From the day Prince George was born, he was destined to become the Commander-in-Chief of Britain’s Armed Forces, after his accession as King. When the time comes, King George VII – if that is his title – will be the only person able to declare war and peace on the advice of ministers.
In turn, all British army recruits took an oath of allegiance to the Crown, stating that they would ‘honestly and faithfully defend His Majesty, his heirs and, personally, the Crown and dignity against all enemies’.
At the heart of this mutual understanding is the royal family itself, the embodiment of public service, sacrifice and personal commitment to a greater collective good. What’s more, George’s ancestors had always been distinctly martial, even bloodthirsty.
For the Windsors ascended the British throne only by right of succession.
Had William the Conqueror not fought at Hastings or Henry Tudor at Bosworth, our royal history would have been very different.
Dominic Sandbrook: George’s father was in the armed forces for over seven years, passing through Sandhurst and working as a search and rescue pilot for the RAF.
Dominic Sandbrook: From the day Prince George was born, he was destined to become Commander-in-Chief of Britain’s Armed Forces, after accession as King.
Over the centuries, its legitimacy has gone hand in hand with military power.
We remember Henry V as the dashing hero-king for his victory at Agincourt, not for his pudding-bowl haircut. Richard III was the last king to be killed in battle in 1485. At the age of 60, George II led his army into battle against the French at Dettingen in 1743, helping to cement the German-born Hanoverians’ place in the hearts of the British.
Although the role of the modern monarch has evolved, junior royals have maintained tradition. Victoria’s grandson Prince Maurice was killed in World War I and the Duke of Kent II. George’s grandmother, the late Queen, was the first female member of the Royal Family to be a full-time active member of the armed services and was Colonel-in-Chief of 16 British Army regiments and corps, as well as many Commonwealth units.
Prince Andrew served bravely in the Falklands. Prince Harry served his duty in Afghanistan, claiming to have killed 25 Taliban soldiers. He also said that military service allowed him to be ‘with a normal boy, to listen to their problems and what they think’.
George’s father was in the armed forces for over seven years, going through Sandhurst and working as a search and rescue pilot for the RAF.
There is good reason for this tradition. If the family does not command the country’s army, then nothing.
Dominic Sandbrook: George’s grandmother, the late Queen, was the first female member of the royal family to be a full-time active member of the armed services.
Dominic Sandbrook: Prince Harry on duty in Afghanistan, claims he killed 25 Taliban soldiers
However, as warfare became increasingly professional and high-tech, the image of the royal family rather lost its martial edge. Like the Church of England, another great institution through which monarchs once exercised their control, the military has become increasingly detached from our daily lives.
Nevertheless, the tradition of royals joining the armed forces, even for short periods, gave the monarchy important legitimacy. That sense of communal service made George VI and his family stay in London when the bombs fell in the Blitz, and it is what his daughter devoted herself to when she became our Queen.
It is a legacy of a time when royalty embodied the values and ambitions of a nation and when kings and commoners found themselves side by side at the last ditch. Indeed, it seems inconceivable that soldiers entering the British army could be expected to swear allegiance to a monarch without the sovereign having some idea of what military service entails. Let alone for that king to declare war on their behalf.
Military service is the last tradition that takes royal youths out of the impossible comforts of their sheltered lives.
On Friday, Prince George appeared delighted as he manned the controls of an RAF C-17 Globemaster III during a family visit to the Royal International Air Tattoo in Gloucestershire. The experience gave him an appetite for a future career in the military.
George may be too young now to understand the gravity of his role. Perhaps, in the future, he may decide that he too wants to carry on the military traditions of his ancestors. But times change, institutions also change. And given that he is unlikely to succeed until the second half of this century, who could blame him if he pursued a different career? An astronaut, perhaps – or an AI designer?
lDominic Sandbrook hosts the podcast The Rest is History.
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