I spent several years on the Ceremonial side of the Household Cavalry based in London. The shining helmets and swords and breastplates, and the immaculate cloaks and tunics, and shining black horses, lend that role a special sort of glamour to those looking in from the outside. The job itself could hardly have been less glamorous: a relentless dog-eat-dog existence with 0430 starts, late finishes, old fashioned punishments and a spiritual darkness that everyone felt even if they wouldn't or couldn't name it. Anyone who has spent time on ceremonial duties as a Trooper would absolutely agree that Knightsbridge is a dark place that takes a toll on people.
In an environment like that, against such a dark backdrop, good things shine out particularly brightly; particular friendships, small victories, moments of kindness, good souls. One such good light was our closeness to our monarch, and what stood out in particular about her was her selflessness, and charitable interest in our well-being (and the well-being of the horses!). There is a particularly Christian aspect to the virtue of care and compassion towards subordinates. Two small examples that stand out follow.
...what stood out in particular was her selflessness, and charitable interest in our well-being (and the well-being of the horses!).
The first example came in a particularly cold March. In the winter, soldiers on parade wear long heavy cloaks which protect themselves and to a great extent their horses from the winter chill. In the spring, the Royal Navy gives the word and on that day the whole Armed Forces, Troopers included, put warm winter clothing away and swap into "summer order". One year, a few weeks after the change-over, there was a cold snap and we found ourselves riding to Horseguards through sleet and snow. Her Majesty saw the Guard from the Palace and directed the Commanding Officer to return us to winter order until the weather was warmer.
This is not as small a thing as it might appear. It relies on two things that we as human beings struggle with. The first is to really observe, and not only to observe but to understand with compassion the experience of others. The second is the courage and discernment to prudently override a tradition or a norm in pursuit of some other good.
The second example came a month or two after the Richmond Cup. The Richmond Cup, or the Elizabeth Cup as it is sometimes known, is a slightly absurd competition in which all six Troops of the Mounted Regiment select two Troopers each to compete to be the 'Best Turned-Out Trooper'. What this really entails is months and months of appalling attention to detail, polishing to an immaculate state parts of uniform that don't even see daylight simply for the sake of the inspecting officers knowing that you have done it. A horse shampooed for days on end, conditioned and perfumed, and covered with white sheets to be removed at the last moment, so that horse and tack cannot in any way imperfect one another. It is a effort for perfection that is genuinely unlimited, boundless, and frankly kind of soul-destroying. The top eight are presented with a rosette by Her Majesty at Royal Windsor Horse Show.
On this particular year, one of our candidates creamed in at the last minute and confessed that he had actually not done any of the required kit. As a clean lad, and senior bod, the dicking fell to me. At one week before the event, I was faced with a tangle of unwaxed unpolished tack, saddle, and my normal guard uniform to bring up to perfection. At some cost to my mental health, and with humbling support from my Troop (and my wife), and despite my fainting once from the lack of seep and food, we got it turned around working shifts day and night. The experience was intense.
We’d gambled on a smarter but skittish horse, rather than a steadier but less glamorous old boy. It paid off. Our mad effort got us the #8 spot.
Yet when the Royal Windsor Horse Show came and we had to ride out in our kit to be given our rosettes by Her Majesty, my horse absolutely lost. his. mind.
We barely got him to the pen at the edge of the arena, and he was streaked with foaming sweat and froth when we got there, rolling his eyes and barely kept under order. When the time came for us to ride out at a walk, he just wouldn’t. He was jittering sideways and bucking and farting in panic and I could only sit deep and communicate and much reassurance to him as I could.
Out across the arena I saw 1 through 7 formed up, and saw HM go down the line handing out the rosettes. At the end of the line she looked at the remaining rosette on the silver plate, and looked around for the eighth rider. She turned and went back to her seat.
Well, that's it. The end, I thought. That was it. Opportunity missed, moment passed. Gone.
I was bothered by the possibility that the Queen might think I hadn’t bothered to turn up, or voluntarily backed out, or lost my nerve. I hoped for a way to to convey that serving her, as one of her Life Guards, was an real privilege and something that gave meaning to our work. The respect and affection that she inspired in the troops was shared by all of us, and I was really sad not to have been able to show that. So I wrote her a letter, expressing those points, and apologising for my inability to ride out for the rosette. As expected – she must receive so many letters – there wasn't a reply.
A month or so later, there was a garden party at the Palace for soldiers from the Household Division and their plus-ones, so we all went along. Particular guys were selected to stand in line for handshakes, and the rest of us milled around and explored the grounds. Out of the blue I got a phonecall from the Squadron Corporal Major. He told me to meet him immediately at the main steps to the Palace. His voice sounded tense, and I was pretty sure I’d screwed up somehow or someone had framed me for something, and at any rate it seemed clear nothing good was coming my way. When I reached him, he was with the Adjutant and another man who I had never seen before. The man explained, to them and to me, that Her Majesty would very much like to speak with me. I’m not sure who was more astonished – me or my chain of command!
The man explained, to them and to me, that Her Majesty would very much like to speak with me.
The man I didn’t know introduced himself as the Master of the Household, a retired Admiral. He was immensely reassuring. He explained that he'd read my letter to Her Majesty and she'd kept it on her desk since receiving it, and that his primary tasking that morning was to find me and put me in the appropriate place, which turned out to be at the far end of the lawn next to the Royal Enclosure. He explained that this would allow Her Majesty to speak for longer, without pressure to move on to the subsequent person.
There followed a slightly stressful game of ping pong, whereby in the absence of the Master of the Household, the Adjt would appear, remove me from my position, and insert me into the line of people waiting for handshakes, and then the Master, noticing that I was missing, would go looking for me, take me from the line, and put me back in my original space. After this the Adjt reappeared, and with visible irritation with this disobedient Trooper, took me and placed me back in the line. This time he was intercepted by the Master, who told him in very clear terms that the Palace is his domain, and that if the Adjt had any problems with the Master’s management thereof, he ought to take it up with his boss. Well, the poor Adjt nearly fell over on the spot, and I was at last allowed to remain away from the line and next to the Royal Enclosure. The Adjt took the opportunity to stand next to me.
She was like a kind-hearted, sharp-eyed and sharp-witted older relative. Except that it was the Queen.
A strange wait followed and much sooner than I expected, the Queen, flanked by the Master of the Household, arrived. In our conversation, she spoke with real warmth and sympathy over my experience with such an unruly horse, and had not just an interest in our daily work but a good understanding of its challenges. She asked me if I had yet received the rosette and when I said that I hadn't, turned to the Adjt and told him in no uncertain terms that I should do so as soon as possible. We spoke at length about my horse, his age and temperament, my family and it was strangely normal. She was like a kind-hearted, sharp-eyed and sharp-witted older relative. Except that it was the Queen. You know, the face from the stamps. Except, speaking into your face. And smiling, and chuckling.
And then it passed. My sense of our monarch as one committed to service, and selflessness, and in sincere pursuit of a Christian good, has remained.
Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and may perpetual light shine upon her. Through the mercy of God may she rest in peace.