History of the Foot Guards

Formation and role of the Regiments

Image: 17th Century Musketeer and Pikeman


It would be impossible to cover the history of the five regiments of Foot Guards here, as their history is far too long and complicated, with one of the regiments tracing their formation back to 1642 and subsequent history up to the present day.

The history of the Guards runs through the fabric of Great Britain. Their primary role has always been as front line troops and their ceremonial as a secondary role. From their earliest times they have fought in many actions protecting Britain and her empire as well as supporting the UN and NATO in its peace keeping duties. They have fought in almost very campaign the British Army has been in, even if the regiments have not been there, officers have often been seconded to the Staff. One such action was the Zulu War of 1879. No Foot Guard regiments fought there, but the Zulus killed two Guards officers who were on the Staff. In their secondary role they have been the personal bodyguards to the Sovereign, protecting both their person and Royal residencies from their formations.

As Royal Guards, they have over the centuries accumulated certain privileges. There are no single chevrons soldiers within the Guards; Queen Victoria decreed that she did not want to see a single chevron soldier within her Guards. Other then the two senior Warrant Officers of the British Army, the senior Warrant Officers of the Foot Guards wear a large Sovereigns personal coat of arms badge on their upper arm. No other regiments of the British Army are allowed to do so; all the others wear a small coat of arms of their lower arms. Up until 1871 all officers in the Foot Guards had the privilege of having double rankings. An Ensign was ranked as an Ensign and Lieutenant, a Lieutenant as Lieutenant and Captain and a Captain as Captain and Lieutenant Colonel. This was because at the time officers purchased their own ranks and it cost more to purchase a commission in the Foot Guards than any other regiments in the British Army. For example if it cost an officer in the Foot Guards £1,000 for his first rank, in the rest of the Army it would be £500 so if he transferred to another regiment he would loose £500, hence the higher rank, if he was an Ensign in the Guards and he transferred to a Line Regiment he went in at the higher rank of Lieutenant.

Formation of the Regiments

The three older Guard Regiments were formed during the English Civil War. During the English Civil War, Ireland was in rebellion. Charles I needed troops to go there to sort out the troubles, as he was fighting parliament he could not draw them from the English establishment. So he decided to draw them from the Scottish establishment. Charles ordered Archibald Campbell the 1st Marquess of Argyll to form some regiments, one of which the Regiment of Scottish Foot Guards was to be his personal guard, this regiment later became the Scots Guards. Those regiments raised in Scotland were sent to Ireland and Charles intended to go to Ireland with them, before he could, he was capture by Cromwellian troops. On his execution these regiments were disbanded. It was not until 1661 that they were re-raised by King Charles II and titled the 3rd Regiment of Foot Guards.

Monck’s Regiment of Foot was formed on 13th August 1650 under Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army this later became the Coldstream Guards. Colonel Monck first fought for the King. He was captured and sent to the Tower of London, he was not mistreated, it is known he actually wrote a book whilst in prison. Monck had come to the attention of Cromwell for his prowess of commanding troops on the battlefield, Cromwell asked him to change sides. This he rejected. After two years in the Tower he changed his mind. He was given command of the troops in Scotland. His regiment was raised by combining five companies from George Fenwick and five companies from Sir Arthur Hazelrigg’s regiments. Oliver Cromwell died and his son tried to take power, but it didn’t work and the country was starting to fall back into Civil War. At this time Monck had his regiments based around the town of Coldstream on the English-Scottish borders. He marched his regiments through England suppressing the rioting and marched into London. In parliament he told them that if they did not do something about settling the country he would as he had the army behind him. Things settled down and after a time it was due to the actions of General Monck that the King was able to return to England. The King ennobled Monck who became the Duke of Albemarle. On his death 10 years later he was given a state funeral.

Charles II after fleeing England travelled around Europe eventually finishing up in Bruges in Belgium. He had his headquarters at the house of the Guild of St Sebastian in Bruges. Whilst there he need to raise some regiments for his own protection and also to form the nucleus of an army when he returned to England. He managed to raise five infantry regiments. One English and Scottish and three Irish in September 1656. The English regiment was his personal bodyguard and titled The Royal Regiment of Guards, later the Grenadier Guards. When Charles was asked to come back to England as its King he took part of the regiment with him. Shortly after his arrival he had General Monck draw his regiment up on Tower Hill and told them to lay down their arms, as they fought for Parliament. In the next breath he told them to pick up they arms, they were now in the service of the King and titled the 2nd Regiment of Foot Guards. Whilst picking up their arms they said they would not take on the title of 2nd Regiment of Foot Guards as they had been formed six years before his own regiment. The King said as he had raised his regiment as his personal Guards that they would take precedence over ever other regiment of the army. Monck’s regiment came back and said they would never take the title of 2nd Regiment of Foot Guard, but carry on with their present title until their Colonel, Monck died, and then take on the title Coldstream Guards from the town they originally marched from.

In 1900 Queen Victoria was so proud of the Irish Regiment’s actions during the 2nd Boer War that she decided to form a regiment of Irish Guards and this was duly done. At this time about two thirds of the soldiers in the British army were of Irish extraction.

In 1915 it was pointed out to the King that he had no presence from the Principally of Wales in his Guards, so the Welsh Guards were formed and two days later they performed their first Guard Mount at Buckingham Palace.