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Changing the Guards at Buckingham Palace

6 longest-running daily ceremonies and traditions in Britain

Image: The Royal Guards parade at Buckingham Palace | longtaildog /

Britain is a country known the world over for its ancient customs and ceremonies, with grand spectacles such as the State Opening of Parliament and royal coronations still providing a fascinating link to our past. Some of Britain’s many public ceremonies happen every single day – and, amazingly, some have been going since the medieval period.

Here we look at six of Britain’s longest-running daily public ceremonies.

1. The Ripon Hornblower (Since AD 886)

Probably the oldest daily ceremony in Britain that is still going on is the blowing of the horn at Ripon, North Yorkshire. In this ancient cathedral city, every single night at 9pm, an official hornblower sounds their instrument at each corner of the Market Square’s obelisk. This is then followed by the hornblower’s customary walk to the mayor’s house to inform them that the night’s watch has been set.

It is claimed that this ritual has been going on every day for over a thousand years, since the time of King Alfred. Alfred is said to have gifted Ripon a horn when he gave the city a royal charter in 886.

From this time, an official known as a wakeman would carry out a patrol of the city’s streets at night, blowing his horn to signify the start of his shift, and reminding the residents of the sound they’d hear in the event of an enemy attack.

2. Berwick Curfew (Since the 11th century)

For hundreds of years all over Britain, it was customary for the bells of a church or cathedral to ring out in the evening to remind local people that nighttime had arrived. The idea of this warning was to encourage anyone still out to go home, and to advise those at home to put out their fires and go to bed. These bells were known as curfews.

Amazingly, some of these ancient daily curfew bells continue to sound out, though the people living in earshot of them no longer take it as a message to go to bed.

Perhaps the oldest that is still going on is in Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland. It is said that the Berwick curfew bell has been rung every day at 8pm since the time of King William I, who ruled from 1066 to 1087.

3. The Bainbridge Hornblower (Since the 12th century)

In a small glass case on the wall of the Rose and Crown pub in Bainbridge, in the heart of the Yorkshire Dales, is the ‘Bainbridge Forest Horn’.

Proper records for the Bainbridge horn only date to 1823, but various sources suggest that this daily custom, from 28th September to Shrove Tuesday, is much more ancient. A poem composed in 1864 for the inauguration of the ‘New Horn at Bainbridge’ describes how the horn was blown every night at 10pm during that darker part of the year, to ‘draw the wanderers home’ from the Forest of Wensleydale, when ‘in ancient times forests were wild’.

The poem says that this custom has been going for ‘seven hundred years’, dating its origins to the 12th century.

4. The Ceremony of the Keys (Since 1340)

The Ceremony of the Keys, said to be the oldest ongoing military ceremony in the world, has been performed every single night at the Tower of London since the 14th century. It has never failed to happen – and has only once been delayed on 29th December 1940.

It is believed to have started in 1340 when King Edward III walked into the Tower one night and was not challenged. Enraged by this lax security, he ordered Tower officials to draw up stringent daily procedures for keeping the site locked. And so, the Ceremony of the Keys was born.

Every night, at exactly 9:53pm, the Chief Yeoman Warder locks the outer gates of the Tower and proceeds to the inner parts with the venerated keys.

A sentry at the Bloody Tower then calls out to the approaching warder, ‘Halt! Who comes there?’ and the dialogue continues:

‘The keys.'

‘Whose keys?’

‘King Charles’s keys.'

The guard then lets him in saying, 'Pass, King Charles keys, and all's well'. Before the Chief Yeoman Warder takes the keys to the safety of the King’s House, they loudly declare, 'God preserve King Charles', and everyone present says ‘Amen’. The ceremony ends with the Last Post being bugled as the keys are taken in for safe storage.

5. Changing the Guard (Since the reign of Henry VII)

The intricate military ceremony known as Changing the Guard is one of London’s most famous sights for tourists to feast their eyes on. It is also an important element of royal security and power which stretches back over 500 years.

When Henry Tudor became king in 1485 as Henry VII, he was naturally keen to secure his throne. He thus instituted an elite royal bodyguard to provide permanent protection to the sovereign, a key function of certain regiments of the army which continues to this day. The Changing the Guard routine began during this time, in the early Tudor period, with many changes over time, particularly in 1660 and in the 20th century.

As the monarch's official residence has moved around London, so too has the principal location of the bodyguard and thus the ceremony. Until 1698, the ceremony took place at the Palace of Whitehall, and from then until 1837 it happened at St James’s Palace.

When Queen Victoria made Buckingham Palace the main official residence of the sovereign in 1837, a detachment from the guards based at St James’s Palace was sent to guard Buckingham Palace, as it still does today. The ceremony is elaborate and complex, but essentially what happens is that each day (alternate days in winter) at 10:30am the ‘New Guard’ leave Wellington Barracks and march to Buckingham Palace for 11am, taking over the ‘Old Guard’. The latter soldiers then head back to Wellington Barracks.

6. The Edinburgh One O’Clock Gun (Since 1861)

Perhaps the most famous daily ceremony in Scotland is the firing of the Edinburgh One O’Clock gun, well-known for making newcomers to the Scottish capital – and shoppers on Princes Street - jump out of their skins. Every day since 1861 (except Sundays) a massive field gun on the high ramparts of Edinburgh Castle has blasted off a blank round at exactly 1pm. Originally the purpose of the firing was not a ceremonial salute but an ‘audible time signal for ships in the port of Leith’, as it says on the accompanying plaque at the castle.

Since 2001 a 105mm light artillery gun has been used. Between 1953 and 2001 a 25-pound howitzer was used. The original gun used was a 64-pound muzzle-loading cannon. The current weapon requires just one operator, whereas the original needed a team of four gunners.