Friday, September 16, 2022

Gentlemen at Arms

As I suggested in the previous post, those who might imagine that what they have been witnessing in London this week is some sort of kooky fancy dress event are, at least partly, getting the wrong end of the stick. 

For rather than a costume worn over the skin, the pageantry unleashed by the death of Queen II is an at times a highly unusual glimpse under the skin...of the state, the undoubtedly strange fabric of British history, the public consciousness, etc. 

These things are more normally reflected back at us by the mainstream media and formal academic pronouncements, but the ceremony we are now witnessing provides an entirely different and (perhaps counter-intuitively) authentic form of national mediation. 

Much of it has been either new to me or stuff I had possibly not really paid attention to before.

Take these chaps: the Honourable Corps (formerly band) of Gentlemen at Arms with their swan-feather plumes. Just some old establishment dodderers kitted out by Gieves & Hawkes of Savile Row, you might conclude, yet their history and presentation is fascinating...

They were first established as the personal bodyguard of the monarch in 1509 (the same year SPS was founded) — in effect Henry VIIIs Praetorian Guard (or for Thronies, his Kingsguard). 

At first the band was made up of young cadets from noble families and although they now dress as cavalrymen, for most of the sixteenth century the Gentlemen were a dismounted unit armed with battle-axes. In the course of the Civil War they saved the life of the previous Charles, then Prince of Wales, at the Battle of Edgehill (1642). 

Their non-ceremonial functions continued in parallel until the 1840s, when they became permanently 'fixed' in the form of red-coated Dragoon Guards. 

Not long afterwards the Russians would have faced similarly-attired men on horses during the Charge of the Heavy Brigade at Balaclava. Frankly, it wasn't much of a charge, barely a trot, as the brigade had to attack uphill, and the whole action lasted ten minutes at most, but was generally more successful than that of Lucan's other brigade at the same battle a little later on.

Anyway, as the need for combat-readiness /taking a bullet for the boss was waived, the age-profile of the Gentlemen shifted to the current average of 52. 

Today the Corps consists of 27 Gentlemen plus 5 officers, one of whom is always the Government's Chief Whip in the House of Lords, so a sort of political Kommissar

Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, pioneer of the game of lawn tennis, served from 1870-1909. 

In the middle of the 19th century the sport finally made it out from the enclosed indoor courts of Real Tennis, thanks to the development of bouncy vulcanised rubber balls and the prevalence of under-utilised croquet lawns. 

The Major devised the modern scoring system and made a packet selling boxed sets of racquets and balls for between five and ten guineas. He called his new game Sphairistikè which, you will note, did not catch on to quite the same extent. 

He was inducted into the International Sphairistikè (tennis) Hall of Fame in 1997.

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