The Royal Company of Archers

Updated: Oct 12



On the 8th of September, Queen Elizabeth II passed away after a 70-year reign as monarch of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth, a reign that began in 1952. Queen Elizabeth's reign was the longest in the history of United Kingdom and she was of the good fortune to live to be 96 years old, fulfilling her promise that she would not abdicate the throne in her lifetime.


Such a reign was a once in a lifetime experience for us all, as it will be a long while before anyone sits on the royal throne for such a length of time. Queen Elizabeth gave up, arguably a life of normality for a life of service, doing so in that prime, care-free, time we all know as our twenties. A bold decision, taken with utmost discernment and steadfastness.


I even had to the good fortune to see the Queen once, that is, in a very brief moment whilst at university in north Wales, when her procession drove through Bangor as I was sat having coffee in a lovely cafe, being at the right place at the right time, by total accident.


Undoubtedly the funeral was going to be the kind of state event that would eclipse even the London Olympics. A part of the proceedings, one that I am ashamed to say that I never knew of, was the presence of the Royal Company of Archers, bodyguard to the Sovereign when in Scotland. These men were magnificent in their attire and duty during the funeral, marching alongside the coffin and standing vigil. A standout feature among them, aside from the longbows in the presence of contemporary rifles carried by other honour guards, were the eagle feathers in their bonnets. In terms of display, these feathers have a function, a visual indicator of rank; two feathers signifying the individual as an officer with three feathers displayed by the Captian-General[1].


Archery has played a significant role in British history, with archers utilised as a devastating force, becoming a paradigm and game changing fighting elite in battles such as Crecy and Agincourt. At Agincourt in particular they obliterated the French aristocracy, doing so despite being outnumbered. Furthermore, in Mike Loades' book, War Bows, he mentions that yew, the go-to wood for longbows was so revered that Edward IV made yew staves a form of tax placed on cargo coming into England[2].


Furthermore, closer to our modern age, there is the story of Mad Jack Churchill. He was an archer and a British soldier who is renowned for his service during the second world war in that he took a broadsword, bagpipes and longbow into battle. Moreover, he is known for a very singular action: he made a confirmed kill with his longbow on a German soldier, with a barbed arrow[3].


As I mentioned, the presence of a group of archers was a surprise to me (and given my archery passion and Irish-Scottish ancestry, it's shameful I never knew of the Royal Company of Archers), and a few other archers I knew, too. So, where did this institution come from and how did they get to where they are today?


In the here and now, the Royal Company of Archers, aside from standing guard over the Sovreign, appears as a ceremonial guard and still competes in competitions, all the while playing a role in charity work and endeavouring to aid in maintaining Scottish heritage[4]. With regards to membership, all members must either be Scottish or of Scottish descent[5] - I may just be in with a chance at attaining a bonnet with an eagle feather!


The Royal Company of Archers, however, has been in existence for many centuries, established in 1676, as, simply, an archery club[6]. Given the importance of archery throughout British history and in its culture, it is hardly a surprise that a club was established outside of a formal military fighting force as a means to promote archery.


It was over a century later, in1822 that the Royal Company of Archers would become the Sovereign's bodyguard, with their first duty in protecting the Hanoverian King, George IV. How this was achieved, was simply the company insisting it was their duty, especially so since they had aligned themselves to the House of Hanover. The company's then uniform, the government tartan aided this too - and likely worked to remove the last of any prejudice that maybe hanging over the company from the Jacobite Rebellions, when the company through historically bad timing made the decision to wear tartan uniforms[7]. Of course, even though the Jacobite Rebellion ended in 1746, an advantage to declaring themselves bodyguard to the visiting King, the company could also make it clear where they now stood.


Historically speaking however, the first significant step in the company's eventual place as the Sovereign's bodyguard was taken in 1704. The Royal Company of Archers was elevated to a paramilitary organisation through the decree of a Royal Chatter, having requested this prestigious right from Queen Anne[8].


The importance of this Royal Charter was in allowing the company to present their arms in public displays, known as wapinschaw (weapon showing). The Collins online dictionary defines wapinschaw as, 'a muster of men in a particular area in Scotland to show that they were properly armed'[9].


With the archer as such a pivotal figure in British history, celebrated as warrior who fought for numerous crowns and as a rouge who defied corruption in legends, it should not have been such a surprise that the Head of State would, in some capacity, would have a company of these history-making soldiers serving them in this day and age.

References:

[1] - Uniforms - The Royal Company of Archers (kbgsrca.co.uk)


[2] - War Bows (p20), Mike Loades, Osprey


[3] - Mad Jack Churchill: The Sword-Wielding, Bagpipe-Playing Badass Of WWII (allthatsinteresting.com)


[4] - Home - The Royal Company of Archers (kbgsrca.co.uk)


[5] - The Royal Company of Archers | The Royal Family


[6] - National Trust for Scotland | The Royal Company of Archers (nts.org.uk)


[7] - The Royal Company of Archers | National Army Museum (nam.ac.uk)


[8] - The Royal Company of Archers | National Army Museum (nam.ac.uk)


[9] - Wapinschaw definition and meaning | Collins English Dictionary (collinsdictionary.com)

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