Royals in uniform

Any fellow-bloggers who followed yesterday's State Opening of Parliament on television with sufficiently rapt attention might have been struck by the appearance in the midst of all the weird ceremonial of Princess Anne, the Princess Royal and daughter of the Queen, in an ornate uniform and waving a yellow rod of some description.  It turns out that Her Royal Highness is the (honorary, I assume) Colonel of the Blues and Royals, one of the regiments of the Household Cavalry, and that this already onerous position automatically also makes her something called "Gold Stick in Waiting":  hence her bit part, in full costume, at the State Opening.  A similarly useless piece of supporting information from a website devoted to the wife of the heir to the throne, Camilla, Princess of Wales (who prefers to shelter behind the title "Duchess of Cornwall", for reasons best known to her husband) tells us that in the 1970s Camilla's first husband, Andrew Parker-Bowles, was –

Colonel Commanding the Household Cavalry and Silver Stick in Waiting to Queen Elizabeth II. And was [sic] ADC to Lord Soames, when he was Governor-General of Southern Rhodesia in 1979.  Silver Stick is merely the title that comes with being the Colonel Commanding the Household Cavalry. Silver Stick in Waiting is the assistant to Gold Stick in Waiting. These court titles date back to Tudor times, when two army officers were placed near the Sovereign to protect him or her from danger. Their name derives from their staffs of office, which have a gold or a silver head.

The same website quotes an anonymous 'friend' as saying that Andrew Parker-Bowles is –

an ex-boyfriend of Princess Anne, and the late Queen Mother saw him as one of her favourites.

So Camilla's former husband once held the office of assistant to an office of state now occupied by the lady who is now her sister-in-law and a former girl-friend of the same former husband.  I hope that's clear? 

It's important not to confuse the Princess Royal's costume when she is in her Gold Stick role with the naval uniform (possibly that of an admiral or more likely some slightly lower rank — see below, and please be patient) which she tends to wear on out-of-doors occasions such as the Remembrance Day ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall on the nearest Sunday to 11 November, anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I.  Although Princess Anne (once again according to Wikipedia ) is Colonel-in-Chief of some 20 army regiments, British, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand, she quite understandably seems to find that naval rig suits her best, relying no doubt on her position as 'Rear Admiral and Chief Commandant for women, Royal Navy'.  Nor should we forget that —

In 2002, she made history by being the first non-reigning woman to wear military uniform at a funeral, when she wore a Royal Navy uniform at the funeral of her grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

The Princess is not the only royal personage to don slightly surprising military uniform on ceremonial occasions.  Those watching the recent Remembrance Day ceremony at the Cenotaph may have wondered about the identity of the youngish-looking man in military uniform viewing the proceedings from a Foreign Office balcony with other non-participating royals.  Surely, we thought, this couldn't be HRH the Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, whose career in the Royal Marines came to an embarrassingly premature end after only three months when the Royal Marines decided that the Prince was not for them, and he sensibly decided that the The Earl of Wessex inspecting his troopsRoyal Marines were right?  For a man whose military career had been so short-lived now to appear in public in some form of military uniform might seem just a little — well, insensitive.  But the next day's Court Circular solved the mystery.  Yes, it was indeed Prince Edward on the balcony, in his role and uniform of — wait for it — "Royal Honorary Colonel, The Royal Wessex Yeomanry", a unit of the Territorial Army.  As a footnote, it's reassuring to see from the accompanying illustration (right) of the Royal Earl inspecting his royal yeomen that he sports a number of medals, perhaps including a medal for bravery when he risked his father's wrath by deciding to call it a day with the Royal Marines.

We have Wikipedia once again to thank for the following further tantalising titbits:

The Earl of Wessex is mostly famous for his television production and presenting career and his brief service with the Royal Marines. In connection with the television production, he has used the names Edward Windsor and, later, Edward Wessex, leading The Guardian, for one, to refer to him as "the Edward formerly known as Prince". … In 1994, the leaders of Estonia's Royalist Party, with 10 percent of the seats in the Estonian National Parliament, wrote to Prince Edward indicating that they would, if they came into power, like to offer him the position of King of Estonia. In their letter, they said that they wanted Edward as King because of their admiration "for him, Britain, its monarchy, democracy and culture". It is unknown how, or even if, the Earl of Wessex responded, but he obviously has yet to assume the throne of this Baltic State.

Imagination quails at the thought of the uniforms His Royal Highness (potential Majesty) could wear if only he were to decide to accept that Estonian offer.


11 Responses

  1. Martin says:


    The Royals hold these ranks but don’t flaunt them on daily duties. Some, such as the Dukes of York and Kent, have served full term commissions. The Prince of Wales has commanded a ship. I have done none of these things, so don’t feel qualified to criticise those who have for wearing such uniforms on State occasions when the protocols by which they as much as we are bound demand it.

    One would not imagine that serving soldiers think them impertinent for doing so, and the tourists love it – it’s a classic win-win.

    Incidentally, your comment that

    "So Camilla’s former husband held the office of assistant to an office of state now occupied by the lady who is now her sister-in-law and a former girl-friend of the same former husband.  I hope that’s clear? "

    is straight from the pages of Somerville and Ross. Wonderful!

  2. Phil says:

    I can’t speak for Brian, but I know I wouldn’t dream of criticising the future Charles III (or is it to be George VII?), still less to impugn his naval record. If he were to appear in public, in a time of war*, wearing a uniform which had never seen any kind of service, bedecked with unearned baubles and generally looking as if he’d stepped out of some comic-opera Ruritanian Officer’s Mess, I’d sigh quietly and look the other way.

    But I think Prince Edward is fair game.

    *Strictly speaking I don’t suppose the current situation in Iraq qualifies as a war – but ‘in a time of military conflict’ doesn’t scan as well.

  3. Brian says:

    Martin and Phil: Thank you for these comments.  I hope though that you will both acquit me of having cast even light-hearted aspersions on the wearing of military uniform by those many members of the royal family who have genuinely served in the armed forces, some of them (including the Duke of Edinburgh and the Duke of York) having seen serious action and having behaved with evident courage and distinction in it.  Nor would I criticise Prince Charles for wearing military uniform after his perfectly genuine Royal Navy experience, although I do think his recent promotion to Admiral, General and Air Chief Marshal of the Royal Air Force, all at once, is faintly amusing.  Prince William and Prince Harry are well on course for earning their right to uniform, too.   But Princess Anne?  Prince Edward?  It's all harmless fun, though, and keeps the plebs entertained.

  4. Incidentally, there is assistance here to update your I-Spy Book of Royal Baubles. Most appear  to have been pinned on the lad by his mother.
    And your  last (?) appears to be "Air Chief……!

    Brian writes:  That's a splendid hyperlink, Tony, one to be treasured.  And I have corrected my earlier comment with 'Air Chief' Marshal as P. Charles's latest RAF up-grade.  Many thanks. 

  5. Tim Weakley says:

    Brian, I too am puzzled by British royalty's habit of wearing military uniform on so many occasions, instead of morning dress or a formal suit, or the feminine equivalent.  The American president is genuinely Commander-in-Chief, but he is never seen in the uniform of a five-star general or fleet admiral, even at his coronation, I mean inauguration..  For me, it demeans the uniform if the wearer has no real authority in that particular service or regiment, how ever big a thrill it gives the tourists, though I respect the genuine service of the P. of W., his father, and young Andrew – the last two of whom saw real action, as did Charles's and Andrew's maternal grandfather (commanding a gun turret in Collingwood at Jutland).  The last royal to see active service while monarch was George II who, at least nominally, commanded the Pragmatic Army (!) at Dettingen in 1743 in the War of the Austrian Succession.  He fought dismounted after his horse ran away with him.  His younger son was Butcher Cumberland of Culloden.  Since then the Services have been repositories for the male members of the Royal family, giving them something to do (like the Duke of Cambridge, commander-in-chief for far too long and a foe to badly-needed army reform) or keeping them where the public couldn't see them (Prince Eddy, the distinctly odd elder brother of the future George V, who tactfully died before his father and probably wasn't really Jack the Ripper). 

    As for the colonelcies-in-chief: again, ornamental, with no real authority – the holder of one couldn't attempt the actual function of the Colonel of a regiment, which is to arbitrate on questions of regimental tradition and smooth out quarrels between the officers.  Query: what happens when regiments are amalgamated?  Do the Colonels get together and decide on compromise traditions?

    Brian writes:  Thanks for a splendidly informative comment, Tim.  I entirely agree about the vital distinction between the royals who have fought in uniform, the royals who have served for real in uniform, and those who just wear uniform.  Even the last category are only following pretty ancient tradition, I suppose, and it provides a bit of harmless fun.  And if dressing up like that turns them on, why should anyone object?

  6. Martin says:


    The Prince of Wales' promotion to the highest rank in all three services is merely an example of how our monarchy is modernising.

    He is multi-tasking…

    Brian writes:  Ah, that must be right.  Never thought of it like that! 

  7. Baralbion says:

    And let’s not forget that if you’re the second son of the eldest son you might even risk a fetching Nazi uniform.

  8. Bonjour auriez vous des photos d'uniforme feminin de la royal navy seconde guerre mondial,merci.Bien a vous.

    Brian écrit:  Je m'excuse, mais je crois que vous vous trompez de vous trouver ici… 

  9. Stephan Dunbar says:

    They tested the water at the 2007 Cenotaph ceremony giving Edward a uniform which looked suspiciously like that of an officer in the Royal Navy, but which turned out to be that of Chief Commandant of the Fleet Auxiliary. Having got away with that without too much adverse comment, they have gone the whole hog this year and allowed him to flounce around in what must be one of the most flamboyant army uniforms they could think of – all that scarlet! (And I won’t even ask about the medals.) If the Royal Marines wasn’t for him, then fair enough, but to turn up in a uniform that other members of the Wessex Yeomanry have to earn is outrageous. He should have the dignity and sensitivity to stick to civilian morning dress. 

    Brian writes: Thanks for this splendid contribution, Stephan. These imaginative, if far-fetched, forays into obscure Ruritanian uniforms reduce the concept of military or naval uniform to the status of fancy dress. (Once upon a time, long ago, I wore the uniform of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment for two years, not without pride, but I wouldn’t dream of wearing it now in the company of men or women who have earned their uniforms and medals on active service. Not, of course, that it would fit me now anyway.)

  10. William Gladys says:

    By tradition the royals are all military minded war-mongers and enjoy flaunting their gongs for all to see. The last time I  saw such a show a tourist from Japan said something like “…what all the medals for …bravery?…”No I replied its just what we in England call “window dressing sells tardy goods at the highest price”. We all had a good laugh at the absurdity of it all. Nevertheless, I thinkPrince Charles, apart from the colour of his skin is the nearest I have ever seen  who is a dead-ringer for Idi Amin. William.

  11. William Gladys says:

    Gold stick in waiting and Silver stick in waiting? Is this the 21st. century in England – someone please tell me it isn’t!!! As the Monarchical  sickophant  Jeremy Paxman would not have said, but I  do: is there  by any chance “A – Y front in waiting” or perhaps “Keeper of the Royal Y fronts”. Cringeing isn’t it. William.

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