The Changing of the Guard outside Buckingham Palace is one of the great royal traditions. But on one particular day in the early ’00s, the military ceremony was conducted like it had never been before. Here’s a look at the highly emotive reason why the Queen decided to break centuries-old protocol.
The history of the Queen’s Guard and King’s Guard dates all the way back to the English Restoration of 1660. King Charles II was the first royal to have their British sovereign’s palaces protected by various cavalry and infantry soldiers. Although many believe that the Guards are only ceremonial, they are in fact entirely operational.
The Queen’s Guard refers to the infantry tasked with protecting St. James’s Palace and Buckingham Palace. The contingent boasts three officers and no less than 40 other ranks whenever the monarch is in residence. Four sentries are posted at either the forecourt or entrance of each palace to patrol the grounds and keep guard 24/7.
The guard is typically a member of one of five British foot guard regiments, including the Coldstream Guards, Grenadier Guards and Scots Guards. However, over the years several other Commonwealth units have provided guards, such as the Gurkhas, Royal Marines and RAF Regiment. In 2008 the Royal Malay Regiment became the first unit from a nation where the Queen doesn’t serve as head of state to be tasked with the role.
The Queen’s Guard in the English capital changes every day at 11:00 a.m. in the summer. But in the winter this is reduced to four times a week. The Queen’s Guard detachment at St. James’s Palace is guided by a drums corps who march to Buckingham Palace, whose own detachment has lined up in preparation.
The military band, which usually consists of approximately 35 members, then plays music in a circle during the new guard’s inspection. The new guard subsequently march slowly towards the old guard before coming to a stop, with both guards then presenting arms. The captains then advance towards each other to trade the keys to the palace.
By this point, the military band has formed a half-circle to perform music by the center gate. Once both guards have formed up again, the old guard advance through the gates to the sounds of a regimental slow march. This then evolves into a five-pace roll as the band guides the old guard on their return to Wellington Barracks.
Each sentry posted will be on duty for a period of two hours and will stand to attention, slope their arms and march 15 paces roughly four times every ten minutes. Sentries are warned that they cannot sit, lie down or stand easy while undertaking their duties. They are also trained on how to deal with members of the public who are acting as a disruption.
Indeed, first the sentry will sharply stamp to attention before shouting “Stand back from the Queen’s Guard.” If this doesn’t have the desired effect after repeated attempts, the sentry can aim their rifle towards the threat. If this doesn’t work, then the sentry can either detain the nuisance themselves or ask for assistance to do by pressing a sentry box button.
The guards used to be placed much closer to the general public. But after various potentially dangerous incidents with tourists, they have now been positioned further away. On one particular occasion, a man began taunting a sentry by marching alongside him and then touching the shoulder that was mounted with a rifle.
The Queen’s Life Guard is posted at Buckingham Palace and St James’s Palace’s official main entrance: Horse Guards. The mounted guard serves on horseback for a six-hour period from 10:00 a.m. A couple of dismounted sentries are then posted for four hours from 4:00 p.m. And once the Horse Guards gates are locked at 8:00 p.m., just one sentry serves until seven the next morning.
Of course, it’s the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace that draws the most visitors. Formerly known as Buckingham House, the property was built at the beginning of the 18th century for the Duke of Buckingham. Nearly 60 years later, King George III acquired the building to give Queen Charlotte her own private residence, and it subsequently became renowned as The Queen’s House.
Ever since Queen Victoria’s accession in 1837, Buckingham Palace has been the British monarch’s main London residency. The property boasts an astonishing 775 different rooms, while its garden is the largest private one in the whole of the capital city. It’s perhaps best known for its East Front balcony, from which various royal members wave to the crowds below.
Approximately 50,000 guests are invited to various functions at the palace each year. More than half a million tourists make the trip to its gates on average in the same period. And the Changing of the Guard is one of the main draws. However, on one particular day in 2001, the Queen decided to do things a little differently.
Indeed, after the tragic events of 9/11, Buckingham Palace became a focal point for a vast number of Americans either visiting or living in London. Thousands lined the streets outside the building to pay their respects to those who lost their lives in the series of terrorist attacks. And this emotional outpouring didn’t go unnoticed by the Queen.
In a rare act of protocol breaking on September 12, 2001, The Queen gave the okay for the U.S. national anthem to be played during the Changing of the Guard. This was the first time ever that “The Star Spangled Banner” had been performed at the ceremony during the Queen’s reign. And this gesture was warmly appreciated by the thousands of Americans outside the palace.
Approximately 5,000 U.S. natives were gathered outside the gates when the Coldstream Guards began playing the anthem. And many of them struggled to contain their emotions as the song went on. As well as bursting into tears, Buckingham Palace’s American visitors also saluted by placing their right hands across their heart.
You could initially hear a pin drop when the Coldstream Guards started performing “The Star Spangled Banner.” However, their instrumental offering soon turned into a mass singalong as the crowds joined in with the tribute. As the rendition came to an end, a round of applause was followed by a two-minute silence.
Representing the Queen at the Changing of the Guard, the Duke of York, a.k.a. Prince Andrew, formally saluted alongside U.S. ambassador William Farish. Along with the Coldstream Guards, troops from the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment’s 1st Bn were also present. The ceremony brought traffic to a standstill at the typically busy thoroughfare known as The Mall.
“The Star Spangled Banner” wasn’t the only piece of American music that the Coldstream Guards performed during the ceremony. They also played “Hymn for the Fallen,” an emotive piece of music that featured in Saving Private Ryan‘s closing credits. The piece was penned by Hollywood composer John Williams, best known for his work on Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws.
The Queen’s gesture may have been a small one in the grand scheme of things. But it still meant a lot to those in attendance. Many who congregated outside Buckingham Palace were U.S. tourists left temporarily stranded due to the sudden cancellation of all flights to the North American continent.
Some of the 5,000 mourners held up photos of the tragedies in Washington and New York that had been printed in the day’s press. Others proudly waved the stars and stripes of the U.S. national flag. And all appreciated having somewhere to collect their thoughts with their fellow American citizens.
One particular visitor, Susan Kramer, knew several people who had lost their lives in the tragedy. The 54-year-old, who was vacationing in Britain at the time, told newspaper The Daily Telegraph, “This shows that the world is sticking together. Britain and America have always been close, and this reinforces it.”
Kramer then revealed that the unique Changing of the Guard helped her to deal with her grief. She added, “It was very meaningful that another country would honor our national anthem like this. I have felt pretty helpless up to now, because I have not been able to return home, and I wanted to be with some other Americans.”
Jenny Lee, a San Francisco native who had created her own U.S. flag out of cardboard for the occasion, was also appreciative. She told The Daily Telegraph, “I was really touched that the Queen has done this. Even though I’m so many miles from home, I feel that Britain is really with us on this one.”
Jim Lagos, a West Virginia resident who was vacationing with his spouse and 14 others at the time, told the same newspaper, “It was a highly emotional occasion for us. I found out about this from a taxi driver, who said, ‘You know, all us Brits are with you.’ It means so much to us. I found it very supportive.”
Hailing from the Missouri city of St. Louis, Susan Young described the Queen’s efforts as an example of “good over evil” that had been an “awe-inspiring” experience. The 59-year-old then added, “Our nations need to unite. We hope it’s reciprocal for all the good we have done throughout the world.”
The Queen herself was on vacation at her Scottish Balmoral residence at the time. But shortly after the unique Changing of the Guard ceremony she returned to Buckingham Palace. There, she arranged a meeting with the U.S. ambassador, William Farish, and his spouse to offer her sincere condolences in person.
The monarch also joined her husband Prince Philip and her son Prince Charles at a remembrance service at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. Tony Blair, then the British prime minister, was in attendance too. Prince Charles was also the first person to put his name to the book of condolences that had opened at the American embassy in the city’s Grosvenor Square.
Several U.S. officials commended the Queen for her quick response to the 9/11 terror attacks. Ari Fleischer, a spokesman for the White House, described the performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the Changing of the Guard as “touching” and thanked America’s transatlantic neighbors for their “wonderful solidarity.”
“The Star Spangled Banner” isn’t the only American song to have been performed during the Changing of the Guard. Seventeen years after the Coldstream Guards played the U.S. national anthem, the Welsh Guards surprised tourists with a rendition of Aretha Franklin’s “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” This was a tribute to the soul legend, whose funeral was taking place that same day.
The British Army explained their choice of song in a message accompanying the performance uploaded to YouTube. It read, “In the Army Respect for others underpins all that we do. So there was only one tune that would do for today’s ceremony: the 1967 Aretha Franklin hit ‘R.E.S.P.E.C.T.,’ a declaration from a strong confident woman who knows that she has everything.”
That same year, the bands of the Guards Division showed their support for the England soccer team as they prepared for their World Cup quarter final against Sweden. The band performed the hugely popular soccer anthem “Three Lions” at the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. The Band of the Royal Logistic Corps also chose to play the track during the same ceremony at Windsor Castle.
Recorded by indie pop outfit The Lightning Seeds and soccer-mad comedians Frank Skinner and David Baddiel, “Three Lions” has topped the U.K. charts on three separate occasions. On hearing about the very regal performance of the track, the latter tweeted, “Thanks to Her Maj for letting so many of her bands play the song! I assume they have to seek permission.”
Four years previously, the Band of Irish Guards decided to embrace the popculture phenomenon that is Game of Thrones. The band performed the theme tune to the hit fantasy series during one particular Changing of the Guard ceremony at Buckingham Palace. But this unlikely rendition wasn’t as random as you may think.
Indeed, both The Queen and Prince Philip had only recently visited the Game of Thrones set. The pair not only met various members of the cast and crew during their Belfast tour, they were also offered the chance to sit on the famous Iron Throne. However, they both decided that they’d had plenty of experience sitting on a real one.
But it was the song played on September 12, 2001, that remains the Changing of the Guard’s most cherished alternative. A year later, U.S. officials decided to show their appreciation for the gesture by lighting up the Empire State Building in royal colors. The skyscraper was bathed in royal gold and purple for several hours. It provided a way of commemorating the Queen’s 50th year on the throne.
This was the first time that the Empire State Building had been lit up like this in 12 years. The previous occasion was to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s visit to the Big Apple after his long-awaited release from jail. The Queen expressed her delight at the stateside tribute, but an official for the building replied that the honor was all theirs.
In 2018 the Band of the Coldstream Guards once again performed “The Star Spangled Banner” for a special occasion. This time around, the band, who were joined by the Band of the Grenadier Guards, were welcoming the U.S. President Donald Trump and his wife Melania to Windsor Castle. The pair later met the Queen for a spot of afternoon tea in the same Oak Room where she also once entertained Barack and Michelle Obama.
Trump told British tabloid newspaper The Sun how impressed he was with the reigning monarch. He said, “If you think of it, for so many years she has represented her country, she has really never made a mistake. You don’t see, like, anything embarrassing. She is just an incredible woman.”