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Trooping the Colour

The 2013 ceremony, which hasn’t changed much over the last 200 years. The two-rank formation of soldiers shown here is a tribute to Wellington’s successful tactics at the Battle of Waterloo.

This month on the second Saturday in June, a curious and uniquely British ceremony took place, as it does every year. Trooping the Colour is a centuries-old tradition full of pomp and pageantry, where anything can, and sometimes does, happen.

King Charles and Queen Camilla after their coronation on May 6, 2023

Also known as the Sovereign’s Birthday Parade, the event officially honors not only the sovereign’s birthday but also the infantry regiments of the British Army.

Typically taking place on the second Saturday in June, it’s one of the biggest events on the royal calendar every year, along with the State Opening of Parliament in May.

The parade starts at Buckingham Palace and goes along the Mall to the Horse Guards Parade grounds, and then to Whitehall, before going back again to Buckingham Palace.

About 1,400 soldiers, 200 horses and 400 musicians took part in this year’s ceremony. This year’s event was especially noteworthy since it marked the first time the newly crowned King Charles III was honored.

Also this year Charles put his own stamp on the ceremony by reviving the tradition of the monarch leading the parade on horseback.

The last time a horse-mounted sovereign led Trooping the Colour was over thirty years ago, when Queen Elizabeth did so in 1986. For the remainder of her reign, she rode in a carriage at the ceremony.

Charles II, circa 1660-1665, by John Michael Wright

The tradition of Trooping the Colour traces its origins back to the reign of Charles II in the 17th century.

Starting in 1748, during the reign of King George II, it became an occasion to publicly celebrate the king or queen’s birthday, no matter what month or day the reigning monarch was actually born. (King Charles was born on November 14, 1948.)

“Colour” is another name for the brightly-colored battalion flags associated with the Five Foot Guard regiments (including the Scots Guards, Irish Guards, Welsh Guards, Grenadier Guards, and Coldstream Guards).

These flags not only showcase the individual spirit of each regiment but also commemorate its fallen soldiers.

In times past, there was a very practical reason to publicly display the “colour” like this – so that the soldiers would be able to recognize the flags of their comrades in the heat of battle.

Every year one of the five Foot Guard Regiments is chosen to display its flag.  This year the 1st Battalion of the Welsh Guards got to troop its color through the ranks of the assembled regiments. The honorary Colonel of the Welsh Guards is Prince William.

The inspection of the military troops and horses typically lasts about two hours. At the conclusion of this year’s event, King Charles and Queen Camilla and other members of the royal family appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to watch a flyover of about 70 RAF (Royal Air Force) aircraft.

George III, sick and unkempt in his final years. Engraving by Henry Meyer, 1817

This was a reprise of a flyover event originally planned for Charles’ coronation in May. That display had to be cut short due to bad weather.

The planes used in the flyover included Hurricanes and Spitfires from the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. Also, 18 modern Typhoon fighter jets spelled out “Charles R” (short for Charles Rex) in the sky to honor the king.

Trooping the Colour has been an annual event since the mid-18th century, with a few notable exceptions.

One exception was during the nine years of the Regency, from 1811 to 1820, when the king’s birthday parade was suspended due to King George III’s seclusion and illness. And the military parades were halted again during World War I and World War II.

There have also been a few memorable, unscripted moments, too, during this annual event, especially in the 20th century.

For example, in 1970 a guardsman rather spectacularly fainted while the Queen was reviewing the troops.

The Queen and her horse appear nonplussed by the fallen soldier ,who, though unconscious, has kept admirable form rather than collapsing into a crumpled heap.

And in 1981, a fame-hungry and delusional teenager fired six blank shots, point-blank range, at the Queen as she rode by with her procession from Buckingham Palace, on her way down the Mall to the Horse Guards Parade grounds.

Queen Elizabeth won a lot of praise that day as she kept her composure and her startled horse firmly under control. The young man was wrestled to the ground, charged with treason, and served a five-year prison sentence. When the man who shot blanks at the queen got out of jail at age 20, he changed his name and made a new life for himself.

I think he got off easy, considering how convicted traitors have been treated in the past!

Nothing that dramatic happened at this year’s event, though the King’s horse was notably restless and hard for the king to handle at times, perhaps most embarrassingly while the national anthem was being played.

Temperatures on the day of this year’s Trooping the Colour were in the high 70s, and I’m sure the king’s heavily decorated Welsh Guards uniform was hot for him to wear, but Charles sat ramrod straight on Noble, his horse, throughout the ceremony.

I suppose you could say the new king proved himself to be a real trouper as he led his first official Trooping the Colour!

King Charles on his horse Noble, at 2023’s Trooping the Colour



Sources include:

“King Charles’ Horse Fails to Keep Still During National Anthem in Clip,” by Jack Royston, Newsweek, June 21, 1923

“What to Know as King Charles Takes Part in His First Trooping the Color Birthday Parade as Monarch,” by the Associated Press, June 17, 2023


Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons



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