Honourable Artillery Company Founded
The Honourable Artillery Company is one of those ancient and complex institutions that visitors to Britain find fascinating, and whose history provides insights into the history of the country as a whole. It is the oldest regiment in the British Army, but for most purposes is outside that army, in essence more akin to a livery company, with one element of the organisation providing support to the City of London Police.
Though August 25 1537 is the earliest documented date traced in the existence of the unit, there is strong reason to believe that it or its antecedents date back to the late 13th century. In 1537 though Henry VIIIgranted a charter to the Guild of St George, incorporating them as a company for the better defence of the realm, with the specific aim of improving the knowledge and use of ‘artillery’ in England: artillery in this sense actually meant – as was set out in the charter – longbows, crossbows, and hand guns, i.e. anything that launched a projectile, other than cannons which were known then as great artillery. The company’s incorporation denotes a change in the nature of warfare. Or more accurately Henry VIII’s acknowledgment of the change, with noble knights on horseback no longer the determining force in battles.
At a time when standing armies were still feared and their establishment resisted, the company performed a useful function in skilling the officers of the Trained Bands, the militia, available for duties in national defence that included what are now policing matters such as riot control.
It was not until 1780, after the company’s vital role in putting down the Gordon Riots, that it first received what we now think of as artillery pieces. Unofficially the company had been dubbed ‘honourable’ since the reign of James II , this appellation confirmed finally by Queen Victoria in 1860.
The Honourable Artillery Company today has duties that are purely ceremonial, such as royal cannon salutes in London; at the same time it is part of the Territorial Army, represented in conflicts including Iraq and Afghanistan; and it provides active support in the policing of the capital.