Today is a special day for we AngloFiles, as Queen Elizabeth becomes the longest-reigning monarch in British history (63 years and 7 months). Programs Director Jennie McCahey is our Foreign Correspondent for the day- she’s in the UK for this momentous occasion and reflects on the importance of the Queen and her own participation in a Royal ceremony this year.
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By Jennie McCahey
Just a week ago, as the summer drew to a close, I sat in NYC’s humid 93 degrees. But today I’m a world apart from that heat and haze, as I make my way through the UK and Ireland with a suitcase full of half-forgotten sweaters and long sleeve shirts. I always consider myself fortunate to be in the UK, but I’m especially grateful for today: after all, it’s September 9th, the day HM Queen Elizabeth II becomes the longest-reigning monarch in British history, surpassing her great-great grandmother Queen Victoria.
British newspapers and online reports are stuffed with documentaries and articles about her reign. Even Royal Collections has jumped into the fray with the debut of “Longest Reigning Monarch Commemorative China.” No public ceremonies for the Royal Household however; instead it’s business as usual with the royal diary reporting that The Queen will be opening the Scottish Borders Railway in Scotland.
I laugh when I hear slightly snarky comments from British friends about Americans’s fascination with the Royal Family and The Queen. But it’s true, despite our revolutionary spirit, Americans can be fascinated with royalty and titles, especially British. For me however, it is the living connection to a long history that holds my interest
Although I won’t be buying new tea towels or mugs next week, I am still thinking about a bit of British royal history I witnessed early this summer. I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the The Garter Ceremony on June 15th with a group from the College of Arms Foundation.
Annually celebrating The Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter, The Procession and The Service of Thanksgiving is held in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. The Order was founded by Edward III in 1348 and dedicated to St. George.It is the oldest British Order of Chivalry and its 24 members are chosen personally by the Sovereign. Annual Garter services were revived by King George VI in 1948—the 600th hundredth anniversary of the Order’s institution.
This year did not mark the investiture of new Knights or Ladies installed at the service, which fell coincidentally on the of day the 800th Anniversary of the sealing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede (a National Trust Property) near Windsor, so hordes of people were expected at Windsor after the morning celebrations (held early that morning so HM The Queen could host the traditional lunch for members of the Order and their spouses).
Our group first gathered at Waterloo Station—men in morning dress and ladies with hats—to set off to Cumberland Lodge, a vast former royal residence in Windsor Great Park, for a picnic lunch. Originally the official residence of the Ranger of Windsor Great Park, the 17th century house (rebuilt in the 19th century after a fire) is now an independent charity used for academic workshops and residential courses . The lawn was filled with our slightly jet-lagged group, officers of arms (commonly known as heralds) with guests, and members of the College of Arms Foundation. I ran into Royal Oak speaker, author and historian John Martin Robinson, who besides his archival duties for the Duke of Norfolk, is Maltravers Herald of Arms Extraordinary. After saying hello, he cheekily apologized for his “state of undress.” He yet wasn’t wearing his official tabard, richly embroidered with three royal arms over his scarlet court tunic. complete with knee breeches, black stockings and gold buckled shoes!
After lunch, the crowds in Windsor forced our taxis to drop us in town so we walked up to Windsor Castle. Thousands of people lined the streets outside and 7,000 were gathered inside the walls. After going through security, we walked to St. George’s Chapel before the Household Cavalry Band and the Mounted Regiment (along with the Band of Irish Guards) marched by. They took position in the Lower Ward near the King Henry VIII Gate. I stood at the door of the chapel to listen and I had to check my program to confirm that besides traditional marches, indeed I was hearing music from Star Wars—Symphonic Marches of John Williams. The Chapel seats filled quickly and the fantastic organ music had a backdrop of murmurs of conversation. I hadn’t been to Windsor since before the fire so I was busy looking at the ceiling and decoration.
Suddenly the sound of marching boots could be heard as the Honourable Corps of Gentleman at Arms rhythmically marched down the side aisles and up the center of the nave. One could hear a pin drop as they passed by with long swan feather plumes swinging from their helmets. Minutes later I had goosebumps when the Yeomen of the Guard slowly marched in, dressed in Tudor-style red and gold uniforms to take their posts along the aisle holding 6-foot halberds complete with axe. Loud cheering could be heard outside for the procession of the Knights and Ladies who were gathering at the West Door of St. George’s Chapel. More goosebumps as Trumpeters from the Life Guards played a fanfare to announce the arrival of Her Majesty at the Door. Sacristans, Choristers, Clergy, Canons and Cross Bearers passed me followed by The Military Knights of Windsor and The Officers of Arms—including Herald John Martin Robinson finally fully dressed in his tabard and carrying a white stave topped by a blue dove in a golden coronet. It was a sea of figures in scarlet cloth, lavish embroidery, gold braid and ceremonial swords walking to the Quire (Choir), which is screened off from the nave.
I was fortunate to be second row with ladies wearing short hats seated in front, but I still had to crane my head a bit around the tall Yeoman protecting the route. As an organ voluntary was played, The Knights and Ladies of the Garter processed in wearing the dark blue velvet hats and robes and the Collar of the Order with the suspended emblem of St. George and the dragon. They were followed by robed members of the Royal Family starting with HRH Princess Alexandra. HRH The Duke of York walked next to HRH The Earl of Wessex while HRH The Prince of Wales marched next to his son HRH The Duke of Cambridge. As they processed into the Quire, they were followed by various officers of The Order. Finally the Sovereign, accompanied by HRH The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, walked down the nave and took their appointed places in the stalls.
The National Anthem started the service and yes, I sang. Our program admonished that it should be “sung by all present.” Besides praying and giving thanks for King Edward and the foundation of Most Noble Order, the Knights and Companions, and the Sovereign, all promised to fight the wrong and uphold true chivalry.
I admit I got teary eyed toward the end. The sense of history and honor was palpable. Carious religious services around the world pray in some fashion for leaders, both elected and inherited. But praying to grant HM Queen Elizabeth and the Knights—who had just walked by is only 9 feet away— “to abound in every good work….and to the Most Noble to give virtue and grace” for the Commonwealth to be well-served was a moving experience. Protecting and praying for The Queen’s life and her job, both one and the same.
After the service, the participants marched out in reverse order, although the Knights were now accompanied by their spouses and members of the Royal Family (not members of the Order). They walked a little more slowly this time, which gave me the chance to stare and appreciate things like dresses and hats (because of course I was dying to see) and to marvel at how HRH the Duke of Cambridge’s is very tall. What I noticed most however was that HM The Queen was beaming and her delighted smile could light a room. It only grew deeper as she passed out of the Chapel to the cheering crowds.
As the chapel emptied I walked up to the Quire to see the ceremonial gold plate which is displayed on the altar only a few times a year. Outside I stopped to speak to one of the Trumpeters in Court Dress to ask her about the flag hanging from the trumpet embroidered with the royal arms. She had me hold her trumpet and ceremonial sword. They were gorgeous and heavy. I also asked if there were other female band members and one of her colleagues told me that that afternoon was the first time a female trumpeter had marched at Windsor!
How did I follow all of that pomp and ceremony? We went to the Chapter Library and Vicars Hall for a cream tea hosted by the Foundation of St. George. Tea was followed by the annual College of Arms Bullicorn party hosted by the Heralds at The Ranger’s Lodge in the Great Park. The titular Ranger of the Great Park is HRH The Duke of Edinburgh who obviously lives elsewhere, so the Deputy Ranger of the Windsor’s home is surrounded by wonderful lawns, walks, and gardens with a fabulous view of the Round Tower at the Castle. It was delightful to spend a few hours meeting members of the College of Arms as well as Friends of St. George, a fewRoyal Oak members, and the members of the College of Arms Foundation. A few familiar faces and plenty of new friends. St. Georges aplenty but no dragons! Hours later conversation with the newer Heralds turned to who had the nicest court shoe buckles. I think York Herald won with his rhinestones.
We made it back to London around 9:30 pm while the sun was still waning in the summer sky. Reservations certainly weren’t necessary when we showed up at a chic restaurant dressed up with men in top hats. We rounded off the day with a late dinner of hamburgers and truffle fries with champagne until after midnight. I have to admit my flight the next day back to the U.S. was a bit of a let-down after such a wonderful day. Rather like the day after Christmas.
But I am so thankful to my friends that I was invited and had the opportunity to go. For someone who has an inner Brit-geek, it was truly magical. And it wasn’t because it was British or royal, but because it was a moment of history; unique and unforgettable.
Despite my American patriotism and our country’s brave history, and not to dishonor Queen Victoria, on Wednesday I shall raise a glass to Her Majesty. The Queen said almost 70 years ago that to accomplish great things people must give nothing less than the whole of themselves. She also bravely promised to dedicate her whole life to the service of her people. I hope she has years still to come.
Celebrate the Queen Elizabeth, royal history, and all things Anglophile at Royal Oak lectures. Learn more about our upcoming program season and book today! Learn more