A full rundown of which military personnel will be marching in the 2023 Coronation procession and what they will be carrying. By Roger Field
As HM King Charles III’s 2023 Coronation procession clatters, creaks, clanks and stamps its way from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Abbey and back on 6 May, the world will gaze at Great Britain PLC doing something at which it is still world-beating: looking magnificent on parade. But behind the gleam, the spit and the polish, and the endlessly rehearsed drills, there are other things going on.
THE 2023 CORONATION PROCESSION EXPLAINED
First and foremost, the pomp of the coronation procession is an ever-evolving, generations-old pageant staged by British monarchs to impress their subjects (although for ‘subjects’, now read global television and internet audiences), not only with their grandeur and wealth but also with the potency of their Armed Forces, who march alongside them. However, all those riding, marching and standing military personnel have their own mission: apart from being impeccable on parade, they must protect their sovereign, with their lives if need be. In essence, that brightly burnished Coronation procession is a living ring of sharpened steel protecting The King, carried by highly trained men and women, often – just look at the medals worn proudly on their chests – with multiple combat tours between them. Let’s look at some of the ‘players’ in the 2023 Coronation procession.
THE HOUSEHOLD CAVALRY
This consists of The Life Guards, the senior regiment resplendent in red tunics, with white horsehair plumes in their metal helmets, and The Blues and Royals – magnificent in blue tunics and red plumes – with whom I was once privileged to serve. Both were first formed in the mid-17th century. They were, in essence, The King’s mounted ‘military’ bodyguards and companions in a world where kings rode and only tended to walk when they reached their destination. They ride close to the monarch and will, doubtless, be the closest riders to the Gold State Coach. However, as I write this, the actual composition (who exactly will be marching/riding where) is a closely guarded secret.
The Household Cavalry has two weapons. The first is obvious: a sword, carried unsheathed in the right hand, ready for action. This is the 1892 Pattern Officer’s or, for non-officers, Trooper’s sword; a heavy-duty, cut-and-thrust weapon with a single-edged blade and a wickedly sharp point. Yes, they might look somewhat ceremonial with their regimental cyphers etched (troopers) or worked in brass (officers) on to their elegant hilts, but these swords were used in anger by The Life Guards during the Boer War. The second Household Cavalry weapon is more than half a ton of well-schooled ‘charger’ to knock any evil-doer out of the way or, indeed, just get in the way. And should anyone think that the Household Cavalry are just ceremonial soldiers, think again. Everyone present will have soldiered in the armoured ‘Service’ regiment, which has seen action in every modern war, including the Falklands War. A well-armed, highly mobile, highly trained, close guard.
HIS MAJESTY’S BODY GUARD OF THE HONOURABLE CORPS OF GENTLEMEN AT ARMS
Known to the press (and hereafter) as the Gentlemen at Arms, although they refer to themselves as the Body Guard.
We TV viewers probably only became aware of this venerable body of Royal bodyguards and attendants during the late Queen’s funeral. They not only stood guard beside her coffin in Westminster Hall, along with other Household ‘Guards’, but then marched alongside her coffin, dramatic in their distinctive white swan feather-plumed helmets. Their uniform was designed by Prince Albert in the 1840s. They wear a heavy cavalry-type scarlet ‘coatee’ (a jacket with tails, much like a morning coat at the back) while for offensive/defensive operations they carry vicious, 300-year-old poleaxes. Sheathed, heavy cavalry swords hang from their belts.
Founded by Henry VIII in 1509, they were his personal bodyguard, originally mounted but then on foot. They accompanied their kings into battle until the end of the Civil War; his literal last line of defence. Speaking at their 500th anniversary in 2009, The Queen said, “The evils against which the sovereign required protection in 1509 have I expect changed a little over the years, but the loyalty of the Body Guard remains undimmed,” and praised them as her “nearest guard”.
The 27 Gentlemen at Arms and four of their five officers – their Captain and senior officer is usually the Government Chief Whip in the House of Lords and a political appointee – qualify as ‘old and bold’. They join in their early fifties and retire at 70 at the latest. All are ex-military. As for ‘bold’, they boast 12 past holders of the Victoria Cross among their alumni. While no longer exactly young, they need to stay fit. Come the day of the 2023 Coronation procession, they will be on parade – some marching, others in the Abbey – in full kit and in perfect order for about two and a half hours: enough to stress many 20-year-olds. Their poleaxes are a medieval relic, albeit a fearsome one. The ‘pole’ part refers to the poll or skull of an enemy’s helmet, which the four-pointed hammer (one of the weapon’s three heads) is designed to crush or penetrate. The spear on the end is designed to spear a person or stop a charging horse. And the axe part is perfect for lopping limbs off the ungodly. Drop your poleaxe? Reach for your 1887 Pattern Heavy Cavalry fighting sword. Unsurprisingly, this ancient and near-impossible-to-replace kit is held centrally and issued when required.
THE KING’S BODY GUARD OF THE YEOMEN OF THE GUARD
Known as the Yeomen of the Guard (Yeomen hereafter)
The formation of the Yeomen predates even that of the Gentlemen at Arms. At the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the culmination of the Wars of the Roses, the future King Henry VII’s bodyguards held off a ferocious attack by King Richard III and his bodyguards, during which Richard was killed and Henry won the throne. By way of a thank-you, it is believed Henry formally established the survivors as his personal guard and records describe 50 Yeomen escorting him to his subsequent coronation. Thereafter the Yeomen became the monarch’s close protection troops, whether in battle or at home. The ones who stood outside his bedroom door at night kept assassins – of whom there was no shortage back then – at bay.
The Yeomen of the Guard are today all ex-NCOs, although their Captain is the Deputy Chief Whip of the Lords. Each must have reached sergeant rank (or equivalent in the Royal Navy or Royal Air Force), have 22 years’ service and hold the Long Service and Good Conduct medal as a minimum. They comprise 73 officers and Yeomen, who can join as young as 42 years old and must retire aged 70. They wear a distinctive ‘Tudor’ uniform – circa Henry VIII’s time – of a long red tunic topped with a white ruff, with gold embroidered emblems featuring the crowned Tudor rose, the shamrock and the thistle, the Royal motto and the monarch’s initials. Red knee breeches and stockings complete the uniform. Their primary weapon is an eight-foot-long partisan, a broad-headed spear with lethal spikes at either side; a derivation of the halberd, the armour-killing weapon of choice for non-noble fighters from the later Middle Ages onwards. From the 16th to the 18th centuries these polearms (this time meaning a sharpened steel head on a pole) were often extravagantly decorated. They were the standard close protection weapons for the bodyguards of European emperors, kings and princes. The finer the decoration the wealthier the ruler obviously was, but the steel used is invariably of the finest. These weapons might be intended to impress but they were primarily designed to kill.
The Yeomen also carry a 24in-blade short sword (hanger) at their hip. This is for a sound military reason; imagine fighting with an unwieldy, eight-foot polearm while a ‘long’ sword swings around your legs and ankles. It would be distracting at the very least, possibly fatal should you trip over it. These well-armed Yeomen will be marching alongside The King on the day, as will their similarly armed and attired (only an extra belt worn from over the left shoulder distinguishes them) and equally formidable cousins The Yeomen Warders of His Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London – the ‘Beefeaters’.
THE KING’S BODY GUARD FOR SCOTLAND, THE ROYAL COMPANY OF ARCHERS
Another ancient order but Scottish. Formally established as the Royal Company in 1676 and granted a Royal Charter in 1704, they have acted as the sovereign’s bodyguard in Scotland since 1822. We TV viewers saw them in their dark green military uniforms – unchanged since 1863 – worn with their distinctive matching bonnet, topped with an impressively long eagle’s feather, marching smartly and standing guard at Her Late Majesty’s funeral. They will do so again on 6 May in the 2023 Coronation procession. However, again as the name implies, these chaps carry longbows and, on parade, three steel-tipped arrows tucked into their belt, allowing them to take down the ungodly at a goodly range. What’s more, as part of their raison d’être, they practise their archery and compete for a number of prizes, including what is the oldest archery prize in the world and possibly the world’s oldest sporting prize: the Musselburgh Silver Arrow, which dates back to 1603.
Archers, who are not necessarily ex-military, although those on parade probably will be (it takes more than a few weekends to learn ‘proper’ drill), buy their own ‘fitted for them’ longbows as well as their ‘archer’s’ swords. This is a distant nod to the archers of Crécy and Agincourt, who knew better than to be hampered by a long sword around their legs as they fired but, when the enemy was on the ground, or too close to shoot, dropped their bows and went in with their long knives.
BRITAIN’S MILITARY ON PARADE IN THE 2023 CORONATION PROCESSION
So, on 6 May, there will be sharp steel everywhere in the 2023 Coronation procession. Representatives of all the British military will be on parade, thousands of them. Cavalry officers will carry their 1912 Pattern swords, non-officers the 1908 Pattern (the former an officer version of the latter) – deemed by many as the best British cavalry sword ever made. Infantry officers will carry their 1897 Pattern swords (with regimental variations). These are fine weapons that have proved themselves in many battles. Scottish infantry carry claymores, obviously. Ditto officers from different corps who will carry their various different ‘Pattern’ swords.
Numerous infantry will march and line the route (Route Liners). Each will carry an SA80 rifle complete with LA31 bayonet. Used in extremis and with good effect in both Iraq and Afghanistan, those sharp steel bayonets would be lethal on The Mall if required. And, finally, if that were not enough, in the Abbey itself the four great double-handed Swords of State will be carried close to His Majesty The King during the service. They might be ancient coronation symbols of Royal power but they are also, like all the weapons carried on the day, serious killing steel if needs be.