Prince Harry concluded his second tour of duty in Afghanistan this week. Before leaving Camp Bastion, the Prince gave a candid interview about his activities as Apache helicopter co-pilot gunner. He spoke frankly about the realities of combat and the hand eye co-ordination he developed playing video games. Prince Harry’s remarks inspired controversy from a civilian audience and prompted columnist Harry Mount of the Daily Telegraph write that the Prince should “speak more like royalty and less like an army officer.”
For most of British and Canadian history, however, the roles of Prince and army officer have been synonymous. The monarchy’s close relationship with the military has played an important political role, reinforced the bonds between the Crown and the Commonwealth, and made individual members of the royal family extremely popular.
The Saxon Kings of what is now England, in the Early Middle Ages, were primarily war leaders whose goal was the defence of their kingdoms from Viking invasions. The importance of the King as a military commander superseded all other considerations. The Norman Conquest of 1066 reflected the eleventh century view that kingship was a military vocation.
In later centuries, Richard the Lionhearted and Henry V passed into legend for their military exploits while Charles I lost the English Civil Wars and his crown on the battlefield. Even when the practice of monarchs leading the troops in person became less common, the presence of a King on the battlefield still inspired artists and musicians. When George II led his troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, the last instance of a British monarch taking personal command on the battlefield, George Frideric Handel composed a Te Deum and John Wotton painted a royal portrait to commemorate the occasion.
Military service was the impetus for the first royal visits to Canada. The future William IV visited the Maritimes in the 1780s on his first naval assignment as commander of the Pegasus. Queen Victoria’s father, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, spent much of the 1790s in Halifax, overhauling the city’s defences. In 1799, the Prince was appointed commander-in-chief of the British forces in North America in recognition of his military service.
From the nineteenth century to the present day, royalty have served as colonels-in-chief of Canadian regiments. Royal visits to Canada are closely connected with these personal relationships between members of the royal family and the Canadian Forces. In 2012 alone, Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall visited the Gagetown base, Prince Edward attended the 150th anniversary of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and Princess Alexandra joined the Canadian Scottish Regiment for its 100th anniversary.
In recent decades, military service has brought members of the royal family immense personal popularity. Prince Philip’s naval service during the Second World War demonstrated that he was a suitable consort for the future Queen Elizabeth II over the objections of senior British courtiers suspicious of his foreign background. Prince Andrew received popular acclaim for his service in the Falklands War. Most recently, Prince Harry’s second tour of duty in Afghanistan enabled him to improve his reputation after his 2012 trip to Las Vegas.
Despite the controversy created by his remarks this week, newspapers critiquing Harry have received numerous letters from readers praising the Prince’s willingness to serve his country in the field. Prince Harry’s recent experiences demonstrate that the military continues to provide both a professional vocation and popular acclaim for members of the royal family, following a long history of Princes serving as both army officers and royalty.
Dr. Carolyn Harris is a Toronto-based historian, lecturer and author at www.royalhistorian.com.