The crowds watch in awe as Lady Diana goes past in her carriage beside Prince Andrew. They have the pleasure of witnessing a monumental occasion – the first Trooping the Color for the royal family’s newest member. But that same event would end shockingly for the Queen herself just a short time later.
It probably won’t surprise you to hear that Lady Diana’s first Trooping the Color ceremony was unconventional. After all, the People’s Princess was known and loved for her resistance of royal protocol. And sure enough, the event in question was an example of this trait, as the Queen found out to her surprise.
Diana breached tradition at the June 1981 Trooping the Color by her mere presence, in fact, and the ceremony spiraled out of control from there. Some parts of the British public have always awaited Trooping the Color with eager anticipation. It gives them the chance to see royalty in the flesh and glimpse the adored royal children as they pass.
So in terms of reputation and public image, there’s a lot riding on the Trooping the Color. However, the event of 1981 stands out in memory for its infamous conclusion. And it’s certainly one that the Queen will never forget. But why did Diana cause a scandal, and what happened to Queen Elizabeth on that fateful day?
You might have heard that Her Royal Majesty has two birthdays, and that’s technically true. It’s a tradition that dates back a couple of centuries, in fact, to when a king ruled over England. King George II, to be exact.
King George II’s birthday fell in November. And to avoid marking it officially during England’s cold winter months, the King arranged the festivities for summer instead. In addition, The King also chose to merge this event with a military procession now called Trooping the Color. And ever since, Britain’s ruling monarch has enjoyed two birthdays a year.
Let’s not forget that Trooping the Color isn’t just an official royal birthday but also a military parade. During the event in excess of 1,000 active soldiers dressed in traditional red and black outfits march with horses and musicians. The displays from the latter include a fanfare for the royals.
The highlight for the crowds of spectators, however, is arguably the appearance of the royal family members. They either take to the roads in horse-drawn carriages or ride on the horses themselves as part of the celebrations. One of them is, of course, the Queen herself, who comes out to inspect the troops.
Trooping the Color culminates at Buckingham Palace, where Queen Elizabeth and her family appear on the iconic building’s main balcony. The Royal Air Force perform a display and then a 41-gun salute signifies the end of the festivities. With this in mind, then, just how different could Lady Diana’s first Trooping the Color have been?
The turnout for the 1981 Trooping the Color was as impressive as you’d expect from such an event. Throngs of people lined the roadsides and pressed themselves against the metal fences that surround the palace to watch the royal family. Indeed, given her popularity, many people were likely there to try to glimpse Her Royal Majesty herself.
Plenty of other royals attended Trooping the Color, including the Queen’s close family. To be more specific, her sister Princess Margaret and husband – Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh – also made an appearance. And as you’d expect, Diana’s partner Prince Charles was there, too, although he didn’t ride with his significant other.
That’s because Prince Charles had a role as a senior officer of the Household Division. In layman’s terms, he was leading soldiers through the parade on horseback, accompanied by his mother, Queen Elizabeth. As a result, Diana couldn’t ride alongside Charles, and instead followed in a black horse-drawn carriage with red trim.
Lady Diana wasn’t alone, though – Charles’ brother, Prince Andrew, rode in the carriage with her. On any royal occasion, the family usually dress to impress and the Trooping the Color was no different. Whereas Diana became renowned for her fashion sense, her early appearances displayed a more subdued style.
At first, the media nicknamed Lady Diana “Shy Di” due to her penchant for hiding her face in her hair. And photos of her during the parade display this initial shyness. Nevertheless, Diana still stayed true to the popular fashions of her age. And befitting of the royal family, her outfit was bespoke.
It’s no secret that Lady Di was on good terms with the late, great fashion designer, Bill Pashley. In fact, one of the princess’ most famous dresses – her tartan-patterned honeymoon suit – was created by him. And Pashley was also the man who designed Diana’s initiation Trooping the Color outfit.
The ensemble itself was a blue and white dress decorated with a floral pattern. The flowers themselves were highlighted with hints of purple that made the colors pop against the light trim. Floral designs were all the rage in the early 1980s, and her choice of outfit hinted at the fashion icon Lady Di would become.
Pashley designed the outfit with a wide white collar, and Diana wore accessories to match. Her long white gloves, choker-style white necklace and pale clutch handbag complemented each other perfectly. A flowery rear-veiled fascinator the same shade of blue as Di’s dress completed her wardrobe. She’d commissioned Pashley for the suit earlier in 1981.
Diana’s presence at that year’s Trooping the Color parade certainly drew people’s attention. And not just because it was the first one she ever attended, either. The fact that she was there at all was surprising, because according to royal rules she shouldn’t have been present. But that wasn’t the first time Di was surrounded by a hint of scandal.
In fact, Lady Diana’s engagement to Prince Charles was already the focus of some controversy. That’s because Charles had met Lady Di during a shooting party when she was 16… and he was romantically involved with her sister. Despite the age difference between them – the prince was 29 at the time – he and Diana apparently got on well.
“I remember thinking what a very jolly and amusing and attractive 16-year-old she was,” Charles said in a post-engagement interview, according to Harper’s Bazaar. “I mean, great fun, and bouncy and full of life and everything.” Diana was likewise enamored with the prince, describing him as “pretty amazing.” A couple of years and 13 subsequent encounters later, they were engaged to be wed.
However, prior to his engagement with Diana, Charles was smitten with another woman. To be precise, he briefly dated Camilla Shand but failed to propose to her. As a result, she married and became Camilla Parker Bowles. And Charles’ now infamous comments after his own engagement suggest that he wasn’t all-in with Diana and that his heart perhaps belonged to someone else.
During a post-engagement interview, a reporter asked Charles if he was in love with Diana, who sat next to him. Lady Di immediately but shyly replied, “Of course.” The prince’s reply, on the other hand, was rather more philosophical. He replied, “Whatever ‘in love’ means.” His comment has been cited – rightly or wrongly – as evidence of his absence of commitment ever since.
The royal couple also set tongues wagging at their first public appearance following their engagement. They attended a concert hosted at Goldsmiths’ Hall in London a week afterwards the big news was announced. They met another royal there – Princess Grace of Monaco, a former Hollywood actress who’d married Prince Rainier III of Monaco. But the event was a disaster for Diana in more ways than one.
Diana was new to royal protocol and wore an outfit she later described as “two sizes too small.” Noticing Lady Di’s awkwardness, Princess Grace took her and warned her light-heartedly of the tribulations being a member of the royal family brought. And Diana witnessed that first-hand at her Trooping the Color initiation.
When the awestruck crowds saw Lady Diana in her carriage at the military parade, she wasn’t yet married to Charles. Such a thing was controversial in itself because until then, it had always been what was informally referred to as a “no ring, no bring” occasion. However, that wasn’t even close to being the most problematic aspect of the day. No, that happened when a gunman shot at the Queen.
In earlier times, the Queen attended Trooping the Color on horseback, and the 1981 parade was one such instance. As previously mentioned, Her Royal Majesty was heading the Household Cavalry with her son Prince Charles. She rode on Burmese, her veteran Trooping the Color horse of more than a decade’s standing.
However, both Queen Elizabeth and Burmese were in for a surprise around a quarter of an hour into the procession. The Queen’s entourage arrived on Horse Guards Road when suddenly several shots rang out. A gunman laid in wait for Her Royal Majesty and fired as she passed.
The apparent assassin fired six times before four people apprehended him, including two members of the guard. Thankfully, the Queen herself remained unharmed. And despite her initial shock, the monarch reacted with her trademark equanimity. She simply calmed her horse – which the loud noises had spooked – and continued the parade.
Alec Galloway wasn’t only one of the Queen’s Guards at the time, but he also helped apprehend the shooter. And he described the event to Sky News in his own words in 2016. “I looked over my shoulder and I could see this lunatic trying to kill Her Majesty,” he said.
“I felt sheer anger as I reached for him and grabbed his hair,” Galloway continued. “I used all my strength to pull him over the barrier and knock the pistol to the ground. I apprehended him with my boot.” He also told reporters that Queen Elizabeth remained “as cool as a cucumber, as if nothing had happened.”
John Heasman, who worked with the St John’s Ambulance, was in fact the first man to tackle the gunman. “I didn’t know at the time it was blanks in the gun,” he told KentOnline in February 2020. “I just turned round and saw the gun being fired to my left, just over my shoulder.
“So I just turned around and grabbed him and pulled him towards me,” Heasman continued. “There were people hitting him with umbrellas and shouting, ‘You’re trying to kill our Queen,’ at him. He had a big rosette on his coat with Charles and Diana on it. He’d been there since 6:00 a.m. that morning. No one thought anything of him until he fired the shots.”
Needless to say, security tightened around Queen Elizabeth for the rest of the Trooping the Color. And no further disasters occurred during the parade, which ended as it traditionally does at Buckingham Palace. On this occasion, though, the soon-to-be Princess Diana joined the royal family on the balcony for the first time. She stood next to her fiancé, Prince Charles.
While the Trooping the Color remained much the same in the years after the shooting, such a development inevitably had repercussions. Particularly because of the gunman’s wedding rosette honoring Charles’ and Diana’s forthcoming big day. For example, anxiety grew about the safety of those attending the wedding.
Regardless, while the royal wedding wasn’t without its hitches, attendees at least didn’t experience any security issues. And unknown to everyone involved at the time, the gun that had been fired at the Queen thankfully posed little danger. In fact, the weapon was a replica and the shots were blanks. Things could have turned out very differently, however.
The would-be assassin was a 17-year-old man called Marcus Sarjeant who came from Kent, England. After joining the Air Training Cadets, he’d briefly signed up with the military on two different occasions. Some sources have also claimed he was opposed to the monarchy. However, Sarjeant’s own words indicate something else drove him to act in such a way.
Allegedly influenced by attacks on Pope John Paul II and U.S. President Ronald Reagan, Sarjeant sought a real firearm to use. His efforts were fortunately unsuccessful, so instead he used a replica to act out a killing instead. And even though Sarjeant didn’t physically hurt anyone, the U.K. justice system didn’t let him walk away without punishment.
In fact, the courts used the 1842 Treason Act to charge Sarjeant – the first such case since 1966. His specific crime was firing a gun “at or near Her Majesty the Queen… with the intent to alarm or distress Her Majesty.” Lord Lane, the Lord Chief Justice, found Sarjeant guilty and put him in jail for half a decade.
Lord Lane also commented on Sarjeant’s crime. He said, “I have little doubt that if you had been able to obtain a live gun… you would have tried to murder Her Majesty.” But what did Sarjeant himself have to say on the subject? Well, according to witnesses at the time, he yearned to be in the spotlight.