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It’s difficult to believe that the British Queen, Elizabeth, is 136 years old. She was actually born in April 1926 and is physically only 86, but if you include the extra Official Royal Birthday she has celebrated every June since her Coronation in 1952, you’re looking at an extremely elderly senior citizen.
Of course she’s not really a ‘citizen’. She’s the Queen, the reigning monarch of Britain, and since 1748 the Trooping of the Colour Ceremony, held at Horse Guards Parade near Whitehall in central London, has also marked the Sovereign’s official second birthday – Saturday the sixteenth of June 2012 being no exception.
The Trooping the Colour ceremony originated from traditional preparations for battle, when flags, or colours were carried, or “trooped”, down the ranks of soldiers so that they could be seen and recognised. It’s now a lavish military spectacle with some 1,600 officers and men in the traditional uniforms of the Household Cavalry, Royal Horse Artillery and Foot Guards, with over 200 horses, and massed and mounted bands.
Being Head of the Armed Forces, it is fitting that the queen be there to inspect the troops, along with other members of her family dressed in military regalia and decorated with medals – husband Prince Phillip, Colonel of the Grenadier Guards, sons Prince Charles and Edward, Colonels of the Welsh Guards and of the Scots Guards respectively, daughter Princess Anne, Colonel of the Blues and Royals, and grandson William, Colonel of the Irish Guards. Other senior royals present at the ceremony this year included Prince Harry, Camilla the Duchess of Cornwall, and Prince Andrew the Duke of Kent with his daughters, Beatrice and Eugenie. Prime Minister David Cameron and the King of Jordan were also honoured guests.
The reptile-faced 91 year old Duke of Edinburgh, surprisingly frisky and chipper after his recent hospitalization for a urinary infection, wore a bearskin helmet identical to those worn by the hundreds of soldiers lined up for inspection in their bright red tunics. Just think how many poor bears were cruelly killed to provide this pompous and preposterous headgear! But that’s another story.
The Queen arrived in a glass coach, and took the royal salute wearing a primrose yellow coat and dress with matching hat – a far cry from the pre-1987 days when she used to arrive mounted side-saddle on her loyal steed ‘Burmese’ and inspect the troops dressed in the uniform of the regiment whose Colour was being trooped. She was thus accoutred on June 13th 1981 as she passed down the Mall towards Horseguards Parade, when a teenager armed with a gun stepped out of the cheering crowd which lined the route and fired six rapid shots at Her Majesty.
Alarmed at the disturbance, ‘Burmese’ shied and cantered a few steps but was quickly subdued by the equestrian-savvy queen. The young assailant was pounced upon by men in the crowd and disarmed before police quickly arrived to arrest him. The weapon turned out to be a Jackal Python starting pistol, and the shots were blanks.
The 17 year old would-be assassin, described as a shy loner haunted by failure, was named as Marcus Simon Sarjeant, a former Boy Scout from a small town near Dover. After finishing school he had applied to join the Royal Marines, but left after 3 months, unable to cope with the bullying of officers. Similar experience made him give up hopes of joining the Army after only two days on an induction course. After failed attempts to join the Police Force and the Fire Brigade, Sarjeant was unemployed and living with his mother, his father absent, working abroad. Friends said that he had joined an ‘Anti-Royalist’ group.
Questioned by police as to why he had pulled the stunt, Sarjeant told them that he was inspired by the assassination of John Lennon in 1980 and recent attempts at that time on the lives of US President Ronald Reagan and the Pope. Unable to get hold of a real gun, he had opted for the blank-firing revolver which he bought through mail order.
Police investigating his home found he had written in a diary: “I am going to stun and mystify the whole world with nothing more than a gun – I will become the most famous teenager in the world. ” In the run-up to the Trooping the Colour ceremony, Serjeant had sent letters to magazines, one of which included a picture of him with his father’s Webley revolver (which had no ammunition.) He had also sent a letter to Buckingham Palace which read:
“Your Majesty. Don’t go to the Trooping the Colour ceremony because there is an assassin set up to kill you, waiting just outside the palace.”
The letter arrived on June 16th, three days late.
Charged with an offence under the 1848 Treason Act in that he “wilfully discharged at or near Her Majesty the Queen a gun with the intent to alarm or distress Her Majesty,” Sarjeant was found guilty by Chief Justice Lord Lane, who sentenced him to five years’ imprisonment, saying that “the public sense of outrage must be marked. You must be punished for the wicked thing you did, not for what you might have done”. An appeal against the length of the sentence was refused, and a letter to the Queen apologizing for his action was ignored.
After 3 years in jail, mostly in psychiatric prison, Marcus Sarjeant was released in 1984 at the age of twenty. The boy who had wanted to be “the most famous teenager in the world” changed his name and disappeared without a trace.
The 1848 Treason Act makes it a crime ‘to produce a gun or other firearm near the Queen with the intention to use it, even though the person holding it may be stopped before firing.’ After inspecting the hundreds of soldiers with their rifles and bayonets at this year’s Trooping of the Colour, while the Queen was driven back to Buckingham Palace waving to the cheering crowds gathered along the Mall, the King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery fired a gun salute in Green Park, and the Honourable Artillery Company fired a 62-round gun salute from the Tower of London to mark her official birthday.
Bang, bang! Ironic, eh?
Michael Dickinson can be contacted at his website.