The Queen's Body Guard
of the Yeomen of the Guar

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The service, which takes place on 6 January each year on the Feast of the Epiphany in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace, has its origin in royal ceremonies which date back to the Norman Conquest. After his inaugural coronation, William I wore his crown three times a year as a re-enactment of the coronation, usually at Easter in Winchester, at Whitsuntide in Westminster, and at Christmas in Gloucester. The ‘crown-wearing’ ceremonies were not always observed by his successors but Henry III increased the number of these to fifteen times a year. In Edward II’s reign, an ordinance of 1323 named four principal feasts – those of Easter Day, Whitsunday, All Saint’s Day and Christmas Day – for the ‘crown-wearing’. Epiphany and the two feast days of St. Edward the Confessor were added in the fifteenth century. On these occasions the Laudes Regiae –Christus Vincit (Christ conquers, Christ rules, Christ commands)’, from the medieval coronation service – were sung by the clerks of the Household Chapel, although apparently the custom had ceased after the reign of Richard II.

The Dean of the Chapel in 1449 describes the ‘crown-wearing’, which may have taken place in any of the King’s chapels of that time. Before the procession, the King enters the chapel crowned and waits in the principal stall, surrounded by his lords in their distinctive apparels: then all follow the procession out of the choir, a Baron carrying the King’s sword before him, a Duke or Earl carrying his cap, and the King’s Chamberlain follows to hold the hem of the Royal mantle. By 1449 The Queen also wore her crown in procession on the anniversary of her Coronation. On every day of the year the King offered at the altar a talent of gold or five nobles weight, engraved with a figure of the Holy Trinity and the inscription (in Latin) ‘And in honour of Blessed Mary and all thy Saints.’ This talent was daily redeemed by the King for seven pence and The Queen’s talent was redeemed for four pence, which sums the Dean of the chapel received from the clerk of the King’s jewels and purse. On high feasts a noble of gold was offered by the King and Queen with a scale of smaller amounts from the courtiers present. On the six days of Good Friday, Easter, Whitsun, Trinity Sunday (a special festival in the King’s chapel), All Saint’s and Christmas, the King and Queen with the nobles made an offering at the step before the high altar in the chapel: all the household officials attended Mass in another place and there offered their oblations.

The Old Cheque Book of the Chapel Royal describes Elizabeth I at Holy Communion on Easter Day 1593 in the chapel at St. James’s.

The heralds and nobles before her, Her Majesty, ‘came princely before the Table, and there humbly knielinge did offer the golden obeysant, the Bushop the hon. Father of Worcester holdinge the golden bason, the Subdean and the Epistler in riche coaps assistante to the sayd Bushop…’

By the time of Charles II, and perhaps much earlier, the offering days had increased to twelve, ie New Year’s Day, the Epiphany, Candlemas, the Annunication, Easter, the Ascension, Whitsun, Trinity Sunday, St. John the Baptist, Michaelmas, All Saint’s and Christmas. These were (and still are in the court calendars) called ‘collar-days’, on which the collars of various orders were worn. At the Communion Service, the King offered a piece of gold bore a portrait of the King kneeling before an altar with four crowns before him, and the inscription (in Latin, from Psalm 116) was ‘What reward shall I give unto the Lord for all he has done unto me?’, the reverse showed a lamb lying by a lion, with the words (in Latin from Psalm 51) 'A lowly and a contrite heart, O God, shalt thou not despise'  It appears that none of these gold pieces has survived but the British Museum has an impression from an obverse die in thin silver.

At the Feast of the Epiphany, gold frankincense and myrrh were offered, in commemoration of the gifts given by the Magi to the infant Jesus. According to tradition, the Wise Men were three kings, so it was fitting that an earthly king should make an offering at Epiphany, just as his predecessors had washed the feet of the poor on Maundy Thursday. While the Liber Regie Capelle shows that before the Reformation High Mass was sung at about ten o’clock, by the mid eighteenth century, the New Cheque Book of the Chapel Royal decreed ‘that Prayers begin at the usual time and be continued to the End of the First Service. That the Yeoman be sent to enquire what time His majesty will be a Chapel (which is not usually till after one o’clock). It went on – ‘After the Nicene Creed His Majesty walks down from the Closet into the Chapel: during which time a Voluntary is ply’d till He has Offer’d and is return’d to the Closet. That immediately after His Majesty’s Return to the Closet, the Anthem begins. After which follows the prayer for Christ’s Church Militant etc. A few years later, William Lovegrove gave more details.  ‘The Dean (or some other Bishop, at his request) goeth up to the Altar properly attended, as on Sundays; Then beginneth the Service, and goeth on to the end of the Nicene creed. That being nearly ended, the Yeoman of the Vestry clear the body of the Chapel. Then the removing Wardrobe lays down a Carpit, and upon it a Cloth of Tissue, and placeth a Stool for the King to kneel on. The Serjeant laieth a Velvet Carpit upon the Front of the Altar Rails. Whilst the King is coming up to the Altar, The Dean taketh the Bason, and stands ready to receive the King’s Offering of Frankincense, Gold and Myrrh. This done, the King returneth up to his Closet, in Order as he came down.'

Until this time of George III, the Sovereign always attended the ceremony in person, the sword of state carried before him and preceded by Heralds, Pursuivants and Knights of the Garter, Thistle and Bath. In 1758 the funeral of Princess Caroline took place on the eve of the Epiphany and the King deputed his Lord Chamberlain to make the usual offerings, with the Yeomen of the Guard in attendance instead of the Heralds. Lovegrove notes that
When the Sovereign is not well, or not disposed to make his Offering in Person, He Commissions the Lord Chamberlain, or the Vice Chamberlain to make the Offering.’ All this would have taken place at St. James’s for Queen Anne moved the Chapel Royal establishment there from Whitehall Palace in 1702.

This set a precedent for the future and today the offerings are made by two Gentlemen Ushers to The Queen, wearing service dress, who are escorted to the Royal Closet of the Chapel Royal. A detachment of The Queen’s Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard enters the chapel, followed by a procession of the Children and Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal, a Priest in Ordinary, the Sub-Dean and the Dean. The National Anthem is sung and the Dean of the Chapels Royal (the Bishop of London) or in his absence the Sub-Dean, says the Service of Holy Communion at the altar, which is adorned with a frontal of white and gold, with three silver-gilt alms dishes upon it. After the Creed is sung, the choir sings an anthem while a procession forms in the vestibule, and the Serjeant of the Vestry, verge hand, leads in the Gentlemen Ushers, one carrying a silver-gilt salver with twenty-five sovereigns and the other a salver bearing frankincense and myrrh. Two Yeomen and their Sergeant-Major follow and all halt twice in the chapel to bow.  At the sanctuary step the Sub-Dean receives the salvers on a silver-gilt alms dish which the Dean presents at the altar. The procession retires from the chapel, turning and bowing as on entry, and the Gentlemen Ushers return to the Royal Closet. The Yeomen of the Guard retire after the Offertory hymn and the Communion Service continues until, after the Dean has given the Blessing, the choir and clergy leave in procession.

The frankincense and myrrh for the offerings are provided by the Apothecary to the The Queen. After the service, the incense is sent to a church which uses it, while the myrrh is sent to Nashdom Abbey, an Anglican Benedictine community, to be mixed with incense which they prepare. Until 1859, these spices were presented in silk bags, placed in a silk-covered box: a third bag contained a small roll of gold leaf. At the Prince Consort’s suggestion the beaten gold was replaced by twenty-five new sovereigns.  For some years, the sovereigns have been loaned for each ceremony by the Bank of England, while £25 is later donated to a charity fund administered by the Chapel Royal.  It is strange to read that at the end of the last century few people attended the Epiphany Service; it is now an occasion of the year when tickets of admission are necessary and there is always a large number of applicants for them.    

Serjeant of the Vestry of HM Chapels Royal
September 1983

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Last modified: Tuesday, 01 October 2019 22:41