There were times when monarchs lead their men into war. Mounted on white chargers, banners snapping, armour clanking, trumpets trumpeting and shouts of war echoing across misty fields were common place for monarchs back in the day. To begin with, monarchs were leaders both politically and militarily. Even today, The Queen is the Commander-in-Chief of British Armed Forces and all soldiers pledge their allegiance to her and her heirs. The monarchy and the Army have always been intrinsically linked. Now I could talk about the Plantagenets and their warring ways, or even George II, who was the last British monarch to lead his troops into battle (The Battle of Dettingen, 1743), but what I find most interesting is the continued link between monarch and Army, and how that relationship has not truly changed.
British monarchs have always been militarily inclined. As mentioned above Kings led their armies into war. King Richard III died in battle, in an heroic charge to try to bring the battle to a close and retain his crown. Elizabeth I supposedly inspired her troops at Tilbury and Charles I… well the least said about Charles the better I always find. But as is clear today, the role of the Monarchy and Army has changed to an extent. One doesn’t see Her Majesty in the cockpit of a tank whizzing across the sands of Afghanistan (what a sight that would be!) but her role as Sovereign and Commander-in-Chief has her more as a ceremonial Head of Armed Forces; albeit an extremely devout one.
This change was perhaps most perfectly summed up by the Queen’s Grandfather, George V. A naval man by trade, George was not unaccustomed to the ways of the military. His arms were heavily tattooed after his postings in the Far East, he liked small rooms (reminding him of his days at sea) and he was regimented to a fault. So when the Great War broke out in 1914, 100 years ago, George was determined to be more than a ceremonial spectator. His frequent trips to the front lines to inspect troops and raise morale were extremely impressive. He even took after Henry V in mounting his white charger and reviewing his troops; minus the armour and the trumpets, but still a stirring sight. George was even wounded in France… granted by having his horse rear up and fall on him, but still technically wounded in action! Bravo George!
His devotion to war and the British cause was even reflected at home in London. Buckingham Palace was turned into a form of barracks with no hot water, no alcohol being served, and food that you would expect in an East End Café rather than the seat of the monarch. George even had black lines drawn around the edges of bath-tubs so that nobody used too much water. The King obviously took his role as head of the army in wartime incredibly seriously, as did his children. The future Edward VIII saw action in Italy on the front lines, whilst the future George VI was in the Navy working under the Pseudonym “Mr Johnson” to ensure the Hun didn’t find out where he was.
This practice of the Royal Family being closely linked with the military has become something of a Windsor tradition, especially with Princes William and Harry both being eagerly involved with the Military, most famously with Harry seeing action in Afghanistan. Prince Andrew, the Duke of York, contributed to the action in the Falklands, and the Prince of Wales, Earl of Wessex and Princess Royal all hold Colonelcies for different regiments.
The history of the monarchy and the Army is a long and varied one. Some monarchs were inspired military leaders, such as William the Conqueror, Edward III and Henry V. Others were inspirational figures of leadership in warfare such as Queen Anne, George V and George VI. Either way, as ceremonial or as genuine leaders of the militaristic cause, the British monarchy and the army have always been bosom buddies. Let’s not forget that the Oath of Allegiance maintains the phrase below to this day:
“I swear by almighty God that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors and that I will as in duty bound honestly and faithfully defend her Majesty, her heirs and successors in person, crown and dignity against all enemies and will observe and obey all orders of her Majesty, her heirs and successors and of the generals and officers set over me”.
In this world where the Army still plays a huge part on the world’s stage, for their oath to contain devotional outpourings to the monarch fills me with faith. I am pleased that the ceremonial still exists and that we haven’t done away with this long association of monarchy and Army, bound by a sacred understanding stretching back centuries.
So has the relationship between monarch and Army really changed over the years? Well it all depends on how far back you go. The actual Army that we know today has only been in existence since 1660. Before this, there were feudal collections of armed men that would rally to this flag or the other, with no true allegiance except for how they felt (or were told to feel) about this situation or the other. This is made abundantly clear when you look at the Wars of the Roses or the English Civil Wars where standards were raised and men flocked to one camp or the other based on how they felt. However with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, and the ‘democratisation’ of the monarchy, came a proper standing army under the dual control of parliament and the monarch. The Oath of Allegiance came into effect, and the monarch’s association with an actual armed body began. So I suppose you could say that the role of the monarch hasn’t changed. We still have Princes of the Blood seeing action, we still have monarchs maintaining roles as Commanders, Colonels of the Regiments and so forth.
From Charles II to George II, from Queen Anne to Queen Victoria, the well being of the Army and the continued association has remained unchanged.
Next Week: Unnecessary Royal Involvement, Monarchs and World War One
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Remember: things are always more interesting when a monarch is involved!