Calling the Shots

Based opposite Bunhill Fields, the Honourable Artillery Company is one of the oldest military organisations in the world – it’s been defending the realm since the reign of Henry VIII. Duncan Ireland, HAC assistant court secretary, reveals its history of warfare – from crossbows to muskets – and regimental traditions.

The big green space to the south of Bunhill Fields, where sports matches are often played, is steeped in as much history as the cemetery itself. It belongs to the Honourable Artillery Company, one of the oldest military organisations in the world. Established for the “better defence of the realm”, the HAC is still active in this role, with a surveillance and target acquisition regiment that bears its name, although many people now know it as a charity, members’ organisation and corporate events venue.

The HAC forms a link between today’s modern army and the civilian levies of medieval England. No other active military unit in the country can claim a pedigree that dates back to the days when bows and pikes were the standard weapons of English soldiers.

There are historical references to the HAC as far back as 1087. But the key date is 1537, when Henry VIII granted a royal charter to a military society of professional soldiers and city merchants known as the Fraternity or Guild of Artillery, Longbows, Crossbows and Handguns. This charter tasked the fraternity with the defence of the realm as well as the “maintenance of the science of artillery”. In simple terms, it provided expertise and training in the use of longbows and early firearms.

The Civil War years, from 1642, led to a suspension of the society. The regiment had actually fought on both sides; in 1656 the Grenadier Guards were formed from gentlemen of the regiment who had taken the heir to the throne, Prince Charles, to Europe for safety. Originally based at the Old Artillery Ground in Bishopsgate, the fraternity moved to its present site in Finsbury in 1658, an era of warfare when members served as either pikemen or musketeers.

The Company formally became the Honourable Artillery Company in 1860, when the title was officially confirmed by Queen Victoria. The HAC maintains the royal connection to this day through its Captain-General, an office which has been held by the monarch (or other high- ranking royals) since the 17th century. The Queen is the current Captain-General. Prior to 1900, the Regiment of the Honourable Artillery Company was largely concerned with the defence of the City of London. In 1908, following a special act of Parliament, the HAC Regiment formally became part of the Territorial Army.

This expanded the HAC’s military role and saw reservists fighting in both World Wars, as well as more recent conflicts.  As part of today’s Army Reserve, the role of the regiment is to support the regular army on operations, deploying patrols to gather intelligence and identify targets for long-range weapons. In the past decade, more than 220 HAC soldiers have deployed on overseas operations in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, Cyprus and Sierra Leone as well as providing security for the 2012 London Olympics. 

Outside of training and deployment on operations, the regiment also undertakes ceremonial roles. This includes firing gun salutes to mark royal and state occasions (most recently, the Queen’s Sapphire Jubilee) and forming a guard of honour for visiting heads of state. Similarly, the HAC Regimental Band is a regular fixture at ceremonial parades and concerts across the City. 

The regiment performs an additional ceremonial role through two sub-units made up of veterans and friends of the Company: The Pikemen and Musketeers and the Light Cavalry, both of whom are a regular highlight of the annual Lord Mayor’s Show. Finally, the HAC also provides support to the City of London Police through a contingent of the Special Constabulary based at Armoury House, the HAC’s headquarters. The Honourable Artillery Company is also a membership charity. It supports the Reserve Forces, Cadets (both Combined Cadet Force and Police) as well as ceremonial events in the City through the Company of Pikemen and Musketeers and the Light Cavalry. 

The HAC estate also offers a unique venue for private, corporate and sporting events. Armoury House is a Georgian Grade II-listed building dating back to 1735. The Artillery Garden is a regular sporting venue for cricket and rugby fixtures. It also provides the backdrop for the regiment’s public open evening, the annual recruiting event where members of the public can see the regiment and other reserve units in action.

As one of the country’s oldest military organisations, the HAC is unique. It offers proof that our national heritage doesn’t just reside in bricks and mortar but exists too in institutions.