Tradition is key to both the Monarchy and the country it is present in. It offers continuity, spectacle and a chance for structured national reflection – it is also the source of some of the most fascinating facts and as you’ll see in this article,
The Tower of London is one of the most famous places in the United Kingdom. It is also home to some of the most bizarre customs in the world. Thanks to a decree by King Charles II, at least 6 ravens must be kept at the Tower of London – a move made by the King when he considered doing away with the Tower ravens and was warned by a courtier, “if the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it.”
The ravens, however, are more than mere residents at the Tower. They are officially enlisted as soldiers and have to take an ‘oath’ when they join the Tower of London (which comes in the form of an attestation card with an oath written on it), according to various authorities, this is so that the ravens can be dismissed, like soldiers, for poor conduct.
It’s a well known fact that when The Queen is in London, she and the Duke of Edinburgh reside at Buckingham Palace. Buckingham Palace, however, is not The Queen’s official residence – contrary to popular belief. That designation belongs to a largely forgotten building just a short walk down the Mall called St James’s Palace.
Whilst Her Majesty never resides at St James’s Palace, it remains the Sovereign’s official residence and is where the Accession Council meets to proclaim the new King or Queen, as well as being where on-duty The Queen’s Guard is based. It also gives its name to the Royal Court, which is officially known as the Court of St James’s. Despite this, its use is irregular and only a few members of the Royal Family use it as a London residence. It also happens to be attached to Clarence House, the official residence of the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall.
The Queen is known by many titles around the world. In Papua New Guinea for example, she is known ‘Missis Kwin’ and ‘Mama belong big family’, though perhaps the strangest naming style Her Majesty uses is that of Duke of Lancaster. Yes, that’s right Duke!
The reason for this is said to be that Queen Victoria considered that the title of Duke was superior to that of Duchess because it showed the Dukedom was held by the substantively. In other words, the title of Duchess meant that the person used their title through right of their husband.
Her Majesty is also known in the Channel Islands as Duke of Normandy, for the same reason. To this day, she is still greeted as ‘The Queen, Our Duke’ on the Channel Islands and in Lancaster, Her Majesty is still toasted as ‘The Queen, Duke of Lancaster’.
Every June, a tradition takes place at Windsor Castle called ‘the Waterloo Ceremony’. During this ceremony, the Duke of Wellington travels up to Windsor to pay The Queen his rent for his home, Stratfield Saye House – originally a gift from the grateful people of Britain for defeating the first Duke defeating the French at the Battle of Waterloo.
The rent is symbolic, however and the ceremony at Windsor Castle is a simple one. During the ceremony, held on the anniversary of the victory at Waterloo (18th June), the Duke of Wellington presents The Queen with a silk embroidered version of the French flag (a new one is produced every year) with the current year in the corner – this is then taken and hung over a bust of the first Duke of Wellington in the Guard Chamber at Windsor Castle.
In England, High Sheriffs – nowadays ceremonial officers for counties across the country – are appointed in a very unusual way. In February or March each year, during a meeting of the Privy Council, The Queen will choose High Sheriffs in a ceremony called ‘pricking’, during which she will choose names off the list by piercing it with a bodkin – an implement used for sewing.
This unusual tradition is believed to have stemmed from the first Queen Elizabeth who, when she was asked to mark her choice for High Sheriffs whilst she was doing embroidery, decided to use a bodkin to mark the names as she didn’t have a pen to hand. It’s a tradition that continues to this day and, whilst not generally publicised or photographed, it is reported in the Court Circular.
The State Opening of Parliament is one of the most dazzling spectacles the British Monarchy has to offer. It is also one of the key events in the calendar year when the best British traditions is on show, including the most bizarre ones. Prior to The Queen arriving at the State Opening, the Royal Household traditionally take a Member of Parliament as a hostage in exchange for The Queen’s safe return.
This tradition harks back to the days when the Monarch and Parliament didn’t get on so well and in order to ensure the wellbeing of the Sovereign whilst in Parliament, the Royal Household insisted on taking a hostage. The hostage, who is usually a Government whip, is taken to Buckingham Palace for the duration of the ceremony where he or she is well looked after by Palace staff.
Another interesting tradition from the Tower of London is the Ceremony of the Keys. Despite the strength of modern security techniques, for over 700 years – and without missing a single day – a traditional ceremony has been performed to ensure the tower is locked and secured for the night from any unwanted intruders. During the ceremony, performed just before 10pm every night, a Yeoman Warder accompanied by a military escort marches round the Tower ensuring all the gates are closed.
During WW2, the ceremony was interrupted by an enemy bomb which reportedly blew the Chief Yeoman Warder off his feet. The escort dusted themselves off, before carrying on with the ceremony – there is a letter from the captain of the guard written to King George VI apologising for the delay in the ceremony and also a reply from the King which says the officer is not to be punished as it was due to enemy action the ceremony was delayed.
The ceremony is also filled with its own mini-traditions, for example, when the sentry issues a challenge to the escort when they come to march along water lane (you can see the whole thing on YouTube by clicking here) as well as the saluting of The Queen’s keys at the end.
Gun salutes are used in the 21st century to herald royal and state occasions across the country. The way in which these salutes are conducted, and how the number of rounds is decided is something of an oddity. The number of shots fired in a salute is laid down by convention – coming from the days when ships would fire off all their guns as a salute to prove they meant no harm.
A basic 21 rounds forms a royal salute. Then, if the salute is in a royal park, you add another 20 rounds. Similarly, you add another 20 for a royal palace and 21 if it’s in the City of London. Confused yet?
The Tower of London happens to hold the record for the most shots fired in a salute. 124 shots are fired when the Duke of Edinburgh’s birthday is on the same day as The Queen’s official birthday – 10th June. Salutes are fired across the country on senior royals’ birthdays, accession day, coronation day and The Queen’s official birthday. They are also fired on the birth of a member of the Royal Family, the death of the Sovereign, state visits and the prorogation of Parliament.
Queen Victoria is often attributed with having said the phrase ‘we are not amused’ during her reign, which is recognised as an example of something called the Royal We (or Majestic Plural). In essence, the royal we is the use of a plural pronoun to refer to the Sovereign. It is a form which is still used today in the most formal circumstances such as in letters patent and acts of Parliament. Traditionally, it was used as a way of showing that the Monarch was speaking with the voice of God as well as their own – though now it is taken to be the Monarch speaking on behalf of the nation.
This bizarre tradition has been remarked upon several times by Her Majesty herself during her reign, perhaps most prominently in a speech at the Guildhall on the occasion of her and the Duke of Edinburgh’s silver wedding anniversary in 1972, when she started her speech by saying, “we, and by that I mean the both of us…”
There are several places of worship in the United Kingdom which fall under the control of the Sovereign instead of a bishop as would be the case for most churches. These are known as royal peculiars – peculiar not because they are unusual, but because they pertain to The Queen.
Among these royal peculiars are Westminster Abbey, the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace, St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle and the Savoy Chapel near the Strand in London among others.
The Monarch also happens to be the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and in order to be Monarch, a person must be in communion with the Church of England.
photo credit: wolfsavard, Royal Central, The Royal Commonwealth Society, Royal Central, lisby1, UK Parliament, Days of Majesty (film), khoogheem, BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives and wallyg
I know another one!
Royal staff have instructions never to serve any food to the royals with sharp corners on it, such as on sandwiches. Princess Margaret was very fond of “jammy dodgers,” which are little circular sandwiches cut out of white bread, with jam inside. These often appeared at teatime, and is one example of how food with corners is avoided.
I don’t remember the reason for this practice, but it’s considered very bad luck and this is taken quite seriously, especially by the older members of the royal family.
Maybe someone knows more about how this got started?
The ravens taking an oath so that they can be dismissed for poor conduct cracked me up.
Yes, it is hilarious. Caw blimey, perhaps?
It just goes to show that no one is indispensable, including Her Majesty’s beasts!
A correction to the gun salute section. It is mistakenly reported that The Duke of Edinburgh’s birthday is the 11th of June when in fact His Royal Highness was born on the 10th June 1921. Also it is interesting to note that in the history of the ceremony of the keys only once was the ceremony delayed and that was during the Blitz of WWII. The one night the Germans let off incendiary bombs just as the guard was coming through the archway. The shock of the bombs going off knocked the guard over and they picked themselves up and carried on.The Chief Yeoman Warder wrote to King George VI to apologise and give an explanation to why it happen. His Majesty responded that the officer was not to be punished for his tardiness as it was enemy action that caused it to happen
The current Duke of Marlborough must also present a French standard (fleur de lis) to the Queen as quit-rent for Blenheim Palace, on the yearly anniversary of the first Duke’s famous victory over Louis XIV in 1704.
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