The Crown and the Institute

His Majesty The King’s recent decision to assume the Royal Patronage of the Institute provides a timely opportunity to reflect on how our association with the Royal Family has changed shape over the years.

King William IV was enthusiastic about the idea of an organisation that would study and advance knowledge on naval and military matters. He was the first monarch to bestow his patronage upon RUSI. Queen Victoria continued the association, as did Prince George, the Duke of Cambridge, who acted as Vice-Patron of RUSI and later, as President. This was not just a ceremonial title, for the Duke also served for an extended period as Commander-in-Chief of the Forces, much to the frustration of the War Office. The Duke’s famed opposition to any military reform and otherwise conservative views were apparent in an 1895 lecture he chaired at RUSI on the American Civil War. The transcript of that event – one of the first held in the newly-built RUSI building on 61 Whitehall - notes that he was adamant about the continued relevance of the cavalry in military battles despite technological advances indicating the future of warfare would be very different:

I confess that I had always had the feeling that I could never understand what was meant by saying that war could ever be carried on without cavalry; and I do think, if there was one feature in the explanations of the lecturer which struck me more forcibly than another, it was that he clearly brought before my mind the absolute necessity of a large, handy body of cavalry...

Captain C. C. Chesney R.E. (1865) Sherman's Campaign in Georgia, Royal United Services Institution. Journal, 9:35, 204-220

The irony that a grandson of King George III chose to involve himself in a debate about the conduct of military operations in North America appeared to pass unnoticed to the audience present at that time.

By the 20th century, the Royal Family’s involvement with charities and charitable causes grew exponentially. But so did the Royal Family’s support for RUSI. As Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII took an active part in fund-raising for the Institute’s building; this included holding a charity bazaar in Whitehall. Subsequently, both King George V and Queen Mary donated and loaned precious military items and works of art to the Institute. The famed bust of Admiral Lord Nelson by Sir Francis Chantrey RA was lent to the Institute and was seen by millions of visitors; after the disbandment of the RUSI Museum, it was returned to the Royal Collection and is now displayed in the Queen’s Guard Chamber at Windsor Castle. The table on which the armistice accord ending the Crimean War was signed in February 1856 was also entrusted by King George V and Queen Mary to the Institute, where it remains on loan to this day.

The minutes of the Council were often eager to note members of the Royal Family who visited and how long for. Here is an entry from 1953, soon after Queen Mary passed away, which stated:

The Institution has been honoured with visits by many Members of the Royal Family. The most frequent, and certainly one of the best-informed on the contents of our Museum, was Her late Majesty Queen Mary who, only two years ago, in her eighty-fourth year, spent an active hour on the premises and imparted some of her great knowledge to those who attended her.

In December 1938, less than a year before the outbreak of the Second World War, a worried Chairman of the Council sent a letter to King George VI’s Private Secretary. The government wanted to use Banqueting House – where RUSI’s museum was housed – to host French President Albert Lebrun, who was arriving for a State Visit in March 1939. Whilst not wanting to say no, there were concerns, such as the not-so-trivial matter of where the museum items would be stored, as well as the cost of removing them all. After alerting The King to the problem, the proposal was reconsidered, and the banquet took place elsewhere. The King’s Secretary was recorded as saying:

It is true that a suitable and worthy place for the latter purpose (Government entertaining) is badly needed, but in the event of this proposal being carried further, I feel sure that the King would wish the Institution to have a fair deal.

Volume 9, Minutes of the Council, RUSI Library

In another sign of friendship, in 1947, Princess Elizabeth – our Vice Patron at that time - sent us a tier of her wedding cake. The archives inform us it was displayed on a table at a meeting of the Council and was subsequently shared between the Board and members of staff. Sadly, this appears to have been a one-off; RUSI was never favoured with a royal cake again.

Over the next few decades, RUSI underwent significant changes. The loss of access to Banqueting House meant that the museum, which was frequented so often by Members of the Royal Family, was closed in 1962.

Although the disbandment of the Museum was a terrible loss (financially, as well as institutionally, for RUSI), it did present an opportunity for RUSI to re-think and expand its purpose. We moved into academic research and now have nine research groups covering a broad range of defence and security topics, such as financial crime, cyber security, and nuclear policy, as well as the more traditional area of military sciences. These are now our core activities, as well as our primary source of income.

The Late Prince Philip took a close interest in this academic transformation. Most notably, he delivered a lecture at the Institute in 1983 on the importance of military education, suggesting that the profession should become a distinct field of study. The proposal promoted a vivid debate at that time and, Within months after Prince Philip passed away, Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II swiftly approved the establishment of an annual lecture in Prince Philip’s honour, the first of which was held in 2022. And no mention of the Royal Family’s support for RUSI is complete without mentioning the tireless contributions of HRH The Duke of Kent, our President since 1975, who has attended lectures, seminars as well as debating dinners at the Institute for almost half a century.

RUSI’s impact on public life and defence debates is probably more significant now than at any other point in our history. We have more staff than we have ever before – over 100 – and from the heart of Whitehall, we seek to guide and influence policy and the public debate by generating new and essential research. Yet the steadying hand of support from the Royal Family remains as vital to us as it has always been. To have the continued endorsement of the reigning Sovereign represents a singular honour and a credit to the work of our research and operations staff.

We look forward to a new chapter in our activities with His Majesty The King as our eighth Patron.

HM The King is RUSI's New Royal Patron
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