It must be good to be Queen — well, most of the time, anyway. Queen Elizabeth II, who turns 91 today, is the English nation's longest-living monarch, and along with her famous corgis (whose names, I feel you should know, include Vulcan and Candy), she leads a pretty privileged existence, opening things and closing things and wearing excellent hats. Along with the office, however, come some slightly peculiar traditions, like the fact that while Elizabeth's chronological birthday is 91 today, she doesn't technically have her birthday until June. It's a long story.
Monarchs and leaders throughout the centuries have adopted pomp and ceremony for varying reasons: to demonstrate power to the populace, to create lasting bonds that link generations of monarchs together, and to make everybody involved look powerful and important. The British monarchy has its own fair share of bonkers traditions tied to its central figure, some dating from centuries ago (and frankly looking extremely strange in the modern age), and others developed much more recently.
The customs themselves are often fairly harmless things; for example, the fact that the Queen actually owns all the swans in the UK and requires a yearly count of the swans on the Thames is only really inconvenient to the swans. But they still present a look at just how strange England is.
British Monarchs Get Two Birthdays
Today is the Queen's birthday — her real one. And yes, we need to actually make that distinction, because the Queen is unique among the world's population in having two birthdays. Her "official" one is in June, and the reason isn't some excessive royal greediness for gifts; rather, it's due to elaborate royal ceremony and the vagaries of British weather.
The tradition of split official and real birthdays for English monarchs began in the time of King George II in the 1700s. The problem, as it were, was that British monarchs tend to celebrate their birthdays with massive military marches through the streets of London, known nowadays as Trooping The Color, with everybody from the army to the navy turning up in their finest regalia (and, in the case of the air force, doing a fly-over in fancy jets).
The difficulty, as you may know if you've ever been to England, is that the chances of a huge elaborate celebration being rained out are incredibly high outside the months of June to August (and, even then, the Beefeaters might get soggy). The royal household took the sensible step of having an "official birthday" scheduled in the summer (no matter when the monarch was actually born), where things were less likely to be ruined by famous British drizzle.
The Queen Gives Silver To Elderly People
Every year, the Queen is reminded of her precise age not only by the number of candles on her cake, but by the amount of pensioners lining up to get presents from her on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday. It's a slightly bonkers tradition known as the Maundy Money, and has been part of the English monarch's duties since the 1200s.
The old version of the ceremony apparently had monarchs washing the feet of the poor and elderly, which was both a symbol of humility and a potent medical action (the touch of the king or queen was believed, throughout the medieval period, to cure disease). At some point, though, somebody decided that money was probably more useful than foot washes, and monarchs started to hand out Maundy money to a group of elderly people, the number of whom reflected the king or queen's age. So, for example, in 2017, the Queen handed out Maundy money to 91 men and 91 women — though these, the recipients are not selected for their poverty, but for their community work.
The money itself is really elaborate, too. The Maundy recipients get two pouches — a red one filled with normal money, and a white one with specially made silver coins from the Royal Mint, adding up to the value of the Queen's present age. Technically speaking, the men and women this year got 91 pence in silver in their white pouches.
A Politician Is Held "Hostage" When The Queen Travels To Parliament
The opening of Parliament by the Queen happens every year, usually in the early summer, and is full of ridiculous pomp and ceremony, as is basically anything with a long history of royal involvement in the UK. (You get used to it.) But one tradition that continues to carry on is actually mildly malevolent: a ritual kidnapping (though these days it involves tea and biscuits, rather than anything too scary).
To ensure the Queen's safe and unharmed return when she travels from her residence to Parliament, the royal household ceremonially takes a member of Parliament — either a politician or somebody with an official role — hostage. They whisk them back to Buckingham Palace, and only release them once the Queen returns unharmed.
It was an ancient guarantee of safety, dating from periods in British history where it was entirely likely that somebody in Parliament may have wanted to assassinate a visiting monarch who'd popped in for the day. These days, the "hostage MP," as they're called, is treated with perfect courtesy and fed biscuits by Buckingham staffers, and probably feels a bit relieved that they don't have to go through all the rigmarole of the actual state opening.
To Select A Sheriff, The Queen Pricks Names With A Dagger
This one, hilariously enough, seems to have come from Elizabeth I and her resourcefulness (or laziness, depending on your perspective).
According to reports, she was required to create a list of High Sheriffs (a role that was once played by Robin Hood's legendary nemesis, the Sheriff of Nottingham). These days, High Sheriffs are basically ceremonial — but back in the day they were big deals, and Elizabeth I didn't have a lot of time to make her choices; indeed, she didn't even have time to put down her embroidery. Instead she used a bodkin, a long needle used for hole-punching for embroidering, to "prick" the names on the list she liked.
Instead of declaring that this was a good stopgap at the time but not a long-term solution, as sensible people might, the British monarchy instead decided that it's a good tradition to give the Queen a long pointed object every year and use it to prick the names of her chosen High Sheriffs.
To give the Queen credit, she's never stabbed anybody or herself with it, despite the fact that bodkins were also, in the Elizabethan era, a type of miniature dagger referenced by Shakespeare. But why not just let the woman use a pen?
No One Eats Until The Queen Eats
If you're ever asked to dine with the Queen, know that you'll be in trouble if she feels like eating rapidly or only picking at her plate. It is, technically, a horrible breach of etiquette to start eating before the Queen has— or to continue once she's stopped. It was a perfectly fine tradition in the days of George IV, who was known to adore eating and enjoy lengthy meals; but for monarchs with more miniature appetites or swifter eating speeds, it can make for hungry dinner guests.
Fortunately, Paul Burrell, who served both Elizabeth II and Princess Diana, told the press that the Queen does actually know how to deal with people who can't remember to follow the rules, as with a local prince in the South Pacific:
Royals Are Woken Up Each Morning By Bagpipes
This is either charming or horrendous, depending on your position on regular doses of bagpipes. No, I'm not being filthy. Queen Victoria visited Scotland in 1843 and apparently discovered that one of her hosts, the Marquess of Breadalbane, a fine military gentleman, was awoken every morning by a personal piper playing loudly on the bagpipes. She thought it was a wonderful idea, and ever since then, the royal household has been awoken at 9am every morning on the dot by a royally commissioned bagpiper, the Queen's Piper, playing underneath the royal window.
The best (and most cacophonous) thing about this entire affair is that the Queen Mother actually had a piper of her own as well. Up until her death in 2002, she commanded a piper to come play for 15 minutes three mornings a week in the gardens of Clarence House. Loud as the early hours are at the royal residences now, it must have been bonkers when the Queen Mum was still alive.