Their red coats and their tall, fur hats are as unmistakable as their stiff gaits and stiff faces. But in addition to these conspicuous qualities, the British Queen's Guard — known as the King's Guard when the monarch is male — have a job that's little understood beyond pomp and circumstance, although there is plenty of that involved too.
Nearly any day of the year, visitors to London flock to watch the traditional ceremony known as the Changing the Guard during which the New Guard relieves the Old Guard, ensuring that the British monarchy is continuously protected.
The Ceremony's Historical Roots
The Changing the Guard ceremony began in the 15th century during the reign of King Henry VII when a guard change took place at the Tower of London, says Matt Gedge, director of Fun London Tours. Since then, it has evolved significantly, and today it's outside Buckingham Palace that most comes to mind we picture this British ceremony.
"Major moments were [occurring] in the 1640s when we had a civil war," Gedge explains in an email. "During this period, the first permanent 'standing' army was created and named 'the New Model Army.' This is the origin of the Foot Guards." In 1660, the British monarchy was restored after the after the 11-year period of Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth, and the new King Charles II introduced his body guard, called the Life Guard, to London. It's the Foot Guards that can still be seen today marching to Buckingham Palace. The Life Guard, which is a cavalry guard, has its own quotidian ceremony.
The location of the Changing the Guard has followed the official residence of the sovereign, so in the 17th century it was first held at the Palace of Whitehall, then at St. James's Palace. As anyone who has watched the current television series "Victoria" knows, the young Queen chose Buckingham as her home in 1837. However, the Queen's Guard did not relocate with her, and they remain at St. James's Palace to this day, which is where the ceremony begins before heading to Buckingham to relieve the sentries on duty.
Changing the Guard Today
The Foot Guards are technically members of the British Army, and although there is a lot of tradition involved, it is also considered to be a necessary military duty so that soldiers protect the monarch at all times, Gedge says.
"The ceremony essentially is a glorified shift change," he explains. "I would imagine most Londoners know almost nothing about it. I have overheard so many local business people walking around the area during the ceremony who have absolutely no idea what is going on."
This shift change begins at St. James's Palace when soldiers of the Old Guard — those who have been on duty — enter the courtyard for inspection. There are five regiments, and by looking at button spacing and hat plumes, it is possible to know which regiment is coming off duty and which is going on. A marching band also enters the courtyard and will lead the regiment down The Mall — a long red road — toward Buckingham Palace while playing marching music. However, while in the courtyard of St. James's Palace, they might strike up any type of tune from classical music to Bruno Mars. At this point, there are more band members than marching soldiers.
Meanwhile, at Wellington Barracks, a military barracks in Westminster, the New Guard assembles and is led from there to Buckingham Palace. According to the website of The Household Division, the seven British Army Regiments serving Her Majesty, the New Guard and Old Guard face each other inside the gates of the palace, and the "key" is handed to the New Guard, symbolizing the "transfer of responsibility for the Palace's security." Gedge explains that no actual key is handed over, instead it's just a ceremonial handshake that represents the handover.
But that's not all.
"It's crucial to understand that there are two separate ceremonies," Gedge says. The one involving the Foot Guards that ends at Buckingham Palace is the first. There is another that involves cavalry, known as the Change of the Queen's Life Guard, which occurs at the other end of The Mall at Horse Guards Parade. Like the marching soldiers, members of the mounted regiment are dressed to impress — in this case with plumed helmets and white gloves.
For the Commoners
There are a variety of ways to watch the guard changing ceremonies. And in addition to the happenings around Buckingham Palace, the guards can be seen in other locations like marching to Clarence House where The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall — otherwise known as Prince Charles and Camilla — live. There is a guard at Windsor Castle in Berkshire that also changes.
On the Queen's birthday, a parade called Trooping the Colour takes place, and of course, some guards are always standing in front of Buckingham Palace in or near their sentry boxes. When the Queen is "in residence," there are four, but when she is away, there are two.
If you're thinking of heading straight to Buckingham Palace to wait at the gates for the arrival of the Queen's Guard, don't expect to see much more than the backs of heads and selfie sticks. Besides, remember that inside the courtyard at the palace, the New and Old Guard mostly just stand there and stare at each other. For a better experience, focus on the approach of the guards. If you stand along The Mall, you'll get a great view of the band and Foot Guards marching to the palace. Better yet, join a walking tour, and you'll enjoy good views paired with explanation and at least a few funny stories.
"I think people are surprised that with such a historical and famous event, things don't always go to plan," Gedge says. "Sometimes the band forgets to stop playing when they pass the horses causing the animals to go off course. I even once saw a ceremony get affected by the regimental mascot — a goat — who stopped to eat some grass."