like a really bad hair day. Perhaps I could suggest mouse fur as an alternative, as I have a small collection, and I would consider it a privilege to donate to such a worthy cause!