Shoelace-Ironing and Corner-Free Sandwiches: The Weird Royal Traditions That Just Won’t Die
Two birthdays, a full time piper, and valets to iron your shoelaces? The British royal family is determined to maintain an extensive roster of arcane traditions.
In a few weeks time, London will be brought to a standstill as one of the most dramatic and colorful of royal ceremonies takes place: the Trooping of The Color, which sees the Queen process from Buckingham Palace down the Mall, to the accompaniment of much pomp and splendor.
The Trooping of the Color is held in June each year to celebrate the Monarch’s birthday.
But, hang on, I hear attentive readers say, weren’t there massive celebrations for the Queen’s 90th just a few short weeks ago at Windsor Castle?
Even the Queen can’t have two birthdays, can she?
Well, yes, she can.
The Queen’s belly button day may be 21 April, but her ‘official’ birthday is celebrated, by long tradition, on the second Saturday in June.
Better weather, you see.
And if that strikes you as an arcane custom, well, wait till you get a load of these…
A Piper Wakens The Queen
The Queen likes Scottish bagpipes, so rather than being woken up by “vertigo” on her iPhone like the rest of us, she has a piper who plays under her window each morning between 7am and 9am, depending on her location and schedule, to gently stir her magisterial brain into consciousness.
The formal role of ‘Piper To The Sovereign’ goes back to Queen Victoria’s reign. She first heard bagpipe music in 1842, when she and Prince Albert visited the Highlands for the first time, and decided that thenceforth she did not wish ever to be deprived of it. Pipers are serving non-commissioned officers, so, technically, members of the British army, of which the Queen is the titular head. While the Piper becomes a member of the Royal Household, he retains his military rank for the duration of the secondment.
The post has been held continuously since Victoria’s day, with the exception of the years of the Second World War when it was considered bad form to be hogging soldiers for alarm clocks.
Prince Charles isn’t so much a pipes man, but he retains a full time harpist.
Paying the Rent
One of the oldest royal rituals still in existence is the annual paying of the rent by the City of London Corporation, which has been required to shell out, since 1211, two knives (one dull and one sharp), six horseshoes and 61 nails.
The Dukes of Marlborough and Wellington also have to pay a form of rent for their country homes, which they were given by the Monarch to recognize their roles in winning the Battles of Blenheim and Waterloo.
Each duke still presents the queen with French flags for display at Windsor Castle every summer on the anniversary of each battle. Marlborough only gets a cup of tea, while Wellington is still entitled to a sumptuous banquet with the queen.
The relationship between Monarch and Parliament is friendly enough these days, but don’t forget the two were once on opposite sides in England’s bloody civil war.
Charles I was put on trial for treason by Parliament—and executed. As a result, when the Queen makes her annual visit to the house of representatives, certain precautions are put in place.
The houses are searched thoroughly to make sure Guy Fawkes’s latter day peers aren’t taking another crack at blowing her up, and a serving member of parliament—a ‘hostage’ is sent to the palace, and held there until the Queen is safely delivered from the clutches of Parliament.
One former hostage, Jim Fitzpatrick, recalled that he was offered a gin and tonic while watching the state opening on TV. “They didn’t lock me up, but I was assured I wasn’t going anywhere,” he told the BBC.
No corners on sandwiches
Sandwiches served to the royal family do not have right angle corners. This is believed to stem from a superstition of Queen Victoria’s husband Albert that it was unlucky to eat anything in the shape of a coffin. Finger sandwiches at Buckingham Palace garden parties have rounded corners.
The Ravens at the Tower Swear An Oath
Legend says that the kingdom will fall if the ravens (six of them) desert the Tower Of London.
Winston Churchill took this so seriously that during the Blitz, when the ravens’ numbers dwindled, he ordered more drafted in to restore the flock to its correct size.
Since the reign of Charles II, the ravens of the Tower have been fed a ration of ‘blood and biscuits’ and protected, against the wishes of Charles’s astronomer, John Flamsteed, who complained that the ravens impeded the business of his observatory in the White Tower.
The Ravens are tended by the Raven Master (who else?) and are officially enlisted as soldiers and have to take an ‘oath’ when they join the Tower of London (being incapable of speech, this oath comes in the form of an attestation card with an oath written on it. Their assent is assumed.)
Ravens can be dismissed, like soldiers, for poor conduct. Raven George, the Tower’s website says, “was dismissed for eating television aerials, and Raven Grog was last seen outside an East End pub.”
Toothpaste Squeezer in Chief
Prince Charles has never quite managed to live down the revelation that his personal valet, Michael Fawcett, used to squeeze his toothpaste onto his toothbrush for him.
Charles is definitely the most high-maintenance of the royals: he employs well over 100 staff including chefs, cooks, footmen, housemaids, gardeners, chauffeurs, cleaners, and not one, not two, but three personal valets whose sole responsibility is the care of their royal master’s extensive wardrobe.
According to author Brian Hooey, a serving soldier polishes the prince’s boots and shoes every day, and Charles’s valets iron the laces of his shoes whenever they are taken off.
Fancy a job working for him? It is still possible to obtain employment simply by turning up at the side door of Buckingham Palace, alongside the Queen’s gallery, and asking for a job. You won’t be turned away. Everyone is seen.
At Buckingham Palace banquets, potatoes and sprouts are measured before they are served to make sure they are of near identical dimensions and won’t spoil the appearance of the dinner plate.
Royal dinners with Charles are rounded off with cheese and biscuits, sourced from his Duchy of Cornwall estate. He likes his biscuits to be served at slightly warm, and the staff keep a warming pan ready just to bring them up to the perfect level before munching.
Dinner is always served at his private home, Highgrove, in the main dining room along formal lines—butlers and footmen behind each chair—if there are any guests present.
A side note: if you are invited to eat with The Queen, you are supposed to stop eating when Her Majesty is finished.
Don’t Turn Your Back
You never turn your back on the Queen: In the book, Elizabeth: Reigning in Style, author Jane Eastoe relates that the milliner Frederick Fox was told: “Don’t touch the Queen, don’t ask questions and don’t turn your back.”
This rule left Fox with a quandary: “The Queen was standing at the end of a long room…I advanced, did my chat and my thing. When it was time to depart I was rooted to the spot. I thought that if I walked backwards I would fall over the furniture of one of the corgis.
“Her Majesty spotted my dilemma and turned her back on me to ask Bobo [the Queen’s dresser] to fetch some specific shoes—giving me the opportunity to withdraw.”