Authors and Contributors this page: T.F. Mills
Page created 5 April 2001. Corrected and updated 28.08.2005
 
Frequently Asked Questions:
What is the Oldest/Senior Regiment
in the British Army?
 

        This is a tricky question because there are many correct answers -- depending how the question is worded, and how it carefully it is answered. A good understanding depends on paying careful attention to the various nuances of meaning. Several regiments claim the distinction of being the "oldest" on the British Army. Their disagreements are part of the healthy rivalry fostered by the British regimental system, but the mythology that makes the system work is not always interested in accurate history. Regiments exploit ambiguities in order to prove that their regiment is the best, the oldest, etc., and the full picture often becomes obscured.

        The British Army was formed by Royal Warrant on 26 Jan. 1661, but its oldest regiments had a prior existence. In order of date of formation, these are the regiments which lay some claim to being the oldest in the Army. Note that the date of formation alone does not tell the whole story (i.e. age and seniority are not necessarily the same thing).

        The Royal Militia of the Island of Jersey (1337). The now defunct Militia traced its origins to the Anglo-Saxon fyrd of the 9th century, but most units were formed in the 18th century. A handful were able to trace their lineage to the 13th and 14th centuries. The Jersey Militia is the last survivor of these. The Militia became the Special Reserve in 1908, but the Channel Islands were not affected by this reorganisation. The Special Reserve were disembodied in 1919, and never used again -- with the exception of the Royal Monmouthshire RE (see below), and the Royal Jersey Militia. The latter embodied for war in 1939, but, after six centuries of continuous statutory existence, disbanded in 1946. Four decades later, the unit was revived as an engineer Field Squadron in the Territorial Army. That break in their history forfeited any claim of seniority in the Territorial Army, but they are technically the oldest regiment in the Army.

        Honourable Artillery Company (1537). Although formed in 1296 (even before the Jersey Militia), the HAC's legitimate lineage dates from a Royal Charter by Henry VIII in 1537. For purposes of precedence and seniority, that advantage was lost when the HAC fought with Parliamentary forces during the Civil War. The Army as constituted in 1661, being a Crown institution, did not recognise the HAC as having unbroken loyal service to the Sovereign. The HAC was eventually incorporated into the Territorial Army, taking precedence as its senior regiment -- until 1953. In that year, the Militia was formally abolished, but one of its units transferred to the Territorial Army and took precedence over the HAC (see below). The HAC nevertheless claims to be the "oldest regiment in the British Army".

        Royal Monmouthshire Royal Engineers (Militia) (1539). Founded two years after the Honourable Artillery Company, the RMonRE claims to be the "second oldest regiment" in the Army. But it takes precedence over the HAC by virtue of (a) its unbroken loyalty to the Crown, and (b) its origins in the Militia, which took precedence over the Volunteers and Territorials. When the Special Reserve disembodied in 1919, the RMonRE was retained in a Supplementary Reserve, and when the restored Militia was formally abolished in 1953, the RMonRE were again retained -- this time by transferral to the Territorial Army. The seniority of the RMonRE in the Territorial Army since 1953 is sometimes misunderstood as a claim of greatest antiquity.

       The Buffs (1572). Although the oldest regiment in Regular Army, The Buffs were not the senior regiment. They were formed from London trained bands (i.e. urban militia) in 1572 to aid the Protestant cause in Holland. They remained in Dutch service until the outbreak of the Anglo-Dutch war in 1665 whereupon they refused the oath of loyalty to the States General and were disbanded. Many of the men fled to England, where they reformed as "The Holland Regiment" in the British Army. Their precedence as the 3rd Regiment of Foot dates from joining the Army in 1665. Their service in a foreign army, the brief disbandment in 1665, and the lack of an earlier Royal Charter negates their claim to greater antiquity. The Buffs are now perpetuated in The Princess of Wales's Royal Regiment.

       The Connaught Rangers / Scots Brigade (1568-1922). The Scots Brigade were formed for Dutch service just a few years before The Buffs, but, unlike the latter, they took the 1665 oath of allegiance to the Dutch States General, and also refused James II's call for repatriation in 1688. Although they helped put William of Orange on the throne of England, they were soon back in Holland. Not until over a century later (1794) did they join the British Army (numbered in 1802 as 94th Foot), having rebelled against wearing Dutch uniforms and taking orders in the Dutch language. As a junior regiment exceeding military needs, they disbanded in 1818, but re-formed in 1823. In 1881 they linked with the 88th Foot to form the 2nd Battalion of The Connaught Rangers based in Ireland, and lost their Scottish identity. The regiment disbanded in 1922 when Ireland became independent. Although at one time the oldest regular regiment in the British Army (1794-1922), their long absence from the British Establishment (1568-1794) and short break in continuity (1818-1823) made them ineligible for any claim of seniority.

       The Royal Scots (1633). While in French service in the 17th century, The Royal Scots (then known as Hepburn's Regiment, or Le Régiment de Hebron) got into an argument with the Picardie Regiment about which was the oldest. As the argument escalated, the Scots jestingly claimed to be descended from the Roman legion whose detachment guarded Jesus' tomb. (There may have Caledonians in that legion, but certainly no lineal continuity with Hepburn's regiment.) To which the French replied: had we been on guard, Christ's body would not have gone missing. The story may be apocryphal, but "Pontius Pilate's Bodyguard" apparently started as a taunt and became The Royal Scots' favourite nickname for it signalled their antiquity. Also fueling this connection is the tradition that Pontius Pilate was born in Fortingall, Perthshire, to a Roman officer stationed there, but it is quite unlikely that as Procurator of Judea he had a bodyguard from Scotland. Charles I had granted a warrant in 1633 to Sir John Hepburn to raise a regiment of Scots for French service in the Thirty Years War. A lot of Hepburn's men came from the remnants of Scottish companies that had already been in French service since 1590. They remained in French service until 1678 except for two brief periods in 1661 and 1667. They were present at the restoration of Charles II on 29 May 1660 and the official founding of the modern British Army by Royal Warrant on 26 Jan. 1661 when they were ranked as the first regiment of foot. Despite subsequent absence in French service, they did not lose their precedence of first place. The regiment officially dates its lineage to 1633 and is recognised by the Army as the oldest regular regiment due its Royal Charter of that year. The Royal Scots take precedence after the Guards (see below) and cavalry. The Regular Army takes precedence over the Militia and Territorial Army, which have always included older regiments than The Royal Scots (see above). In 2006 The Royal Scots was absorbed into The Royal Regiment of Scotland and merged with The King's Own Scottish Borderers.

        Coldstream Guards (1650). The Coldstream Guards joined the regular British Army on 14 Feb. 1661, three weeks after the Royal Scots. Their preceding history was also a little unusual. The regiment was formed as General Monck's in 1650 in the Parliamentary Army by drawing companies from two other regiments that had been formed a few years earlier. In 1660 Gen. Monck played the most significant role in engineering the restoration of Charles II, and he brought an army from Scotland to London for that purpose. The settlement included disbanding the parliamentary army, and this was done in stages so as to not flood the market with unemployed soldiers all at once. Gen. Monck saved his own regiment for last, and pulled a little surprise. On the appointed day, the men laid down their arms, and a minute later picked them up again in service of the king. But the king already had a regiment of guards that had been serving him loyally for a few months, so the latter took seniority. The Coldstream Guards, so named from their participation in Monck's epic march from Coldstream to London, refused to be called the 2nd Regiment of Guards since they were ten years older than the 1st Guards. The Coldstream Guards' parliamentary service did not count for purposes of precedence and seniority. The Coldstream Guards joined the British Army three weeks after both The Royal Scots and the Grenadier Guards, but they are the oldest regular regiment in continuous service in a British Army (as opposed to the modern British Army). As a Guards regiment, the Coldstreams take precedence before The Royal Scots.

        Royal Horse Guards (1650). Like the Coldstream Guards, the Royal Horse Guards (later The Blues and Royals) originated in the Parliamentary Army and joined the modern British Army a few weeks after its formation in 1661. They are the oldest cavalry regiment, but take precedence after the Life Guards (see below).

        Grenadier Guards (1656). During his exile in the Netherlands, the future Charles II raised a regiment of Guards (Wentworth's) from loyalist expatriates in 1656. Upon his return to England four years later, he left this regiment in Holland, and raised a new regiment of Guards (Russell's) in London in 1660. As the King's first personal bodyguard in Britain, this latter regiment became the First Regiment of Guards (later the Grenadier Guards) upon the formation of the British Army on 26 Jan. 1661. Meanwhile Wentworth died, and war broke out with Holland in 1665. Wentworth's regiment was recalled from Holland and merged with Russell's. Although it was the older corps, Wentworth's became the second battalion of the regiment and Russell's the first since Wentworth's had belatedly joined the English establishment. Wentworth's regiment was six years junior to the Coldstream Guards, and Russell's was ten years junior, but the two combined battalions, later known as the Grenadier Guards, have always taken precedence over the Coldstream Guards by virtue of (a) having joined the modern British Army three weeks earlier, and (b) having four years' longer unbroken loyal service to the Crown.

        Life Guards (1658). Like the Grenadier Guards, two troops of Horse Guards (before reorganisation in 1788 into 1st Life Guards and 2nd Life Guards) originated in exile with Charles II before the founding of the British Army, and one troop originated in the Parliamentary Army (1659). The Life Guards took precedence before the more ancient Royal Horse Guards (see above) due to their preceding and continuous loyal service to the King.

 
        For more information on seniority and precedence, see the Introduction to Precedence, and various precedence tables, e.g. British Army 1945, Canadian Army 1964, etc.