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So, What Is the Order of the Garter Service Anyway?

Jun 16 2014 - 11:01am

Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Charles, and Prince William took part in the annual Order of the Garter Service at Windsor Castle [1] on Monday, with Kate Middleton and other royals looking on. With its heavy velvet robes, dramatic plumes, and famous march, the Service is one of the most recognizable yet confusing royal traditions. While young royals like the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge [2] and Prince Harry [3] have introduced a whole new generation of folks to the fine art of royal watching, the time-honored traditions and protocols of many of the biggest aspects of the British royal family are still a mystery to many. For example, why doesn't the queen celebrate her birthday on, well, her actual birthday? And what's this business about not being allowed to marry Catholics? We've put together a helpful list of the biggest royal traditions to help demystify the actual act of being a royal.

Front Page Image Source: Getty / WPA Pool [4]

The Garter Service

The Garter Service is held every June on the Monday of Royal Ascot Week for the Order of the Garter. The Order is the most senior and oldest British Order of Chivalry and was founded by King Edward III in 1348. The Order doesn't technically do anything, but it is the highest level of chivalry that can be bestowed on a member of the public — be they royal or not. Membership is limited to the Sovereign, the Prince of Wales, and no more than 24 members, all of whom are appointed by the Queen. The Order also includes Royal Knights (for members of the royal family, like Prince Philip and Prince William) and Stranger Knights, for foreign dignitaries. Traditionally the knighthood was only given to male members of the aristocracy, but now the order is given to men and women of varied backgrounds — although they tend to lean heavily on the upper classes. New members are always announced on Saint George's Day (April 23).

During the Garter Service, the Order members walk through Windsor Castle while decked out in traditional blue velvet robes, or mantles, and black velvet hats with white feathers. They then attend a special religious service at Saint George's Chapel in the castle before emerging from the Great West Door of the Chapel to march back up to the Upper Ward of the castle.

Trooping the Colour or the Queen's Birthday

While Elizabeth's actual birthday is on April 21, she publicly celebrates her big day several weeks afterward during Trooping the Colour, which takes place on a Saturday in June when the weather is expected to be good. This has been the case for every monarch since 1748, when the Trooping the Colour ceremony was deemed the official public birthday celebration for the British sovereign.

The event is carried out by troops from the Household Division (Foot Guards and Household Cavalry) on Horse Guards Parade in Whitehall, and typically the entire royal family is present at the event to either participate in the march or to watch. Senior members of the royal family arrive to the event in carriages, and much is made of who is sitting with whom as they travel together in small groups. However, Prince Charles, Prince Edward, Princess Anne, and Prince William all ride in the event on horseback as they are members of the Royal Colonels. The Queen also rode on horseback during the event, but stopped in 1986. Likewise, Prince Philip also rode in the parade, but stopped in 2003. After the march, the royals all return to Buckingham Palace where they greet a massive crowd from their famous balcony and watch a flyover.

The Coronation

Typically, the coronation ceremony as we know it takes place several months after a king or queen has ascended the throne, which happens immediately after the reigning monarch has stepped down or passed away. The coronation is delayed to allow for a respectful period of mourning (if the reigning monarch has died) and to organize the massive event. For the past 900 years, the ceremony has taken place at Westminster Abbey in London and has been conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury.

The ceremony is a deeply religious one, and there was quite a bit of controversy over having Queen Elizabeth II's coronation televised in 1953 due to the religious element. The coronation is also full of old traditions and priceless heirlooms, like King Edward's chair, which was made in 1300 and on which the sovereign sits. If a king is sovereign, then his queen consort will often take part in a simpler coronation ceremony after the main one. However, male consorts (like Prince Philip) cannot be crowned. Queen Elizabeth II was crowned with Saint Edward's Crown, which is the traditional coronation crown, although many monarchs choose to either be crowned with their own special piece of headgear that has been specially made or a different piece from the royal collection.

The Opening of Parliament

The State Opening of Parliament is one of the few royal traditions that brings together the Queen with the other parts of Parliament, the House of Lords and the House of Commons. It takes place on the first day of a new parliamentary session or shortly after a general election. While it is a political event, it is also rife with tradition and ceremony, much more so than, say, the State of the Union address in the US, which is the closest thing Americans have to the State Opening (although it is very different). Some of the odder traditions to outsiders include the "hostage MP" or a member of Parliament who is sent to stay in Buckingham Palace as a "hostage" while the sovereign is at the State Opening. This tradition dates back to the time of King Charles I, when the monarchy had a testy and sometimes violent relationship with Parliament. Another strange tradition includes having a representative of the Queen, called the Black Rod, summon the House of Commons and having the door of the Commons lobby slammed shut against him. This is meant to represent the House of Commons's ability to refuse entry to the monarch and their representative. The door is eventually opened after the Black Rod knocks against it three times with his ceremonial staff.

One of the stranger elements of the event is the queen's speech, which is not written by her and is instead written by the government as a sort of list of their legislative agenda for the coming year. The queen is required to read whatever is written on her speech scroll in a completely neutral tone and give no hints of her opinion. The audience is also expected to remain quiet and respectful during the entire speech. However, in 1998, when the queen read off the new law to ban hereditary peers from the House of Lords, there were cheers and jeers from both the Lords and the House of Commons. In keeping with her expected role, the queen continued to read from the scroll as if nothing was happening.

Getting Married

Marrying into the royal family is no easy task, and if a member of the royal family wishes to stay in the good graces of the rest of the royal family, they cannot be free to marry whomever they want — something that the late Princess Margaret and Duke of Windsor had to learn the hard way [5]. There are certain laws that govern who the royals can and cannot marry. For example, no sovereign can marry a Catholic, and a member of the royal family must remove themselves from the royal line of succession before they can marry anyone who is Catholic. This has happened twice in recent years — in 1978 Prince Michael of Kent gave up succession to marry Princess Michael of Kent, and in 1988, George Windsor, Earl of St. Andrews, gave up his spot to marry Sylvana Tomaselli. This law comes from the Act of Settlement of 1701, which was designed to "preserve" the Protestant crown. In addition, any decedent of King George II (except those who are descendants of princesses) must get the Queen's permission before they can legally get married in Britain.

In 2013, the Succession of the Crown Act was introduced to allow sovereigns to marry Catholics and also allow only the first six persons in line to the throne to seek the sovereign's permission before getting married. If the sovereign didn't approve of the marriage, the family member would still be allowed to get legally married but wouldn't be allowed to succeed the throne. However, the Act has not become fully in force yet.

Christmas

While most of us think of Christmas as being a time to relax with family, the holiday is a full royal occasion for the Queen and her family. The Queen always spends Christmas at her Winter estate, Sandringham, and guests are expected to follow her strict rules [6]. Some variations from your traditional Christmas party include a choreographed arrival schedule from junior to senior royal family members, the opening of presents on Christmas Eve to preserve the religious element of Christmas Day, and guests bringing their own food and china to dine on. Since Sandringham is considered to be technically a court occasion, royal protocol is still observed, with proper bowing and curtsying and sticking to a strict dress code at all hours of the day. Guests also cannot go to bed before the Queen, who reportedly tucks in at midnight.

While guests typically arrive on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day is marked by the family's trip to the local Sandringham parish church, where crowds gather outside to give flowers to the Queen. The entire party will then travel back to the "big house," where they will eat lunch and then watch the Queen's pretaped Christmas message at 3 p.m.

Who Must Curtsy to Whom?

One of the most mystifying elements of royal protocol to us "commoners" is the proper way to greet the royal family and how they greet each other. While no one is under obligation to curtsy or bow to a member of the royal family, the rules are still put into practice in court settings, like when the family is at a state function or celebrating Christmas in Sandringham. If the royal family is in the mood to follow strict protocol, everyone must either bow or curtsy to the Queen. Then, according to order of precedence, the order of who bows to whom goes down in order of the Queen's sons (by birth order, so oldest first), then her grandsons, her brothers, her uncles, her nephews, and lastly, her cousins. However, as third in line to the throne, William is said to have gained precedence over the Queen's younger sons in recent years. Female members of the royal family are given lower rank than male members, and until recently, wives of the sovereign's sons are typically given higher rank than her daughters and granddaughters. However, now "blood princesses" are given precedence over women who have married into the royal family [7]. This rule only applies when the woman's husband is present, otherwise she gets bumped on down the list. These rules go down from the Queen to the lowliest baronet and also determine how members of the aristocracy enter and leave a room during formal occasions.

So, for example, if Kate and William were at an event together with William's grandmother, parents, and Princesses Anne, Eugenie, and Beatrice, Kate would only curtsy to the Queen, Prince Charles, and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, while Anne, Eugenie, and Beatrice would curtsy to her. However, if William was not present for some reason, Kate would have to curtsy to everyone, including "blood princesses" like Eugenie, Beatrice, and Anne. Confused yet? Let's not even get into how lower-ranking members of the aristocracy come into play.


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