The Fraternitie or Guylde of Saint George in London:
The Origins of the Honourable Artillery Company
On August 25th, 1537 King Henry VIII of England granted a charter to a group of London volunteer soldiers as a guild or fraternity of Saint George. They exist today as the oldest unit in the British Army, the Honourable Artillery Company. The Company has served in many different roles from an officer training center for the London Trained Bands of the sixteenth and seventeenth century to a regiment of motorized artillery in the second world war.
The City of London had a long tradition of military service to the crown prior to the reign of Henry VIII, including large contingents of archers. A Unit of 80 city archers clothed in red and white accompanied Edward III to Crecy and some 500 archers were provided him the year before the battle of Poitiers.
The decline in archery and the introduction of the handgun in England led Henry VIII to encourage the science of "artillary". The sixteenth century English concept of artillary was somewhat different then what we know today. The Charter which Henry granted was to a "Felliship of Artillary" which was to be known as the "Maisters and Rulers and Cominalitie of the Fraternitie or Guylde of Artillary of Longbowes Crosbowes and Handegonnes." The term Infantry was of French origin and not in common use in England until the middle of the seventeenth century.
While the purpose of the guild was the maintenance of "the Science and Feate of Shootinge" it was much more than simply a sixteenth century gun club. The membership consisted of many of London's better citizens. One of the original four masters of the guild was Sir Christopher Morres, a courtier to Henry and Master of the Royal Ordnance. Something of the status of members can be seen by the exception to certain sumptuary laws in effect in England. Members of the guild were, by the terms of the Charter, allowed to wear silk and velvet, furs and embroideries.
During the reign of Elizabeth I the Guild was known by such titles as "The Company exercising Arms in the Artillery Garden". The Artillery Garden was a field where both the guild and the Gunners of the Tower practised. The gunners taught the science of shooting "great" artillery to such pupils as naval gunners, while the guild taught the use of "small" artillery. Eventually the two groups argued and the guild found a different site which was named the New Artillery Garden. When the threat of the Spanish Armada loomed in 1588, the guild provided officers for the City of London Trained Bands. These officers were referred to as "Captains of the Artillery Garden".
In the years preceding the Civil War, the study of military matters and the practicing of the new "postures" and formations developed on the continent were much in fashion. Guilds were formed around the country using the fraternitie of Saint George as the model. The Guild's members were in the vanguard of English military scholarship. Many of the books of military theory and practice were written by members or members of rival companies which sprouted up in other parts of England.
The English Civil War saw many of the members rise to prominent positions on both sides. While the guild officially took no part in the war, the majority of members who served seem to have sided with Parliament. This is perhaps to be expected as London and her trained bands provided the core of the Parliamentary Army which defeated Charles I. According to the historian G.G. Walker, the officers of the London regiments "...were selected from Captains of the Trained Bands, and almost all the officers of these units whose names can be traced are to be found in the roll of members of the Artillery Company."
Philip Skippon, for example, was the Captain of the Artillery Company from 1639-1660. Although appointed by Charles I to the post of Captain, he served as "Sergt-Major General" in the Parliament and later the New Model Army. It was he who trained and led the infantry of the New Model Army under Sir Thomas Fairfax. Appointed as one of the judges of Charles I, Skippon refused to be a party to regicide.
Some members of the Company fought on the Royalist side and this division probably contributed to the lack of new members during the war. Between 1644 and 1654 no new members were admitted. After the restoration the Company was reorganized and exists until this day. However that story is out of our period.
1 Walker, G. Goold, The Honourable Artillery Company 1537-1947, Aldershot: Gale and Polden Ltd, 1954, p..8.
2 All quotes are from the charter as reprinted in Walker pp.2-5.