The royal family may be Great Britain’s traditional rulers, but it’s just as accurate to say that tradition rules the royal family. From their formal hats at the annual Royal Ascot horse races to the pomp and circumstance of state banquets, the sovereign lifestyle is an endless series of rituals and rules. “Royal engagements are governed by strict protocol,” says veteran royal commentator Richard Fitzwilliams, adding that the family collectively perform some 3,000 public engagement a year.
Still, although they’re scripted down to the second, the decorum required at royal functions may not be as rigid as you imagine. “There is a myth that if you meet a member of the royal family you are required to curtsy or bow – absolute nonsense,” says Dickie Arbiter, royal commentator and former press secretary to the queen. The same goes for the notion that you shouldn’t speak to Her Majesty before she speaks to you. “When people are confronted by the queen they become so tongue-tied she actually asks a question first to get the ball rolling,” he adds.
Breaches of protocol aren’t common, but when they do occur – such as when a woman wrapped the queen in an impromptu bear hug during her visit to Washington, D.C., in 1991 – the royals handle it with aplomb. “Very little offends the queen,” says Arbiter. “She’s been around too long for that.”
Still, as Fitzwilliams notes, “the mystique of the monarchy is linked to ritual.” The royal family maintains its national position and global popularity in large part through its legendary devotion to the many colorful – and sometimes quirky – traditions explained here.
Scroll through the gallery below to learn more.
TROOPING THE COLOUR
One of the many benefits to being a royal: having two birthday parties year! Although she was born on April 21, Queen Elizabeth II, like monarchs before her, celebrates her “official” birthday on a Saturday in June with the Trooping the Colour parade. The tradition dates back to 1748 when King George II feared it would be too cold for a parade on his November birthday, so he decided to combine it with an annual June march before his loyal subjects. Ever since, the reigning monarch has opted for the same.
Practice Makes Perfect
To make sure the annual Trooping the Colour parade goes off without a hitch, the military regiments prepare with a rehearsal called the Colonel’s Review the week prior.
All The Queen’s Horses
Royal family members arrive on horseback and in carriages to watch some 1,400 soldiers, 200 horses and 400 musicians parade through London streets lined with flag-waving crowds.
These days the queen may take the carriage, but back in the day, you’d find her on horseback! She rode Burmese, a police horse gifted to her by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, from 1969 until her final ride in 1986.
Through The Generations
Over the years, the Buckingham Palace balcony has been the place for royals to see and be seen for official ceremonies including Trooping the Colour. Queen Victoria started the tradition in 1851, during the Great Exhibition. Today the guest list includes about 30 family members, with Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip taking center stage, surrounded by heirs.
While there are no designated spots for members of the family, the first and second in line to the throne – currently Prince Charles and William – plus their wives and children, are always grouped around the queen. When a pregnant Kate watched the festivities in 2013, many were reminded of Diana’s 1982 appearance, when she was expecting her first son.
They’ve got the best seats in the house! The parade ends with a flyby of RAF jets viewed by members of the royal family from the Buckingham Palace balcony.
STATE OPENING OF PARLIAMENT
The centerpiece of the royal calendar, this procession kicks off the parliamentary year, usually in May or June. In a fun twist, as the queen arrives at the Palace of Westminster in a carriage escorted by the Household Cavalry, the royal household takes a member of Parliaments as “hostage” to ensure her safe return. The practice dates to Charles I, who was beheaded in 1649 during hostilities between the monarchy and Parliament. These days, the symbolic abductee is entertained at Buckingham Palace and released at the conclusion of the ceremony.
What a difference a year makes! A year after his father’s final appearance in 2016 (above), Charles took his place at the parliamentary ceremony. The queen also skipped her Imperial State Crown and robes.
Each November 11, royals lay wreaths at the cenotaph in Whitehall, commemorating veterans who died in British wars. Custom dictates that the wreath-layer walk up three steps to the monument then return backward down the three steps. In 2017, the queen turned the tricky duty over to her son Prince Charles. “There was a little bit of a stumble [in 2016],” says Arbiter. “At age 91, you are going to err on the side of caution.”
Symbol Of Sacrifice
The remembrance poppy was inspired by the World War I poem “In Flanders Fields,” which refers to the red flowers as the first to bloom in the churned-up earth of soldiers’ graves in Flanders, a Belgian province on the war’s western front.
Here’s one for the history buffs: In 1815, led by the first Duke of Wellington, the British army defeated Napoleon’s forces at the Battle of Waterloo. Ever since, the reigning Duke of Wellington symbolically “pays the rent” to the monarchy for his grand Stratfield Saye House in Hampshire by traveling to Windsor Castle and, on bended knee, presenting the queen with a French flag to signify the victory.
It’s off to the races! Founded in 1711 by Queen Anne, Ascot Racecourse draws huge crowds each summer, especially for the Royal Ascot, a week’s worth of races in June that marks one of the highlights of the British social calendar. No monarch has enjoyed the tradition as much as the current queen, who has owned and bred horses most of her life. In fact, when her horse took the Gold Cup event in 2013 she became the first reigning monarch to win in the history of the race – and reportedly wept tears of joy at the feat!
Dress To Impress
For most, the five-day event is more about what attendees are wearing than which horses are winning. Guests scramble for an outfit that will stand out but still abide by the dress code: Dresses must fall just above the knee or longer and all straps should be one inch wide or greater. Hats range from classy to brassy, depending how fiercely you want to compete with Princesses Eugenie and Beatrice, who are known for their flamboyant taste in headwear.
Taste Of Victory
The queen was expected to present the winner’s trophy at the 2013 event, but instead she received it from her son Prince Andrew!
ROYAL MAUNDY SERVICE
As part of a ritual likely dating to the 13th century, three days before Easter on Maundy Thursday (Holy Thursday), the queen passes out specially minted sets of coins to elderly citizens. Representing alms for the poor, “Maundy money” is considered a prized keepsake rather than pocket change and the number of recipients corresponds to the queen’s age – this year, she’ll give out sets of coins to 95 women and 95 men.
ST. PATRICK’S DAY
Calling all the royal ladies! Continuing a practice that began in 1901, a female member of the royal family visits the 1st Battalion Irish Guards at the St. Patrick’s Day Parade to present sprigs of shamrock to the officers and guardsmen. Kate took over the tradition from Princess Anne in 2012, but the duchess ruffled some feathers when she had her husband, William, fill in for her at the 2016 event. Guess you shouldn’t send a man to do a woman’s job!
Pup Of The Hour
In 2013, Irish Wolfhound Domhnall became the newest mascot for the Irish Guards. After a few months of ceremonial training, the pup, clad in his own red coat, joined the guardsmen for the St. Patty’s Day tradition.
Kate regularly displays a gold Cartier shamrock brooch on St. Patrick’s Day. The family heirloom was first worn by Queen Alexandra in 1901 and was often worn by the Queen Mother.
ORDER OF THE GARTER
Who says chivalry is dead? During his medieval reign, King Edward III was so inspired by tales of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table that he set up his own group of distinguished knights: the Order of the Garter. Today, the order remains the most exclusive in Britain and includes the queen, several senior members of the royal family and 24 knights (male and female) who have been chosen for their outstanding public service.
Pomp And Circumstance
You can’t miss them! Every June, members of the order put on their velvet robes, sparkling insignia and plumed hats and gather for the Garter Day procession at Windsor Castle.
Queen Elizabeth serves as the Sovereign of the Garter and appointments are made at her sole discretion.
Center Of The Action
The Duchess of Gloucester, whose husband, Prince Richard, is part of the order, hitched a ride with Princess Anne at the 2015 parade. Anne was named a member in 1994.
OK, let’s be honest – the duties the royal family most look forward to are probably those that involve meeting celebrities. Chief among them: investiture ceremonies. These 25 or so formal events, held at royal residences throughout the year, honor individuals for outstanding achievements and services to the U.K. and British Overseas Territories. More than 50 investees attend at a time to receive their awards and insignias.
Climbing The Ranks
William hosted his first investiture ceremony in 2013, with tennis star Andy Murray among the honorees. The Scottish athlete had his OBE upgraded to knighthood in 2017. He attended the investiture with his wife, Kim Sears.
Victoria Beckham was named an OBE (Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) in April 2017 for her career in the fashion industry.
Compliments To The Chef
Gordon Ramsay received his OBE from Queen Elizabeth in 2006, recognizing his contributions to the hospitality industry.
More than 30 years after receiving his MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), Paul McCartney was awarded the greater distinction of knighthood in 1997.
A mix of formal events and family gatherings, the holidays signal a jam-packed schedule for the royals. The festivities kick off on Christmas Eve at Sandringham Estate, as guests arrive in the afternoon and join the queen and Prince Philip for tea and snacks in the White Drawing Room. That evening, the family also exchange presents – just don’t expect anyone to be unwrapping the crown jewels. It’s been reported that the clan favor silly gag gifts. Following church service on Christmas morning, the royals return home to watch the queen’s Christmas message to the nation at 3 P.M. followed by an evening of puzzles, games and movie night in the ballroom. Royals – they’re almost like us.
Your Carriage Awaits!
The queen’s annual train ride from London to Sandringham has become a tradition in itself, with commuters keeping an eye out for the royal passenger come Christmastime. Occasionally joined by her husband, the monarch has a first-class car reserved to accommodate her security detail.
Residents of Englefield got their own dose of royal cheer in 2016 when Wills, Kate and their kids, forgoing tradition in order to spend the holiday with the Middletons, propped up at Christmas Day service at St. Mark’s Church.
Change Of Scenery
Kate and Wills had previously spent the holidays with her parents, Michael and Carole Middleton, when the duchess was pregnant with George in 2012.
Over the last decade, the royal brothers have traditionally taken part in an annual charity soccer match on Christmas Eve before they clean up for a black-tie dinner.
St. Mary Magdalene Church is just a short walk from Sandringham Estate. The church has been the site of many noble christenings, including Princess Diana’s in 1961 and her granddaughter Charlotte’s in 2015.
Locals watch the family parade to St. Mary Magdalene church at 8:30 A.M. for two services – one private, one public. In 1991 they had quite the turnout with Diana, William, Harry, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother and Princess Anne all in attendance.