Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives for the Order of the Garter service at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, Monday, June 13, 2022
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Given that this occasion hasn’t changed much since the 14th century, when Edward III first gathered his knights in shining armour here at Windsor Castle, there were plenty of surprises at yesterday’s procession and service for the Most Noble Order of the Garter.

Not only was the Queen not on parade for the first time anyone could remember, but one member of the Royal Family had been expunged at the last minute.

Though the Duke of York had managed to get himself included in the Order of Service, having been a Royal Knight of the Garter since 2006, he was removed from the main part of the proceedings with hours to go following what Palace officials called ‘a family decision’.

The Duke is said to be desperate to return to public life, following his out-of-court settlement with a female sex accuser in February. It remains clear that the Duke has yet to convince his own family, let alone the public.

And, on top of all that, Windsor Castle was also being treated to a noisy protest yesterday.

Amid all these distractions, we almost overlooked the fact that the Duchess of Cornwall was making royal history as the Queen conferred on her one of the most esteemed of royal accolades.

I arrived to find a group of demonstrators outside the Henry VIII Gate voicing their unhappiness at Sir Tony Blair’s elevation to the oldest order of chivalry in the world. In the six months since it was announced that the former Prime Minister has been appointed a Knight of the Garter – the most exalted level of knighthood – more than a million people have signed a petition demanding that it be rescinded. Yesterday, around 200 or so had turned up in the hope of disrupting his formal investiture and ‘installation’.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives for the Order of the Garter service at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, Monday, June 13, 2022

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrives for the Order of the Garter service at Windsor Castle, in Windsor, England, Monday, June 13, 2022

Handout photo issued by Buckingham Palace of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall with Queen Elizabeth II (centre) at Windsor Castle ahead of the annual Order of the Garter Service at St George's Chapel

Handout photo issued by Buckingham Palace of the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall with Queen Elizabeth II (centre) at Windsor Castle ahead of the annual Order of the Garter Service at St George’s Chapel

Hundreds of people demonstrate outside Windsor Castle and march through the streets as former Prime Minster, Tony Blair, is knighted and receives the Order of the Garter

Hundreds of people demonstrate outside Windsor Castle and march through the streets as former Prime Minster, Tony Blair, is knighted and receives the Order of the Garter

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie Blair attend the Order Of The Garter Service at St George's Chapel on June 13, 2022 in Windsor, England

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie Blair attend the Order Of The Garter Service at St George’s Chapel on June 13, 2022 in Windsor, England

Former Prime Minister Sir Tony Blair's wife Cherie Blair (centre) and their children Kathryn, Euan (centre-right), Leo (right) and Nicky Blair (left) arriving for the annual Order of the Garter Service

Former Prime Minister Sir Tony Blair’s wife Cherie Blair (centre) and their children Kathryn, Euan (centre-right), Leo (right) and Nicky Blair (left) arriving for the annual Order of the Garter Service

Some were veterans of the Stop The War movement, others waved Palestinian flags, while many had come in support of Julian Assange, the WikiLeaks founder currently facing extradition to the USA.

The mighty, siege-proof medieval stonework ensured that the din – ‘Tony Blair/war criminal!’ etc – echoing down Windsor High Street was scarcely audible on the other side of the castle walls.

A jumbo-sized Royal Standard denoted that the Queen was very much in residence. She was thoroughly enjoying the private aspects of yesterday’s proceedings – the final investiture of new additions to the order and her reception and Waterloo Chamber lunch for all the members of the order and their spouses.

The Duke of York was also present for the lunch, having driven himself from the nearby Royal Lodge earlier. He then had to return there alone while everyone else processed down to St George’s Chapel for the traditional service of thanksgiving for the order, minus the Queen herself. As with her recent Jubilee service of thanksgiving, she had reluctantly decided to forgo the challenge.

The annual ‘Garter Day’ procession remains one of the joys of the traditional summer ‘season’, often labelled ‘the Ascot Vigil’. It is a homage not just to the ancient order created by Edward III and limited to 24 in total (plus royal knights and ladies from within the family) but also a homage to St George. Edward III made him the patron saint of the order and it is for this reason that St George became patron saint of England. In other words, this is an occasion steeped in heraldic and historic imagery.

Leading yesterday’s procession were the Military Knights of Windsor (retired old soldiers who live within the precincts) followed by all the Heralds from the College of Arms, in their golden tabards. Next came the knights and ladies, with the newcomers at the front – Baroness Amos, late of the Foreign Office and now of the United Nations, and Sir Tony Blair. It was noteworthy that for the entire 400-yard procession he was the only knight with a (very large) Household Cavalry officer marching alongside him. Clearly, the castle authorities were wary of protestors infiltrating the ticketed crowd of 5,000 inside the castle precincts.

Though these were all staunch royalists who had applied for tickets in a public ballot months back, they had also been allowed to bring picnics. The prospect of a flying egg sandwich or sausage roll was omnipresent.

In the event, they all behaved with great respect for the occasion. All those to whom I spoke agreed that the absence of the Duke of York was a blessing. ‘Another dose of Covid?’ joked more than one. As for Sir Tony, views were mixed. ‘It’s the Queen’s choice whom she knights and he did do good for Northern Ireland,’ said Jackie Farmer from Southampton.

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair attends the Order of the Garter Service at St. Georges's Chapel at Windsor Castle, Britain, June 13, 2022

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair attends the Order of the Garter Service at St. Georges’s Chapel at Windsor Castle, Britain, June 13, 2022

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie exit St George's Chapel after the Order of the Garter service

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife Cherie exit St George’s Chapel after the Order of the Garter service

Tony and Cherie Blair are pictured during the Order of the Garter service

Tony and Cherie Blair are pictured during the Order of the Garter service

Prince Andrew, Duke of York attends the Order of the Garter Service at St George's Chapel on June 17, 2019 in Windsor, England

Prince Andrew, Duke of York attends the Order of the Garter Service at St George’s Chapel on June 17, 2019 in Windsor, England 

‘I did think ‘surely not?’ when I heard Blair was coming but we’re here to see the Royal Family and to enjoy a wonderful occasion,’ said Joan Manton from East Sussex, one of an eight-strong group from the Forest Row branch of the Women’s Institute (it was, after all, the WI who famously booed Tony Blair at their annual conference in 2000).

Behind them all came the royal knights and ladies. The last-minute omission of the Duke of York had led to a royal reshuffle with the Earl of Wessex moving up and processing alongside the Duke of Cambridge. Bringing up the rear was the Prince of Wales processing with the Duchess of Cornwall in her new robes. Previously, royal consorts had to be Queen to become a Lady of the Garter. This is, therefore, a signal honour for the Duchess.

After the service, the royal couple were joined by the Cambridges for a carriage ride back up to the castle, amid much laughing and waving. The crowds reciprocated.

Sir Tony and Lady Blair left, anonymously, in a blacked-out Range Rover.

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