Featuring an impressive display of military pageantry that attracts tourists from across the world to celebrate Her Majesty the Queen’s birthday, Trooping the Colour is a traditional British ceremony dating back to the 17th century.
How did the tradition start?
The historic custom dates back to the reign of Charles II, during the 17th century. At this time, a regiment’s flag (known as Colours) was used as a rallying point during battles. The flags were called Colours because they consisted of the colours and insignia of their particular regiment’s uniform.
The soldiers of different regiments had their own Colours and the principal role of the flag was to provide a meeting point on the battlefield. Without the benefits of modern communication methods, it was a constant hazard that the soldiers would become disoriented and unable to find their unit during a conflict.
In order for the soldiers to easily recognise their regiment’s Colours in wartime, they were displayed regularly. Officers would walk in between rows of troops, with their Colours held high. This was the origin of the term “trooping”. Today’s ceremonial tradition started out as an important parade with a practical purpose for the British Army.
In London, the Household Division would troop the colour daily on horseback as part of their daily duties in bygone times. The ceremonial Trooping the Colour today is a similar display to the daily routine of yesteryear.
The first mention in historical documents of the monarch’s birthday being celebrated by Trooping the Colour is in 1748, during the reign of George II.
It was mentioned again to mark George III’s birthday, after he became king in 1760. Since his reign, with a few exceptions (such as the two world wars), Trooping the Colour has been an annual event on the reigning sovereign’s birthday.
What happens at the ceremony?
Trooping the Colour is held every year in June to celebrate the Queen’s official birthday. Although the Queen’s real birthday is on 21st April, her “official birthday” is marked in June. Her personal troops, the Household Division, carry out the ceremony on Horse Guards Parade. Queen Elizabeth II always attends and takes the salute.
In the past, she used to ride on horseback during the ceremony – something she did on 36 occasions. In accordance with tradition, she rode side-saddle and wore the uniform of the regiment whose Colour was trooped that year. The regiments take it in turn for the honour of Trooping the Colour, depending on their operational commitments.
Since 1987, the Queen has attended in a horse-drawn carriage instead. More than 1,000 troops are on parade, with 200 horses. In addition, more than 200 musicians from six corps of drums and bands march and play. The Officer in Command gives more than 100 words of command during the parade. The route begins at Buckingham Palace and continues along The Mall, Horse Guards Parade and Whitehall, then it winds its way back again.
What happens at the ceremony?
The marches vary during the procession – the different marches are known as “slow” and “quick” time. As the clock on the Horse Guards’ Buildings strikes 11am and the procession arrives, the Queen takes the salute. She then drives slowly down the ranks to carry out the royal inspection, carrying on past the Household Cavalry.
During the ceremony, the “Escort for the Colour” marches in quick time to the tune, British Grenadiers. This is the case, no matter which regiment’s Colour is being trooped.
The Escort traditionally marks time, while the massed bands clear the way. Then, a Subaltern halt stops the Escort at a symbolic white stone, 15 paces from the Colour Party. The Regimental Sergeant Major marches out from behind the Escort, drawing his sword in a manner that symbolises protecting the Colour.
The “Ensign for the Colour” follows him, carrying the Colour through the guardsmen’s ranks. The RSM salutes and receives the Colour in his left hand. The Ensign then salutes back and receives the Colour, placing it in his belt.
As the National Anthem is played, the parade presents arms and the Escort moves through the ranks of guards, in slow time, to two tunes: Escort to The Colour and the Grenadiers’ Slow March. This is the tune that the grenadiers use when they march to the barracks after the changing of the guard.
One of the most amazing moves is the “spin wheel” carried out by the massed bands. It isn’t in any drill book or ceremonial manual, but it has been passed down through generations of bandsmen over the years.
Following the parade, the royal family appears on Buckingham Palace balcony to watch the traditional RAF fly-past.
Trooping the Colour 2018 takes place on 9th June, when thousands of people will gather to watch the annual spectacle and pageantry. If you’re planning a sight-seeing trip in London to watch Trooping the Colour, H&H Van Hire’s minibus hire is a convenient means for all your family and friends to travel together.
Please contact us for details of our nine, 14 and 17-seater minibuses for group trips.