Royal Functions: Garden Parties, Court Presentations
The Royal Garden Party Season is fast approaching, and as I have attended two such events, I wonder if anyone would like a bit of background information?
Usually, each year the Queen holds 3 Garden Parties at Buckingham Palace and one in Scotland at the Palace of Holyroodhouse. However, she occasionally hosts an extra party if there is a particular occasion to commemorate: for example, an extra party was held in 1997, the year of the Queen’s golden wedding, when she entertained other couples who were also celebrating 50 years of marriage. Alternatively, the Queen may host an extra Garden Party if an organisation with which she is connected is celebrating a particular anniversary.
Buckingham Palace Garden Parties are hosted by the Queen on Tuesdays / Thursdays in July. They are held in the Gardens at Buckingham Palace, and in June, the longest tent that you can imagine is erected down one side of the garden. This is in fact the ‘general’ tea tent, which houses long tables on which the self-service tea is laid out. Two smaller tents are also erected: the Diplomatic Tent, for Guests from the Diplomatic Service and also the Royal Tea Tent [complete with a crown on top and very well guarded!] No surprises who eats there – it is for the Queen and Prince Philip and those other members of the BRF who are on ‘Garden Party Duty’. At each party, there will be around 9,000 guests!
So far as invitations go, the form is different for her British subjects and guests from overseas. Dealing first with British Guests, you cannot apply to attend, as the rule is that you have to be invited! ‘Invitations’ are sent out each year to people who have done something meritorious. BP gets to hear of such endeavours because nominations are made by Lord Lieutenants of the various counties, charities and other nationally important organizations, the Armed Forces, the Civil Service etc. You will have noticed that I put quotation marks round ‘Invitations’; this is because the ‘invitation’ is actually a command issued by the Lord Chamberlin. This command is actually issued on very stiff card, and a team of ladies working in Buckingham Palace [and known at the Garden Party team or the Garden Party Ladies] handwrite each ‘Command’. The Commands are sent out in May each year, although in practice you will probably have been informed as early as March that your name is being submitted by the particular charity / Lord Lieutenant etc concerned. The rules are different if you are from Overseas! Foreign Nationals can apply to their country’s London Ambassador/ High Commissioner to be included on the Embassy / High Commission Invitation List. Places are highly sought-after though, and it is likely that your own Embassy/High Commission list will be oversubscribed.
Although the general rule is that people can only attend a party ONCE in their lifetimes, in practice it is possible to attend more frequently. Diplomats and Embassy staff may well attend from year to year. Your humble Diarist also managed two visits: the first of these – when I attended with my parents - was because of a practice that has now been discontinued: up until several years ago, Guests were also permitted to bring their unmarried daughters under the age of 25. This was a throwback to the days of the Debutante; although presentation parties had long since ceased [they ended in 1958] the practice of being able to take your unmarried daughters continued for several decades afterwards. And please note that the practice was limited to unmarried daughters: tough if you an unmarried son! Which was pretty hard luck on my brothers! My second visit was actually made in my own right. And now that the ‘unmarried daughter’ rule has ended, anyone now invited to a Garden Party can take their spouse / partner or just a friend.
With the invitation comes details of everything you need to know, including dress rules. [Male] Guests are requested to wear either Morning Dress, Service Uniform, Lounge Suit or National Dress; Ladies generally wear their interpretation of formal attire. Hats are not compulsory, but so far as I could see, practically everyone wore them. I saw no trouser suits. Cameras are forbidden. You are also requested to take a passport and another form of identification.
BP Garden Parties take place from 4pm to 6pm, although people are admitted from 3pm. There is a very large queue of people outside BP from about 2pm though. If you intend to drive, you can usually park your car in the Mall; a special sticker is included, which you place in your windscreen. This MIGHT make you feel important, but believe you me, once you get within about 5 miles of Central London on a Garden Party day, practically every car seems to be displaying such a sticker!
As you join the HUGE queue outside BP, your ID will be checked by one of the numerous police officers on duty. And you don’t present your Command; you will actually have been issued with Admission Cards. And when I went with my parents I was lucky; we did not have to join the main queue, because we were allowed to enter by the Entree gate, well to the left of the main queue. This was because some years previously, my family had been ‘given the Entree’ [as it was known], which was a lifelong honour. When I went in my own right, I just had to queue!
When you are part of the main queue, you walk across the forecourt in front of BP, enter the building, exit through the interior courtyard that lies behind the front facade of the BP and up the front steps again and exit the doors down onto the terrace and finally down the steps and into the garden. There are two military bands playing and the Yeoman of The Guard in their scarlet and gold uniforms are on duty. Guests often erroneously refer to these gentlemen as ‘Beefeaters’, because their uniform is superficially the same. However, as members of TRF will know, this is entirely incorrect. The ‘Beefeaters’ are wardens, the Yeomen are Her Majesty’s guards.
Once into the gardens, you can either admire the borders and the lake etc OR you can make a beeline for the tea tent! The queues for refreshments are enormous. Contrary to what people believe, the catering for the ordinary guests is NOT done by BP, but by an outside caterer. The crockery and knives and spoons etc are also the property of the caterers, not BP. Once in the Tea Tent, you are given a clever rectangular ‘all in one’ plate with a recess for your tea cup. Garden Party fare consists of very small crust-less sandwiches, mini éclairs, teeny tiny slices of Victoria sponge cakes, and little chocolate ganache cakes, with darling little crowns on top! It is bad form to take too much food, and indeed the size of the plate prevents this (but I did see that some people were pretty ‘clever’ about stacking their plates very well] although people often go back for second helpings. Alcohol is NOT served; instead there is tea [a special ‘garden party’ blend, iced tea and lemonade. Catering staff help serve the refreshments, but really it is a ‘help yourself’ buffet! Tables and Chairs are set up over part of the lawn. If ‘nature’ calls, very superior portable loos are the order of the day.
At 4pm, the National Anthem is played and the Queen and the DofE appear at the top of the steps, together with the other members of the Royal Family who may be ‘on duty’ that day. The Queen however will already have inspected the arrangements for her guests in the morning, whilst the caterers are setting up in the General tea tent. The Royal Family members slowly make their way towards the Royal Tea Tent, through the throng of Guests who surge forward into groups – sometimes 10 or 12 people deep, in lanes that surround the Royal Family. Gentlemen Ushers, who are members of the Royal Household, do approach likely looking guests and place them in the ‘spaces’ in the lanes where the Royal Family members are walking. These are the people who will be presented to the Royal Family. If chosen though, you do have to wait in the ‘space’ for up to an hour, in which case you won’t manage to get at the refreshments! Take your choice – if you feel hungry, hit the tea tent and don’t surge forward and run the risk of being selected to meet one of the Royals!! Meanwhile, the bands play the sort of light music that you hear at investitures. It takes about an hour for the Royal Family to get to the Royal tea tent, where VVIP guests will be there to meet them. Some of the ordinary guests tend to surround the Royal Tea Tent for a better look at the Queen. Actually, it is all a bit odd if you think about it – because of the numbers involved, you probably won’t meet your hostess, and indeed, you might not even see her the entire afternoon if you are at the back of a 12-deep queue!
I have to say that people’s behaviour is not always that good – I was very surprised to see that despite the ‘no-cameras rule’ people were whipping out their mobile phones and taking pictures! Of course, when I went with my parents, cell phones had not been invented; but all the same, I do think people were more respectful in those days. In fact, a couple of years ago, a terrible thing happened – the weather was terrible, the rain suddenly turned into a raging storm and so the Queen very kindly invited some of the Ordinary Guests standing ‘spectati ng’ outside the Royal Tent to actually come inside and join members of the RF and the VVIPs. Later, to everyone’s horror, it was discovered that various items of the Queen’s personal china and cutlery had been taken from her tent – the Caterers’ equipment is NOT used in the Royal Tea Tent!
And then suddenly it is 6pm and it is all over! The Royal Family suddenly exit the Royal Tea Tent, and return to the Palace and the National Anthem is played once more. This is the signal to leave, and people now surge back to the Palace again, up the stairs and into the drawing room. I noticed that when I attended the Garden Party in my own right, people seemed to be reluctant to leave and were spending time looking at the pictures and displays, which I think is again not really correct behaviour. And then it is out into the Mall again to collect your car and fight the rush-hour traffic back home! ‘Thank you’ letters are NOT necessary. In theory! This is because the Queen reads any that her guests send! Which I think means most of us will swiftly put pen to paper on our return home!
For the sake of completeness, I should mention that in addition to the Royal Garden Parties at BP, the Queen also lets organisations of which she is connected with, [usually Charities of which she –or another royal family member is a patron] use the tents for their own garden parties. Attendances at such parties are very much smaller – around 2000 guests maximum. Typical ‘hosts’ are armed forces charities, for example. These organisations pay for the privilege of ‘hiring’ the garden party facilities. This is all part of the ‘cost-effective’ economy drives introduced by the Palace Accountants – since the tents are up, why not rent them out?!! And it is worth pointed out that at such parties, members of the Royal Family will probably be present – usually the ‘Royal’ who is patron of the organisation concerned.
So there you have it! If you fancy attending next year, either ‘step up the good works and shout about it’ so that your local Lord Lieutenant knows all about you, or if you are from Overseas, contact your London Embassy / High Commission and ask about arrangements for applying in 2012. It’s Jubilee Year after all!
I hope some of this is of interest to people.
It's of interest to me- thank you so much!
It's really a shame the court presentations for debutantes were discontinued (there was a fascinating exhibit about this at Kensington Palace last year) but I understand why they were, it was becoming both excessive and corrupt.
Yet it's nice that they still do something of this nature.
Alex, this was extremely informative. Thank you for sharing.
Thanks Alex :flowers:
I enjoy reading your posts :smile:
Thank You Alex,
This is very informative and in depth too!!
I'm glad you were able to attend twice and had a good time.
I'm planning to be in London for most of June 2012 for the Diamond Jubilee Celebrations.
I plan to also attend the Trooping and the Garter Ceremony and Royal Ascot too!!
So, I am going to contact my High Commissioner for Canada and try to get on a Garden Party list.
Thank you everyone for your comments. I am pleased people found what I said interresting. I do think that I have been very fortunate and privileged to have had the opportunity of visiting BP in this way.
Larry - good luck! I would suggest that you make preliminary contact with your Hight Commission now, asking about the dates and arrangements for next year. I expect you will be told to apply around Feb. March next year. The High Commisioner usually gives you a choice of attending one of 3 events [i.e. he puts you 'on the list' for either Trooping the Colour, the Royal Enclosure at Royal Ascot, or a Garden Party]. If given the choice, I would apply to the HC for the Garden Party - you can take part in the public ballot for Trooping the Colour and as for Royal Ascot, I think that you would be just as well off for 'Royal Spotting' if you buy an 'ordinary ticket' for the 'Grandstand and Paddock Enclosure', where you will have the opportunity to be 2ft away from the Royal Carriage procession. Hope this helps, or PM me for more information. Have fun.
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