Royal Britain: Ceremonies & Pageantry

Ceremony of the keys

Trooping the Colour

The Queen’s ‘real’ birthday is 21 April, but it has long been a tradition to publicly celebrate the sovereign’s birthday in the summer months when good weather is a possibility.

The ‘colour’ refers to the regimental flags which are paraded, or ‘trooped’ down the ranks so they can be recognised by the soldiers. Before 1748 this was a ceremony in its own right; from the reign of Edward VII the parade has also marked the monarch’s birthday and they have taken the salute in person.

To see when the Trooping the Colour ceremony is taking place this year, visit the Royal Parks website.

Changing of the Guard


Probably the most recognised of royal ceremonies, the changing of the Guard or Guard mounting is the process of exchanging a new guard with an old guard at various royal residences.

Did you know? The handover is accompanied by the Guards Band which as well as traditional military marches and songs, has been known to break into the odd pop song or popular musical number.

Visit Changing the Guard for information and timings.

The State Opening of Parliament


Marking the start of a new session in Parliament, this royal ceremony has a very bizarre element to it.

The Queen arrives at the Houses of Parliament, dons her official ceremonial robes and takes her place on the throne in the House of Lords. She then sends for Black Rod, (her messenger) to summon the MPs from the House of Commons.

When Black Rod arrives at the Commons, the door is slammed in his face. Uncharacteristically British, this rude behaviour symbolises the Commons’ independence from the Crown. Black Rod is only admitted after he has knocked on the door with his staff.

The history: In 1642 King Charles I stormed the Commons Chamber with an armed force in order to arrest five members for high treason. Deemed a breach of the privilege of the House, the action gave rise to the tradition that the monarch may not set foot in the House of Commons – hence the need for Black Rod.

Ceremony of the Keys


This traditional locking up of the Tower of London has taken place without fail for 700 years! Each night at precisely 9.53pm the Chief Yeoman Warder meets up with members of the Tower of London Guard to secure the main tower gates. On their return they are halted by sentry and the following exchange occurs:

Sentry: Who comes there?
Chief Warder: The keys
S: Whose keys?
CW: Queen Elizabeth's keys
S: Pass Queen Elizabeth's Keys. All's well
CW: God preserve Queen Elizabeth
S: Amen!

It is possible to watch the Ceremony of the Keys free of charge, but owing to high demand you must apply for tickets via the Tower of London website.

Swan Upping

Taking place on the third week in July every year, this is the annual census of the Crown’s swan population. It dates back to the 12th Century when the Crown claimed ownership of all mute swans, (the kind which do not migrate). Nowadays however the Queen only exercises a part-right of ownership on swans in specific stretches of the Thames and surrounding tributaries.

In the Swan Upping ceremony, the Queen's Swan Marker and Royal Swan Uppers use six traditional Thames rowing skiffs in their five-day journey up-river. The Queen's Swan Uppers wear traditional scarlet uniforms and each boat flies the regulatory flags and pennants.

When a brood of cygnets is sighted, a cry of "All up!" is given and the boats move into position. The cygnets are weighed and measured and are given a brief health check.

On passing Windsor Castle, the rowers stand to attention in their boat with oars raised and salute "Her Majesty the Queen, Seigneur of the Swans".