The British Military Units & Traditions Associated with The Funeral of Queen Elizabeth II
By: Allan Sinclair – DITSONG: National Museum of Military History
The television broadcast of the funeral of Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, held on Monday 19 September 2022, was viewed by millions of people all around the world. Many witnessed the pageantry, colourful uniforms and traditions associated with the lying in state of the Queen’s catafalque at Westminster Hall and the funeral procession which took place before and after the state funeral at Westminster Abbey for the first time. There have been many questions about the various military units in attendance as well as the formal and perhaps somewhat strange traditions that were observed throughout the entire procedure. The bulk of these units are traditional units of the Sovereign’s Household and their histories go back many centuries, some even as far as medieval times. While some units serve only in a ceremonial role today, others also function in a full-time operational capacity as part of the British Army alongside their ceremonial role. This article will attempt to discuss and answer some of these questions.
The image above is a scene at the official lying in state of the late Queen at Westminster Hall which took place from 14 to 19 September 2022. The sentries surrounding the catafalque (the Queen’s coffin with the Royal Standard draped over and Crown Jewels affixed) stand in silent vigil representing their role as a royal bodyguard and symbolically protecting of the body of their deceased Sovereign. They all stand with their backs to the catafalque and their heads bowed while resting on their arms reversed. The sentries are rotated every twenty minutes. The practice of marching or resting on arms reversed is said to have originated as a mark of respect or mourning in Ancient Greece. The British method of reverse arms drill was devised for the funeral of the Duke of Marlborough in 1722 and became the basis for such drill movements today.
The Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms
The two soldiers in the centre of the scene are Gentlemen of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms. In the past this Corps was the primary guard of the Sovereign and was formed in 1509 by Henry VIII as the Honourable Band of Gentlemen Pensioners Formation to act as a mounted escort. They were originally armed with a spear and lance to protect the King, especially while in battle. As it was the closest guard to the King, the Corps was formed from family members of highest order of gentry in the Kingdom. In 1526 the Corps became a dismounted bodyguard armed with battle axes and were regular soldiers until the 19th Century.
Today the duties of the Corps are entirely ceremonial and it is only summoned to attend the Sovereign at important state ceremonies such as the State Opening of Parliament, visits by foreign heads of state, royal weddings and funerals and the ceremonies of important orders of chivalry such as the Order of the Garter. The Corps has its headquarters at the Palace of St James and is formed by five officers and 27 gentlemen, all of whom are retired officers of the British Armed Forces. In 2009 the Corps celebrated 500 years of service to the Sovereign.
The Captain of the Corps is a political officer who is also the Chief Whip of the House of Lords. All officers and gentlemen must be under the age of 55 when joining. They all retain their military ranks and are required to retire from the Corps at the age of 70. The uniform worn is that of an officer of the Dragoon Guards as ordered by William IV, circa 1840. The helmet, which replaced the shako in 1848, is adorned with swan feathers and worn on all occasions when on duty, including attendance at church services. Officers carry sticks of office while the gentlemen carry ceremonial battle-axes, each of which are over 300 years old. All officers and gentlemen wear cavalry swords.
The Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard
Referring back to the scene at Westminster Hall, the four persons standing off the platform at each corner are members of the Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard. This formation is the oldest military corps in existence in the United Kingdom and developed from the Archers of the Household and other somewhat loose body guards in England during the early to high Middle Ages. Henry VII officially created this Guard at the Battle of Bosworth Field on 22 August 1485 where he defeated Richard III to be crowned the first Tudor king. The title Yeomen or Gentlemen was conferred on all men of the class immediately below the nobility and the rank of Esquire who had proved themselves as part of the national strength of the Kingdom both at home and abroad.
The Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard has had unbroken service since its creation as a permanent corps. Its final service on the battlefield was at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743 when George II became the last Monarch to lead British troops into battle. As part of its many original duties, the Corps was responsible for guarding the interior of the royal palaces and tasting all of the Sovereign’s meals in case of poison. Members also took responsibility for preparing the Sovereign’s bed and sleeping immediately outside the royal bedroom. Although most of these duties are now obsolete, certain symbolic ranks in the Corps, such as Yeoman Bed-Goer and Yeoman Bed-Hanger, still allude to them.
Today all duties of the Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard are also only ceremonial and the Yeomen are instantly recognisable in their elaborate Tudor uniforms which feature the crowned Tudor rose, the shamrock and the thistle and the initials of the reigning monarch, which of course is now ‘CR’. One of the more famous duties of the Corps is the annual ceremonial search of the cellars at Westminster Palace prior to the Official State Opening of Parliament. This is carried out in symbolic remembrance of the Gunpowder Plot and attempt to assassinate James I in 1605.
All Yeomen wear a sword and carry an ornamental partisan which was a popular weapon in the Middle Ages. The Yeomen of the Guard are often mistaken for the Yeoman Warders of the Tower of London whose uniforms are similar and also date to Tudor times. Unlike those of the Yeomen Warders, the uniforms of the Yeomen of the Guard include a red cross belt that runs diagonally across the front of their tunics.
There are 73 Yeomen of the Guard who are divided into three divisions and all must be aged between 42 and 55 on appointment. Prospective Yeomen must have attained the rank of sergeant or above in the British Armed Forces and must have been awarded the Long Service and Good Conduct Medal. Yeomen are expected to undertake at least eight duties during the course of a year which include attendance to the Sovereign at the State Opening of Parliament, the Annual Royal Maundy Service, official visits by foreign heads of state, investitures at Buckingham Palace, coronations and lying in state and royal funerals.
The King’s Body Guard for Scotland: The Royal Company of Archers
Above is a similar scene of the lying in state, excepting that the two Gentlemen immediately at the centre have been replaced by members of a different corps. These persons are archers of the Kings Body Guard for Scotland: The Royal Company of Archers. This Company’s history is traced back to 1676 when it was formed as a private archery club known as the Edinburgh Archers. In 1704 during the reign of Queen Anne, the Company successfully petitioned the Queen for a Royal Charter. Members of the Company, including its Captain General, the 5th Earl of Wemyss, took part in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 in support of Prince Charles Edward’s claim to the throne and were viewed with suspicion for many years after the final defeat of the Jacobites at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
In 1822 the Company reconciled itself to the Crown when George IV became the first Hanoverian Monarch to visit Scotland. By then the Company had adopted the dark green Government tartan worn by the Black Watch and claimed the right to act as the official body guard to the King while in Scotland. It is said the George IV, himself a keen archer, acceded to the request. Since then the Company has continued to perform this role, which is also ceremonial, during royal visits to Scotland. These duties include the Order of the Thistle investitures at the High Kirk of Edinburgh, the Royal Garden Party and the Ceremony of the Keys at the Palace of Holyrood House. The Company also takes its place at official state ceremonies such as coronations, royal funerals and lying in state vigils at Westminster.
The Royal Company of Archers has a membership of approximately 500 archers and takes in new members by invitation only. The members are made up from senior officers of the British Armed Forces, politicians and members of the nobility all of whom have strong connections with Scotland. All officers are ranked as generals while the archers are ranked as colonels. The senior officer is referred to as the Captain General. The bonnet worn by the Archers is a Kilmarnock with a crimson tourie, a green and white cockade and eagle feathers. The number of feathers worn is dependent on the rank of the wearer. Each officer carries a sword while the archers carry an unstrung bow with arrows when on ceremonial duty.
The Company continues to practice archery annually on the meadows of Hope Park in Edinburgh. One of the more famous traditions of the Company is the annual “shooting at the goose eye”, although the goose has since the late 19th Century been replaced by a small glass globe. The Company is based at Archers Hall in Edinburgh which houses a magnificent number of prizes awarded at the annual shoots and a collection of longbows, some of which date back to 1650.
The Household Division
In each image of the scene at the official Lying-in-State at Westminster Hall, one will notice the four officers dressed in high bearskin caps on the top step. In the image below four officers dressed in different uniforms are standing in the same positions. Each is a Guards officer in one of the regiments of the Household Division.
Essentially the British Sovereign’s personal troops, the Household Division, commonly referred to as the Guards, is a unique formation within the British Army. The Guards are seen as part of the traditional pageantry of Britain, impressive in their turnout and drill and associated with such ceremonial parades as Changing the King’s / Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace, the Tower of London and Windsor Castle, and the Trooping of the Colour at the Sovereign’s annual birthday parade.
Unlike the members of the three corps discussed above, the Guards are first and foremost regular operational troops of the British Army, fully trained in every aspect of modern warfare and can be deployed to all parts of the world when and where necessary. In this regard they are required to be equally efficient in both forms of service, ceremonial and operational, and to attain the highest standards in both. The fact that this is achieved is evidence to their one basic principle, that nothing is acceptable which is in any way second rate. As testament to their primary role as professional soldiers, Foot Guardsmen also carry out their ceremonial duties while armed with a fully operational L85A2 Assault Rifle.
The Household Division comprises two components, namely the Household Cavalry and the Foot Guards. The Household Cavalry is found by squadrons of the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals. The Life Guards, the senior regiment of the British Army, were originally divided into two regiments, the 1st and 2nd Life Guards, but were amalgamated in 1922. The Blues and Royals came into being in 1969 when the Royal Horse Guards (The Blues) were amalgamated with the First (Royal) Dragoons to form a new regiment of Household Cavalry. In 1991 the Household Cavalry was divided into an armoured reconnaissance regiment, the Household Cavalry Regiment, for operational duties and the Household Cavalry Mounted Regiment for the ceremonial role. Both the Life Guards and the Blues and Royals maintain their identities within this regiment.
The Foot Guards consist of the following five regiments, in order of seniority: The Grenadier Guards, the Coldstream Guards, the Scots Guards, the Irish Guards and the Welsh Guards. Since 1991 each regiment maintains only one battalion which alternates between operational tours of duty and their ceremonial role in London. In addition, the Grenadier Guards, Coldstream Guards, Scots Guards and Irish Guards also maintain a separate independent company in London for ceremonial duties. These companies are the custodians of the colours and traditions of the second battalions of each regiment which are currently in suspended animation.
All the Guards regiments except for the Irish Guards and Welsh Guards can trace their existence back to the 17th Century around the time of the English Civil War and the restoration of Charles II as King in 1660. The Life Guards and the Grenadier Guards were formed from bodies of men who accompanied Charles into exile as his personal guard. Both the Royal Horse Guards and the Coldstream Guards were part of Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentary Army, but placed themselves at the King’s disposal upon his restoration. The Scots Guards were first raised in 1642, before any of the other regiments, but, owing to its disbandment in 1651 and incorporation into the English Army in 1686, despite their re-establishment in 1660, the regiment is today, according to the order of precedence, the third regiment of Foot Guards.
The Irish Guards owes its establishment to the plight of the Irish regiments in South Africa during the South African Anglo Boer War (1899 – 1902). These regiments distinguished themselves while suffering terrible casualties during the early defeats incurred by the British Army at the beginning of the war. News of these events reached Queen Victoria and the idea of forming an Irish Regiment of Foot Guards was approved by her on 1 April 1900. The Welsh Guards were formed in 1915 during the First World War (1914 – 1918) to help to achieve the demographic representation of the British Isles amongst the Guards.
The Household Cavalry carry swords on all ceremonial occasions. When mounted, the troopers wear riding breeches, referred to as bukskins, tall black winged leather boots and breastplates known as cuirassiers. Troopers of the Life Guards wear red tunics with black collars and white plumes above their helmets while those of the Blues and Royals wear blue tunics with red collars and red plumes above their helmets.
Foot guardsmen are well known for their ceremonial uniforms comprising of a red tunic, blue trousers with a red stripe down the side and black collars and epaulettes with a white trim. Officers tunics are embellished with fine gold thread. The bearskin caps are made from the fur of culled Canadian black bears and are water-resistant. During the winter months, the red tunics are replaced with large grey coats.
From a distance the uniforms of the Foot Guards all look the same but, despite the different regimental badges, each regiment’s uniform is unique in the following manner:
The hackles on the bearskin headdress of the Guards regiments are as follows:
- Grenadier Guards – white on the left
- Coldstream Guards – red on the right
- Scots Guards – none
- Irish Guards – blue on the right
- Welsh Guards – white with green bar in the centre on the left
The spacing of the buttons on the tunics are as follows:
- Grenadier Guards – single spacing between buttons
- Coldstream Guards – buttons in spacing of twos
- Scots Guards – buttons in spacing of threes
- Irish Guards – buttons in spacing of fours
- Welsh Guards – buttons in spacing of fives
As the senior regiment of the Foot Guards, the Grenadier Guards has further unique customs and ceremonial duties that are associated with the Monarch. The superior company of the 1st Bn Grenadier Guards is the King’s / Queen’s Company. At the coronation of a new Monarch, the Company is presented with the Sovereign’s Company Colour. Upon the passing of the reigning Monarch, the Company provides bearers for the coffin. The Company Colour is laid at the foot of the catafalque in Westminster Hall and then placed on the coffin when it descends into the vault in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.
The Funeral Possession and the Sovereign’s Guard of the Royal Navy
This scene is of the funeral procession from Westminster Abbey to Wellington Arch at Hyde Park and all the regiments and corps discussed in this article are in position on either side of the gun carriage carrying the coffin. The Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms is followed by the Body Guard of the Yeomen of the Guard which is, in turn, followed by the King’s Body Guard of Scotland: The Royal Company of Archers. They all march with their arms reversed. Ahead of them is the bearer party from the Queen’s Company, 1st Bn Grenadier Guards. The weight of the led-lined coffin required a party of eight bearers. In the centre of the procession is an extra body known as the Sovereign’s Guard and found by a selection of sailors of the Royal Navy.
The tradition of using the Royal Navy to haul and guide the gun carriage carrying the coffin dates back to the death and funeral of Queen Victoria in 1901. A gun carriage was to be used by the Royal Horse Artillery to transport the coffin of Queen Victoria from Windsor Railway Station to Windsor Castle. It is believed that the horses of the Royal Horse Artillery reared up and threatened to topple the coffin from the carriage. Prince Louis of Battenberg, a senior flag officer of the Royal Navy, rescued the situation by ordering the naval party present on site to pull the carriage instead. This practice has since become a tradition for all royal and other notable funerals.
The carriage was taken out of service after the funeral and since then has been known as the State Gun Carriage. It was used for the state funerals of Edward VII, George V, George VI, Winston Churchill, Earl Mountbatten of Burma and, most recently, Elizabeth II. When not in use it is housed and preserved in an environmental controlled room at HMS Excellent, a naval base located at Portsmouth. On the day of the funeral the Sovereign’s Guard of the Royal Navy was found by 98 sailors ahead of the coffin whose purpose was to haul the carriage with white rope and a further 40 sailors behind whose role was to serve as the break when required.
This article has focussed on the role of those military corps and regiments that played both a significant and symbolic role in the official lying in state and state funeral of the late Queen Elizabeth II. All of the units discussed are closely associated with the British Monarch and each has a particular role that is steeped in tradition, most of which date back many centuries. One must agree that the military pageantry associated with the entire process was flawlessly carried out and an altogether remarkable and colourful experience.
Money Barnes, Maj R, Military Uniforms of Britain and the Empire (London: Seeley Service & Co, 1960)
Money Barnes, Maj R, The Soldiers of London (London: Seeley Service & Co, 1963)
Sinclair, Allan. 2004. “South Africa’s Association with the British Guards” in Military History Journal, Vol 13 No 1, June 2004: 12 – 17.
You Tube Videos
You Tube Video, Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms (14 August 2014)
You Tube Video, Queen’s Funeral: History of the Gun Carriage (September 2022)
 R Money Barnes, The Soldiers of London (London: Seeley Service & Co, 1963), 34.
 You Tube Video, Honourable Corps of Gentlemen-at-Arms (14 August 2014); R Money Barnes, The Soldiers of London (London: Seeley Service & Co, 1963), 302.
 Allan Sinclair, “South Africa’s Association with the British Guards” in Military History Journal, Vol 13 No 1 (2004).
 R Money Barnes, The Soldiers of London (London: Seeley Service & Co, 1963), 292.
 R Money Barnes, Military Uniforms of Britain and the Empire (London: Seeley Service & Co, 1960), 242.
 https://www.thenationalnews.com/world/uk-news/2022/09/18/who-are-the-sailors-pulling-the-gun-carriage/ ; You Tube Video, Queen’s Funeral: History of the Gun Carriage (September 2022)