Behind the scenes of… Trooping the Colour as coronavirus cancels traditional ceremony

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  • This year, the pandemic has meant the traditional celebration of the Queen’s official birthday has been scaled back. Here, we look back at previous years and discover more about the history of Trooping the Colour…


    Trooping the Colour is a highly anticipated event in the royal calendar. The tradition was instigated in 1748 by King George II to celebrate his birthday. He was born in November, but chose June for the weather. Ever since, monarchs have celebrated their “official birthday” in June. The Queen has continued this tradition, despite her “real” April birthday.

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    The history behind it

    Trooping the Colour, traditionally held on the second Saturday in June, has marked the Sovereign’s official birthday for over 260 years. The name of the event comes from the time of Charles II, when army regiments used colourful flags as a rallying point on the battlefield.

    The main event

    Until 1987, the Queen would ride side-saddle on horseback to inspect her personal troops – the Household Division – but, these days, the parade begins when the Queen leaves Buckingham Palace in a carriage to make her way through the Mall towards Horse Guards Parade at Whitehall, where she receives a royal salute from parade soldiers.

    The troops include 1,400 soldiers, 200 horses and 400 musicians. Once the Foot Guards have marched past, the Queen returns to the Palace where she is joined on the balcony by members of the royal family. In 2016, over 40 family members gathered to mark her 90th birthday.

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    Last year, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge took centre-stage with Prince Harry and Meghan, who made her first public appearance since the birth of son Archie.

    In the afternoon, the royals watch a military flyover, where fighter jets shoot colourful streams of red, white, and blue smoke. There are always huge crowds of public spectators who gather on The Mall.

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    The Queen takes centre-stage

    The Queen, then Princess Elizabeth, was 21 when she first attended Trooping the Colour in 1947, to celebrate her father George VI. The only occasion on which she missed the event was when the entire parade was cancelled due to a national rail strike in 1955.

    It’s important the Queen remains centre of attention. “She needs to stand out for people to be able to say, ‘I saw the Queen,'” The Countess of Wessex once explained. “The crowds are two, three, four, ten, 15 deep, and someone wants to be able to say they saw a bit of the Queen’s hat as she went past.”

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    Balcony debuts

    It’s a pretty daunting event for any newly-appointed royal, and the Duchess of Cambridge made her Trooping the Colour debut in 2011, while Meghan, Duchess of Sussex first attended in 2018, months after marrying Prince Harry. Mike Tindall debuted in 2016 with wife Zara and her mother Princess Anne.

    During Princess Diana’s 1981 debut with Prince Andrew, 17-year-old Marcus Simon Sarjeant fired a pistol at the Queen while she was on horseback. Police finally restrained the teen after he fired six blank shots. He reportedly told them, “I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be a somebody.”

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    Days beforehand, Serjeant had sent a letter to Buckingham Palace saying, Your Majesty. Don’t go to the Trooping the Colour ceremony because there is an assassin set up to kill you, waiting just outside the Palace. He was the first person since 1966 to be prosecuted under the Treason Act 1842 and was sentenced to five years in prison.

    Heated moments

    The 2017, the ceremony quite literally reached boiling point after five guardsmen were stretchered off Horse Guards due to the heat, needing hospital treatment. “We can confirm that during the Queen’s birthday parade today a small number of soldiers fainted,” an army spokesperson said. “It is an extremely hot day and all were removed from the parade and checked by medical staff, where they were hydrated.”

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    Two years later, things appeared to get heated for Meghan when Prince Harry was spotted giving her a gentle ticking-off as they stood on the balcony. Lip-readers revealed the Prince told his wife, who had given birth four weeks previously, to “turn around” and “look forward”.

    While Buckingham Palace refused to comment, royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams agreed, “It certainly seems that there was an unhappy exchange.”

    Child’s play

    With over 30 royal family members, young and old, available to attend, the day isn’t without its drama. Under the watchful eye of spectators, plus the public at home, there has been occasion for younger members of the family to have to be gently disciplined. Back in 1951, the Queen was pictured losing her cool with a young Charles and giving him a stern telling-off on the balcony.

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    It can understandably be a long day for the younger royals and, in 2017, George and Charlotte were seen looking bored during the ceremony, while in 2018, the young Prince was told off by Savannah Phillips, the Queen’s oldest great-grandchild. His father looked disapproving of his behaviour. Savannah jokingly hushed her cousin before covering his mouth with her hand.

    Royal roles

    For decades, the Queen has been the main focus of the ceremony, but she isn’t the only royal to play a vital role. In 2011, Prince William took part in his first-ever parade by riding on horseback as Colonel of the Irish Guards. New wife Kate and brother Harry followed behind in a horse-drawn carriage.

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    Harry is yet to reach his brother’s military status. “Prince William and Prince Charles are royal colonels, which is a position given by the Queen to a member of the royal family who serves as Colonel-in-Chief of a regiment in the British Army or Navy,” royal reporter Diana Pearl explained.

    “In addition to William and Charles, Prince Philip, Princess Anne, Prince Andrew and Prince Edward are all royal colonels, as is the Queen herself and a number of other royal cousins, such as the Duke of Kent and the Duke of Gloucester.”

    Cancelled!

    The pandemic has put paid to this year’s event. A Palace statement said, “In line with Government advice, it has been agreed that The Queen’s Birthday Parade…will not go ahead in its traditional form. A number of other options are being considered.”

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