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Marching down The Mall: Changing the Guard

Henry VII not only founded the Tudor Dynasty in 1485, he also founded the concept of the Royal Body Guard, and for the last 520 years elite soldiers have guarded the King or Queen. He probably never envisaged the spectacle that now draws the tourists to London.

The ceremony of Changing the Guard originally took place at the Palace of Whitehall as that was the official London residence for the Sovereign until 1689. The ceremony moved to St James’s Palace and stayed there even after the Sovereign moved into Buckingham Palace in 1837. St James’s Palace is still the official residence of the Sovereign. But no worries about The Queen’s safety, there’s still a detachment guarding Buckingham Palace!

The guard changing ceremony mainly takes place at Buckingham Palace these days. Depending on whether The Queen is present, the number of sentries is increased from two to four. If the Royal Standard is flying above Buckingham Palace, The Queen is present and in the summer months, from April to July, Changing the Guard ceremony takes place every day.

The actual changing guard is quite a complex organisation. At 11:00 am a detachment of the Old Guard forms up at St James’s Palace and is inspected. This group then marches down the Mall towards Buckingham Palace in the company of a Band or Corps of Drums. While this is happening another detachment of the Old Guard forms and is inspected at Buckingham Palace. The St James’s Palace detachment enters the grounds of Buckingham Palace through the south gate and positions itself besides the Buckingham Palace detachment. Here they wait for the arrival of the New Guard from the Wellington Barracks, which has been readying itself at the same time. The New Guard must wait for the arrival of the Queen’s or regimental colour, depending on whether Her Majesty is in residence, only then will it march towards Buckingham Palace with the Band.

The New Guard enter at about 11:30 am through the north gate and stops to face the Old Guard. The Band plays the new guard’s Regimental Slow March as it moved towards the Old Guard. Both Guards then present their arms while the Captain of the Old Guard hands over the “key to the Palace” (nowadays by simply shaking left hands), which represents the transfer of responsibility for the security.

If the Sovereign is in residence at Buckingham Palace, the Foot Guards present arms as the horses of the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment pass between the Queen Victoria Memorial and Buckingham Palace.

After the presenting of arms, the Officers of the Old and New Guard salute the Senior Captain on parade with their swords, after which they will retire to the Guard Room to report. While this is happening the Ensigns, while carrying their Colours, patrol the length of the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. One by one each new sentry is posted and a Lance Corporal distributes any special orders. While this is happening the Band that accompanied the New Guard moves to the centre and plays music.  The old sentries that have been replaced return to the Old Guard and the Band is informed that the handover is complete. The Band regroups in front of the centre gates

By this time it is around 12:05 pm. The Guards are called to attention and the Old Guard moves towards to the New Guard to the sounds of the Regimental Slow March. They exchange compliments as the Old Guard exits through the gates. The Old Guard then marches back to the Wellington Barracks in a quick march, also called ‘breaking into quick time’.

The New Guard at Buckingham Palace is ordered to ‘slope arms’ and divides in two. The Guards intended for the guarding of St James’s Palaces are led by the remaining Band down the Mall to place the Regimental Colour in the Guard Room at St. James’s Palace and the Guards intended for Buckingham Palace retire to the Palace Guard Room.

If you’re still with me after all of that, congratulations! Though this ceremony may look like a big show, the Guards are not to be messed with, as a tourist at Windsor Castle found out when he jokingly mimicked the movements of a member of The Queen’s Guard and even put his hands on his shoulder. The Guard then drew his rifle and shouted, “Step back from the Queen’s Guard!”. The tourist jumps back while the Guard continues on as if nothing has happened. That particular post is now roped off to prevent other tourists doing the same. Perhaps most tourists don’t realise that these guards are actual soldiers. The soldiers themselves are exclusively male, however members of the bands – and those from some regiments given the special honour of guarding The Queen – are female.

Next time you manage to catch a glimpse of this amazing show of pageantry, remember that they play an important role and it isn’t just ceremonial hooha.

photo credit: Changing the Guards by Andrew Tijou via Flickr