Trooping the Colour: Why does the Queen mark two birthdays?

·Royal Correspondent
·6-min read
LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 08: Queen Elizabeth II during Trooping The Colour, the Queen's annual birthday parade, on June 8, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images)
The Queen celebrates two birthdays each year. (Getty Images)

The Queen is set to celebrate her 'official' birthday on Saturday as she holds the second socially distanced Trooping the Colour at Windsor Castle. 

In a tradition that's been held for hundreds of years, British kings and queens have had two birthdays - an official, or ceremonial birthday, and their real birthday. 

The official birthday, which features a parade called Trooping the Colour, is held in June, and dates back to George II.

For the Queen, it's an important fixture on her annual calendar, and one she has been keen to have despite coronavirus restrictions. 

The monarch's official birthday

The practice of an official birthday for the monarch dates back 260 years, when George II repurposed the traditional Trooping the Colour for his own celebration.

George II’s actual birthday was in November, and the monarch was fed up with terrible British weather putting a dampener on any plans.

So he decided to combine his birthday with the Trooping the Colour, a military procession which was held every year and already a fixture of the British calendar.

Queen Elizabeth II’s father, King George VI, had his official birthday on the second Thursday in June, and the Queen adopted this for a few years after she acceded.

LONDON, June 8, 2019 -- Britain's Queen Elizabeth II C and her family members are seen on the balcony of Buckingham Palace during the Trooping the Colour ceremony to mark her 93rd birthday in London, Britain, on June 8, 2019. Queen Elizabeth celebrated her official 93rd birthday in London Saturday, with a family gathering on the balcony at Buckingham Palace. (Xinhua/Ray Tang) (Xinhua/Ray Tang via Getty Images)
Trooping the Colour normally sees the Royal Family gather on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to watch a flypast. (Getty Images)

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But in 1959, she decided to change it to the second Saturday in June.

It just so happens that her official birthday isn’t too far away from her coronation day, but the two aren’t linked.

What is Trooping the Colour?

Trooping the Colour involves more than 1,400 parading soldiers, 200 horses and 400 musicians, who perform with military precision.

The parade moves between Buckingham Palace, The Mall and Horseguards’ Parade.

It’s also the time of year we get the famous balcony pictures as all the Royal Family waves to the crowds and watches the RAF flypast, which marks the end of the event.

The Queen used to ride on horseback with the parade to carry out the inspection but now arrives by carriage.

She is greeted by a royal salute and carries out an inspection of the troops, operational soldiers wearing their ceremonial uniform of red tunics and bearskin hats.

After the bands have performed, the Regimental Colour, or flag, is processed, or trooped, down the line of soldiers. 

LONDON, UNITED KINGDOM - JUNE 10:  Queen Elizabeth II taking part in Trooping the Colour parade.  (Photo by Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)
The Queen taking part in Trooping the Colour parade. (Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty Images)

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The Household Division’s website explains: “Regimental flags of the British Army were historically described as ‘Colours’ because they displayed the uniform Colours and insignia worn by the soldiers of different units.

“If Troops were to know what their Regiment’s Colours looked like, it was necessary to display them regularly.

“The way in which this was done was for young officers to march in between the ranks of troops formed up in lines with the Colours held high.

“This is the origin of the word ‘trooping’.”

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 08: (L-R) Albert Windsor, Britain's Prince William, Duke of Cambridge holding Prince Louis, Prince George, Princess Charlotte, Britain's Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Britain's Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Vice Admiral Timothy Laurence, Britain's Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, Britain's Princess Beatrice of York, Britain's Princess Anne, Princess Royal,, Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, Britain's Princess Eugenie of York, Britain's Lady Louise Windsor, Britain's Prince Andrew, Duke of York,, Britain's Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, Britain's Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, Isla Phillips, James, Viscount Severn, Savannah Phillips, Peter Phillips, Autumn Phillips, Lyla Gilman, Eloise Taylor and Britain's Lady Helen Taylor stand with other members of the Royal Family on the balcony of Buckingham Palace to watch a fly-past of aircraft by the Royal Air Force during Trooping The Colour, the Queen's annual birthday parade, on June 08, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
The whole royal family joins the Queen on the balcony of Buckingham Palace as they did here in 2019. (Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 25: Soldiers and Musicians rehearse at the Major General's Review on May 25, 2019 in London, England.  The Major General's Review is the first of two rehearsals ahead of Trooping The Colour which will take place on Saturday June 08, 2019. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images)
Soldiers and Musicians rehearse at the Major General's Review ahead of Trooping The Colour 2019. (Tristan Fewings/Getty Images)

In 2020 and 2021, the ceremony has been downsized to match the coronavirus restrictions in place.

In 2020, the Queen viewed a small ceremony at the Quadrangle of Windsor Castle. She did not have any family members with her, just a couple of her aides.

Soldiers from the Welsh Guards and musicians from the Massed Band of the Household Division marched from the parade area, outside the Chapel, to the quadrangle.

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While the parade was meticulously planned to ensure there were no places for the public to gather and watch, castle staff could be spotted peering out of windows to watch.

The Queen’s real birthday

Elizabeth II was born on 21 April 1926, the oldest daughter of the Duke and Duchess of York, who became King George VI and Queen Elizabeth when her uncle abdicated the throne.

WINDSOR, ENGLAND - APRIL 21: Queen Elizabeth II attends Easter Sunday service at St George's Chapel on April 21, 2019 in Windsor, England. (Photo by Mark Cuthbert/UK Press via Getty Images)
The Queen is often in Windsor on or just before her birthday. (Getty Images)

In 2020 and 2021 the Queen has been in Windsor for her birthday. She is often in Windsor at this time of year for Easter Court but in the two years of coronavirus restrictions, there have been fewer official elements of this period in the royal calendar.

She reportedly spent her 94th birthday in 2020 video calling her family members. Her 95th birthday was spent in mourning, as it came just four days after the funeral of Prince Philip.

Her birthday has been marked privately for several years, and 2021 will see no official confirmation of any activities. It was reported she had a quiet lunch with family. 

Members of the Honourable Artillery Company take part in a 62 gun ceremonial salute to mark the 93rd birthday of Britain's Queen Elizabeth, at the Tower of London, with Tower Bridge seen behind, in London, Britain, April 22, 2019.  REUTERS/Toby Melville
A 62 gun salute takes place at the Tower of London for the Queen's birthday. (Reuters)

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One of the biggest parts of the Queen’s birthday celebration is usually a series of gun salutes in three places.

In London, a 41 gun salute is performed in Hyde Park, and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London.

Closer to her Berkshire home, a 21 gun salute is normally held at Windsor Great Park.

A basic gun salute is 21 guns, and 20 are added if the salute takes place in a royal park, which is why it’s 41 guns in Hyde Park. 

They are traditionally fired at 10 second intervals by the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery, a mounted ceremonial battery.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 08: Trooping The Colour, the Queen's annual birthday parade, on June 08, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
Trooping the Colour marks the official birthday of the monarch. (Getty Images)

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The Queen also gets gun salutes for her official birthday and her coronation day. They’re also fired for various events like royal births or for heads of state visiting.

There were no gun salutes in 2020 or the first part of 2021 due to the pandemic. They were reinstated after the death of Prince Philip on 9 April, but there were none for the Queen's real birthday.

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