Of the many ceremonial traditions that make up public life, among the most important to the Queen herself are those associated with the Order of the Garter, a chivalric body of twelve ‘knights’ founded by Edward III in 1348, to reward knights who had fought with him at the battle of Crécy.
The Order comprises only the closest confidants of the Queen, and on Garter Day in June, these hand-picked favorites descend on Windsor, where they process from the main castle to St George’s Chapel.
It’s a wonderful ceremonial set piece evoking all the mystery and absurdity of British pomp and circumstance; they wear long dark blue velvet robes, lined with white silk and tied with long, hanging gold cords, draped with a red velvet hood, and festooned with white silk bows on their shoulders. The accessories: a heavy gold and enameled chain over their shoulders, and black velvet hats, festooned with fluttering white ostrich feathers.
After the service, when any new members are ‘installed’ and shown to their allocated place in the Chapel, they are driven back up the hill for a formal feast.
This year however, the ceremony has been abruptly cancelled, as Garter Day falls on the 19 June--the same day that Parliament is due to re-open after the General Election called for June 8 by Prime Minister Theresa May, who is expected to win in a landslide.
In itself, this would be no cause for alarm, simply an unavoidable clash of commitments. However, conspiracy theorists, who continue to doubt the Queen is in the full flush of health after an extended ‘heavy cold’ saw her housebound for several weeks over Christmas, have been quick to pounce on another newsflash released by the Palace yesterday stating that the Queen will perform the state opening of Parliament in ‘day dress’, rather than her full ceremonial ermines.
The Palace also announced yesterday that, as well as shunning her gown, the Queen would not wear her crown--a famously heavy piece of headgear which clocks in at 2.5 lbs--and would be driven in a car to the Palace of Westminster rather than taking a jolty carriage ride down the Mall.
The Queen's procession to the Chamber of the House of Lords, where she takes the throne and delivers her speech, will also be reduced, with no heralds present.
It is expected that she will use the lift at the House of Lords rather than the stairs, as she did for the first time last year.
At 91, few would blame the Queen for seeking to scale back such a tiring ceremonial process, but the Palace have been quick to deny that any such motivation is to blame for the changes.
Instead, they say, it is simply a result of the fact that the Trooping of The Color—the big ceremonial set piece which marks the Queen’s official birthday—is taking place just two days before the opening of Parliament, and there is not enough ceremonial bandwidth to do both jobs properly.
Penny Junor, the royal biographer who has recently completed an eagerly awaited biography of Camilla Parker Bowles due for publication later this year, told the Daily Beast that she thinks there could be “truth in both explanations. Three major ceremonial events so close together would, I guess, seriously stretch resources. But it would also be exhausting.
“They are all pretty full-on for the Queen. Carriages are notoriously uncomfortable to ride in, and the crown weighs a ton. I imagine the gown the she wears for the state opening is very heavy too. I would think this is a nod to her age and a way of making it less strenuous for her. Her stamina is extraordinary as is her determination to keep working, but she has just turned 91.”
Another source suggested that the Queen may be eager to avoid a “triumphalist” State Opening if it is the “expected coronation for Queen Theresa.”
However, Richard Palmer, royal correspondent at the Express, says that there is “no real reason to doubt the palace to be frank,” especially given assurances that “the Queen will be wearing the crown and other regalia at the state opening after this one. The Queen would have been far more upset to have missed Royal Ascot,” says Palmer, noting that the famous race meeting opens on June 16.
Indeed, when the Queen announces she is missing the racing, that will really be a cause for concern.