#40 – Watch the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace
“They’re changing the guard at Buckingham Palace, Christopher Robin went down with Alice”; the words of the popular poem by A.A. Milne. I can hear it going round in my head right now. I knew it as a small child, despite never having been to see the Changing of the Guard. When I was compiling The List, I wanted to include things that visitors to this country would do which I had not done and when I thought about the top ten things a tourist might want to do in London I was pretty sure that watching the Changing the Guard would be on that list. So on that basis, I decided I really should see it for myself. I also chose to visit the Guards Museum after the ceremony to find out a little more about the soldiers involved.
I knew nothing about the Changing of the Guard ceremony before watching it; not who is involved, not what happens, nor even why it happens.
I discovered that the Changing of the Guard involves the five Foot Guards regiments: the Grenadier Guards, the Coldstream Guards, The Scots Guards, the Irish Guards and the Welsh Guards, to list them in order of seniority. On the day I visited, the Scots Guards took over from the Welsh Guards; specifically the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards were the Old Guard and the F Company Scots Guards were the New Guard. The accompanying bands were the Welsh Guards and the Irish Guards. The Foot Guards are effectively the sovereign’s personal bodyguards, so those guarding at Buckingham Palace are called the Queen’s Guard and whilst on guard duty they are stationed at St James Palace. I understood the need for Guards but I didn’t understand why the changeover needed to be so ceremonial. Apparently it’s actually a drill, designed to keep troops ordered and disciplined during peacetime.
I downloaded the official Changing of the Guard app in the hope that it would give me some idea what was going on, and luckily this gave me the ‘running order’ for the ceremony. Here’s what happens:
1 – The Old Guard are inspected at St James Palace, and then march to Buckingham Palace preceded by a Guards band. They form up in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace.
2 – The New Guard leave Wellington Barracks and march to Buckingham Palace, forming up in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace facing the Old Guard.
3 – The band plays as the New Guard and Old Guard march towards each other and ‘present arms’ (perform a salute with their rifles)
4 – The Captain of the Old Guard hands over the key to the Palace to the New Guard, symbolising the handing over of the responsibility for the security of the Palace. The Senior Captain takes a salute from the Officers of the Old and New Guard. Whilst this is happening soldiers called ‘ensigns’ (flag bearers) patrol the length of the forecourt with the regimental ‘Colour’ (the regimental flag, decorated with the battle honours). This was traditionally done to familiarise the soldiers with the flag so that they could recognise it to follow it in battle.
5 – The Officers patrol between the Palace and the Guards whilst the new sentries are posted and the old sentries rejoin the Old Guard.
6 – The Old Guard march towards the New Guard and exchange compliments
7 – The Old Guard leave the Palace forecourt led by the band and march to Wellington Barracks.
8 – The New Guard divide in two. Half march to St James Palace, the other half march to the Buckingham Palace guard room.
Only the British do pomp and ceremony like this, so I wasn’t surprised to find that I wasn’t wrong about the tourists! There were literally hundreds of people there, of all nationalities. I arrived more than an hour ahead of the ceremony starting and already the spaces at the front by the railings were taken. I took up a position behind some Japanese on the grounds that they’re always short and I thought I’d be able to see over the top of them!
Whilst waiting for the main event I watched the two sentries marching to and fro, before the music from the band heralded the arrival of the Old Guard who marched into the Palace forecourt and formed up just in front of where I was standing. They were soon followed by the New Guard.
I watched as the ceremony unfolded in front of me: the soldiers in their bright red tunics with their highly polished shoes and shiny buttons, the flags being paraded and the soldiers marching as the bands played. There were many shouts of “Attention”, “At ease” and “Stand Easy”, lots of stamping and moving of rifles in a very precise way. I was largely bewildered, but it certainly was a spectacle.
I was surprised to see some female soldiers in the Guards band, although of course women cannot serve in the Foot Guards proper because they are infantry regiments. The British Army does not permit women to serve in combat troops (cavalry and infantry).
The ceremony lasted about 45 minutes, and once the New Guard had marched off to the Guard Room, the two sentries were once again alone and all was quiet at Buckingham Palace.
After lunch in the sunshine in St James Park, I headed to the Guards Museum to find out more about the regiments themselves. As well as information about the campaigns the regiments have fought, there was an opportunity to study their uniforms in more detail and learn about the differences between them; mainly to do with the arrangement of their buttons, the plumes in their bearskins and their collar badges.
The Grenadier Guards, formed in 1656 in Flanders by the exiled Charles II, are the senior regiment. They are named after the grenades they used in battle and the grenade is their collar badge. As the senior regiment, their buttons are evenly spaced down their tunic and they have a white plume on the left of their bearskin. I also learnt that grenades are so called because they look like pomegranates and the Spanish word for pomegranate is ‘granada’.
The second Guards regiment is the Coldstream Guards. Their buttons are in pairs (to denote their position as second), their plume is red and on the right, and their collar badge is the Garter Star. The regiment was formed in 1650, so is older than the Grenadier Guards and may be expected to be the senior Guards regiment but, according to the curator of the Guards museum, the Coldstreams “backed the wrong side in the English Civil War” and so lost their seniority.
The third regiment is the Scots Guards. Formed in 1642 they are technically older than both the Grenadiers and the Coldstreams but they weren’t brought into the English Army until 1686, hence their position as third regiment and their buttons being grouped in threes. They wear no plume in their bearskin and their collar badge is a thistle.
The Irish Guards are the fourth regiment, so their buttons are in fours. Their tunics are very different to the other Guards regiments as they have lines of decorative frogging across the tunic. As you might expect, their collar badge is the shamrock, but their plume, surprisingly, is not green. In fact when they were founded in 1900 another regiment was already using a green plume, so theirs is the pale blue of St Patrick’s flag.
The final Guards regiment is the Welsh Guards, with their buttons grouped in fives, the leek on their collar and a white and green plume (to represent the leek) in the left of their bearskin. The youngest regiment, they were formed in 1915 from soldiers who applied from other sections of the Army. I was amused to see in the museum a recruitment poster asking for recruits who “have a Welsh parent on at least one side, live in Wales or have a Welsh sounding surname”. Not too fussy then!
An interesting day out, learning a bit more about our history. I enjoy being a tourist in my home town, and that’s 23 of my 40 before 40 now complete.