Queen marks official birthday with new event away from public eye

13 June 2020, 09:30

The Queen will celebrate her birthday away from the public eye due to the coronavirus pandemic
The Queen will celebrate her birthday away from the public eye due to the coronavirus pandemic. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

The Queen has marked her official birthday with a new military ceremony away from the public eye due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It is Her Majesty's first official outside event since the start of the "devastating" Covid-19 outbreak and only the second time in her 68-year reign that the Trooping the Colour has not gone ahead.

Windsor Castle hosted a brief but poignant ceremonial tribute from the military - executed with precision despite social distancing.

Soldiers from the Welsh Guards, who a few weeks ago were manning Covid-19 test centres, staged the unique event in the grounds of Windsor Castle, as the head of state made her first official public appearance since the lockdown was imposed.

The traditional Trooping the Colour ceremony, which normally features hundreds of servicemen and women and thousands of spectators, was ruled out because of the threat of coronavirus.

But the Household Division - made up of the British's Army's most prestigious regiments - has a close affinity with the Queen and was keen to mark the milestone with a ceremony dubbed mini-Trooping.

The work of the soldiers appeared to impress the Queen as she was pictured smiling broadly as they successfully completed a 180-degree manoeuvre, while adhering to social distancing rules.

The event also made history as Guardsman Rhian Morgan, from Newport, South Wales, became the first woman to appear on parade for the Queen's official birthday.

Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her actual 94th birthday on 21 April, but the occasion is officially marked on the second Saturday of June each year with a grand military parade.

The Trooping the Colour on 14 June 2008
The Trooping the Colour on 14 June 2008. Picture: PA

Major General Christopher Ghika, whose men paid tribute to the Queen on Saturday, said the event offers a "unique opportunity" to commemorate the monarch's milestone.

The senior army officer, who commands the Household Division and all military support for London's civil response to coronavirus, said: "The circumstances of the requirement to perform the birthday tribute at Windsor Castle this year are clouded in tragedy.

"The effects of Covid-19 have been devastating in terms of loss of life and the threatening of livelihoods of so many across the country.

"People have had to endure separation from loved ones, great uncertainty and the suspension of so much of what is special about our national life."

Lance Corporal Chusa Siwale, 29, originally from Zambia, had a central role in the ceremony which was created by Garrison Sergeant Major Warrant Officer Class 1 Andrew Stokes.

The military musician, who is also a fighting soldier, said it was a "huge privilege" to be given the key role performing the Drummer's Call during a "very difficult" time for the country.

He said: "Only four weeks ago I was involved with testing key workers for Covid-19 as part of the Welsh Guards' contribution to the battle against the virus; now I am on parade performing in front of Her Majesty. "This is a very proud day for me."

As the Queen arrived in Windsor Castle's quadrangle the ceremony began when she took her place on a dais and the royal salute was given by the troops and the national anthem was played.

An event like this marking the sovereign's birthday has not been staged at Windsor since 1895, when a ceremony was held in honour of Queen Victoria. Normally guardsmen stand shoulder-to-shoulder during drills or when formed up on the parade ground, allowing them to maintain "dressing" - staying in line with one another.

But in keeping with Covid-19 guidelines, they stood 2.2 metres apart, measured by three turns of the garrison sergeant major's pace stick.

On parade in front of the head of state were 18 servicemen and women from the 1st Battalion Welsh Guards and a small group of officers commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Llewelyn-Usher.

All observed the social distancing rules and their numbers were swelled by about 50 military musicians from the Massed Band of the Household Division and other senior military figures.

After the royal salute, the massed bands trooped in front of the monarch first in slow then quick time and performed a new drill known as "feathering" to ensure social distancing.

The military musicians fanned out as they turned around to march back the way they came, but respected the Covid-19 restrictions and created a shape similar to the Prince of Wales's feathers when viewed from above.

The Garrison Sergeant Major said ahead of the event: "With fewer people on parade there is no hiding place, there never is, and only the highest standard is acceptable.

"But more spacing between individuals means that there is also no room for errors and so the soldier has to really concentrate on their own personal drill, reaction to orders, dressing and social distancing."

L/Cpl Siwale's hypnotic drumming signalled the moment when the Welsh Guards' colour - or military banner - was trooped, or marched, past the soldiers carried by the Ensign Lieutenant Billy Richardson.

Flanked by Vice Admiral Tony Johnstone-Burt, master of her royal household, and Lieutenant Colonel Michael Vernon, the Comptroller, the Queen watched as the colour was carried by the Ensign.

On the warm summer's day she wore a Stewart Parvin outfit in muted jade, a Rachel Trevor-Morgan hat and the brooch of the Welsh Guards - a diamond leek.

Guardsman Morgan is one of two female Guardsmen who joined the Welsh Guards earlier this year and although she became the first woman to appear on parade for the Queen's birthday, she has already been assigned to duties as Queen's Guard at royal palaces.

After the troops and the Massed Band of the Household Division marched off, the Queen left and could be seen talking animatedly with hand gestures to the senior members of her household.

Servicemen from the Household Division - which includes the Welsh Guards - have been formed into a Covid Support Force, with the soldiers carrying out coronavirus tests at regional and mobile sites.

Maj Gen Ghika said: "The Welsh Guards and many of those on parade have recently been deployed within the United Kingdom as part of the nation's response to the virus and so the context of the ceremony is particularly poignant."