Main Image Credit Image Caption: HM Queen Elizabeth II. Courtesy of Jacob King/PA Wire/PA Images.
A former Chief of the Defence Staff reflects on Her Majesty’s unique contribution to the Armed Forces of the UK.
The passing of Her Majesty The Queen will bring about many reflections on her life and her remarkable achievements. One such reflection should be on the unique relationship that she enjoyed with her Armed Forces.
It is, of course, impossible to produce a wholly accurate reflection of that relationship, because so much of it lay beyond the realm of public engagement; and so much of it, therefore, should properly remain as an immeasurable number of personal, private and treasured memories. What follows, therefore, is not an attempt at revelation, but more an attempt to put the relationship in a wider and more historic context.
The exact nature of the relationship between the sovereign and the Armed Forces is, like much of our history, both wonderfully elusive and variously described. It is, to a great extent, clouded by the emotive way in which we interpret rather too much of our national story through the lens of great martial events. Our first understanding of the relationship, therefore, derives from the times when monarchs really did have very little constraint on their power; when they enjoyed sole authority to declare war and peace; and when they also had sole responsibility for raising, equipping and maintaining their Armed Forces.
These were times when monarchs commanded armies in battle and when the links that connected victory, power and riches dictated the fortune of nations. Indeed, much of the popular history of Britain is defined by such events: William’s victory and Harold’s death at the Battle of Hastings; Henry V’s triumph at Agincourt; the deeds of Richard the Lionheart on Crusade; the first Queen Elizabeth’s inspiring role in the fate of the Spanish Armada.
Even in more recent times this personal link between the sovereign and active military service has echoes. King George VI saw action in 1916 in the Battle of Jutland. Her Majesty’s own wartime experience with the Auxiliary Territorial Service was fundamental to her subsequently emerging as one of the iconic veterans of a wartime generation. And the very wide involvement of Her Majesty’s own close family in military service, often on operations, has continued to sustain the sense of martial intimacy in the sovereign’s relationship with the Armed Forces.
This very real intimacy, however, which undoubtedly endures, can sometimes obscure historic reality: the formal authority that the monarch now exercises over the Armed Forces is much more limited. Indeed, it was in the years immediately following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that the prerogative powers were defined and legislation was enacted to curtail the power of the monarch; hence forming the basis of the relationship between monarchy, parliament and people, that still largely endures to this day.
The sovereign, however, does formally remain the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces and this element of the relationship involves a wide range of formalised duties and obligations incumbent on both the sovereign and the Armed Forces themselves. Most obvious of these are the Royal Patronages of ships, regiments and air squadrons; the fact that officers of the Armed Forces are appointed by a Queen’s Commission; the swearing of an oath of allegiance to the monarch by all servicemen and women (less the Royal Navy whose loyalty is, of course, not in doubt); the mutual participation in public duties, state ceremonial and wider national events; the continued use of the Queen’s Regulations as the bedrock of Service administration; and the many military honours and awards which ultimately the sovereign approves.
There is little doubt that these very visible connections between the Armed Forces and the monarchy are representative of a historic continuity and form part of the emotional fabric of the nation. However, to think of the relationship in the context of national sentiment or formal duty is to misconstrue its true essence. The relationship is far better understood less as one of formalised authority and more one of informal influence.
It is this relationship that The Queen developed, and which involved her in a role that combined many elements, the most obvious of which were leadership, support, custodianship and inspiration. It was a role that demanded a remarkable mix of insight, subtlety and personal example. The insight required was derived from a huge amount of formal and informal sources: from cabinet papers, official minutes, visits, lunchtime conversations, more formal calls from Service chiefs and cabinet ministers, no doubt less formal ones from family and friends.
Her Majesty was often described as her own best intelligence officer. But it was the powerful combination of knowledge and experience, supported by sage advice, that formed a constant guide to a relationship that was always founded on appropriate action. The action took many forms. Sometimes a very public act of support, such as her 2009 broadcast to the Armed Forces when, on behalf of the nation, she offered her thanks to all servicemen and women for helping to maintain peace around the globe.
Sometimes it was a quiet word in a chancellor’s ear, perhaps during a state banquet, when she felt that the School of Piping might be under threat. Sometimes it was to reflect a nation’s sentiment, for example when she instituted the Elizabeth Cross to provide national recognition for the families of Armed Forces personnel who had died on operations or as a result of terrorism.
The most important contribution to the relationship, however, did not lay in specific initiatives; rather it was to be found in two things. The first was the exercise of leadership though the inspiration of personal example: the personal example of a lifetime of selfless service. This acted as an enduring inspiration to all ranks of the Armed Forces as to what service was really about.
The second, however, was arguably Her Majesty’s most important contribution to the nation: the constant pursuit of integrity. Integrity is often regarded as a purely personal quality. But nations also need integrity: the integrity that binds all elements of the nation to a common purpose. And a significant part of the responsibility of monarchy, especially at times of major war, unpopular conflict or terrorist troubles, is to try to achieve that unity of purpose.
In this respect, Her Majesty never let us down.
Lord Houghton of Richmond GCB CBE DL
General Nicholas Houghton served as Chief of the Defence Staff from 2013 to 2016. He carried the Sword of State at Her Late Majesty’s last Parliament in May 2022.
General the Lord Houghton of Richmond GCB CBE DL