The Honourable Artillery Company is the oldest regiment in the British Army and the second most senior unit of the Army Reserve. The Company traditionally traces its origins to 1537 when Henry VIII granted a charter to the “Fraternity or Guild of Artillery of Longbows, Crossbows and Handguns”, which was also to be a perpetual fraternity of St George. According to the charter, the Fraternity was intended for “the better increase of the defence of this our realm and maintenance of the science and feat of shooting in longbows, crossbows and handguns.” In 1538, this body leased an area in Bishopsgate and trained there until around the 1560s.
Military exercises were revived in the Bishopsgate “Artillery Garden” between 1586 and 1588 by the captains of the City’s forces (the “Trained Bands”) in response to a threatened Spanish invasion. The word “artillery” was used at this time to describe archery and other small missile weapons, while bigger guns were known as “great artillery”.
In 1611, during a period of chivalric patriotism, some of the “Captains of the Artillery Garden” and other citizens returned to practise in the same ground and formed the Society of Arms. The Court of Assistants was probably in existence by 1616 when the first set of rules and orders were printed and Colonel Martin Bond MP was appointed the first President. At this time, the City of London’s Court of Aldermen appointed the chief officers and paid the professional soldiers who trained members of the Society. However, a royal warrant from Charles I in 1634 granted the appointment of its captain to the king, of its president to the Lord Mayor of London, and of the rest of its officers to the body itself.
Division, Re-formation and Restoration: 1642-1701
The Civil War years of 1642-1649 led to division and the suspension of the Society of Arms. Many members of the Artillery Company supported the Parliamentarian side (in line with the City of London), others rallied to the Royalist cause, whilst some changed sides during the conflict. A lease was obtained by the Company from the City of London in 1641 for a piece of ground in Finsbury and in 1658 a complete move was made to this new Artillery Garden.
From 1657, when the Company was re-formed, and probably since 1611, members served as either pikemen or musketeers. After around 1670 an artillery train of large guns was occasionally used on marches and the Grenadier Company was added in 1686. After a decline in membership and training during the reign of James II, William III’s warrant of 22 May 1689 renewed the Company’s privileges. Importantly, it also restored Court elections, which had been suspended since 1681. The courtesy prefix “Honourable” is first found used in records of 1685.
Armoury House and Defending the City: 1702-1799
In 1702, Queen Anne appointed her husband, Prince George of Denmark and Norway, Duke of Cumberland, to be Captain-General. He took little interest and the Company was therefore in a state of financial neglect at his death in 1708. Its fortunes were revived with the election of new officers later that year.
In 1722, George I gave the Company £500 which contributed towards the cost of building and furnishing Armoury House in 1735.
In November 1779, the longstanding connection between the Company and the City’s Trained Bands ceased following a squabble with the Lord Mayor. City funding was withdrawn in April 1780 and officers and sergeants of the Trained Bands were then only permitted to serve on Company marches with the City’s approval. Nonetheless, the Company continued to aid the civil power and played a crucial role in defending the City during the Gordon Riots of June 1780. In 1781, a grateful Lord Mayor presented the Company with two brass field guns (now displayed on the Great Stairs).
By 1770, the Grenadier Company was considered to be the elite sub-unit of the Regiment. In February 1781, a major reorganisation of the Regiment created an infantry battalion of eight numbered divisions as well as the Light Infantry Division. The Matross Division was also formed in 1781 to man the new guns, whilst the Archers’ Division operated from 1784 to c1799.
The HAC has provided guards of honour in the City since 1768 for visiting members of the Royal Family and overseas Heads of State or Commonwealth Prime Ministers.
Research our Archives for further information and for details of HAC publications available for purchase.