Prince Harry returned to active service in Afghanistan this morning. In contrast to his previous overseas tour of duty, as an Forward Air Controller in Helmand Province in 2008, the media has been informed of the Prince’s activities. In his new role as a co-pilot gunner of an Apache helicopter, he will not be recognizable to his opponents. Harry’s missions as an Apache pilot will include supporting ground troops under attack from Taliban insurgents and providing an escort for aircraft transporting troops or equipment. The technology in the Apache helicopters may be twenty-first century but Prince Harry’s presence in Afghanistan is part of a royal tradition of military leadership that dates back to the origins of monarchy in the British Isles.
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. Even Alfred the Great (r. 871-899), famous for his endowments of monasteries and other places of learning was only able to act as a cultural patron after he had successfully defeated King Guthrum of the Danish Vikings in 880 and united the Saxon kingdoms under his rule. Saxon Kings who were unwilling face their responsibilities as war leaders such as Aethelred the Unready (r. 978-1013 and 1014-1016), who preferred to pay tribute to the Danes, lost their legitimacy as monarchs.
The importance of the King as a war leader superseded all other considerations regarding the English royal succession in the early Middle Ages. The Battle of Hastings in 1066 reflected eleventh century attitudes toward kingship as a military vocation. Under modern succession law, neither William, Duke of Normandy nor Harold Godwinson would be considered a suitable heir to King Edward the Confessor. Harold was Edward’s brother-in-law and William was a second cousin born out of wedlock. Edward’s closest living relative, Edgar the Aetheling, however, was only in his early teens in 1066, too young to serve as an effective war leader. William became the first Norman King of England because of his prowess on the battlefield.
The expectation that the King would serve as a military commander also created barriers to female succession. When William I’s youngest son, Henry I died in 1135, his only surviving child, Matilda was unable to travel to Westminster to claim the throne in person because she was pregnant with her youngest son. When her cousin Stephen was acclaimed King, Matilda had to appoint a military leader, her half brother Robert of Gloucester, to defend her rights because she could not take the field on her own behalf. Stephen ultimately ended the conflict by leaving his throne to Matilda’s eldest son, the future Henry II.
In the High Middle Ages, Kings of England proved their military valour through participation in the Crusades and later, the Wars of the Roses. King Richard I, “The Lionhearted” achieved victories in the Third Crusade (1189-1192) and the future Edward I was wounded by an assassin during the Ninth Crusade (1271-1272). Edward’s injury and the news that he had succeeded to the English throne ended the last period of English royal military service in the Middle East until Prince Harry’s 2008 Tour of Duty. Edward continued his military leadership as King, defeating Llywelyn the Last, Prince of Wales in 1282 and earning a reputation as “The Hammer of the Scots.”
During the Wars of the Roses in the fifteenth century, success on the battlefield once again determined a King’s legitimacy. Richard II and Henry VI lost their thrones because they were unable or unwilling to fight for their thrones while Henry V and Edward IV gained popular acclaim for their prowess on the battlefield. When Henry VII defeated Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth field in 1485, he significantly claimed the throne by right of conquest rather than by his marriage to Richard’s niece, Elizabeth of York.
Although the ascension of the Tudor dynasty appeared to ensure a more stable line of succession, the fortunes of sixteenth and seventeenth centuries monarchs continued to rise and fall on the battlefield. In 1553, Queen Mary I secured her claim to the throne by raising a military force that successfully challenged the powerful supporters of her cousin, Lady Jane Grey. The circumstances of Mary’s ascension and the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 proved that female rulers could preside over the successful military campaigns that ensured a monarch’s legitimacy. During the War of the Spanish Succession in the early eighteenth century, Queen Anne would receive popular acclaim because of the victories of her appointed general, John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough.
In the seventeenth century, Charles I would lose his throne when he was defeated during the English Civil Wars of the 1640s and both Charles II and William III would assemble invading forces in an attempt to secure their succession to the English and Scottish thrones from continental Europe. The last British monarch to personally lead his troops into battle was King George II, who participated in the Battle of Dettingen in the War of the Austrian Succession in 1743, an event that inspired George Frederick Handel’s Te Deum.
The tradition of royal military service in the British Isles continued long after the reign of George II. While the monarch and his direct heirs no longer directly participated in military engagements, younger sons within the royal family often pursued careers in the armed forces. Queen Victoria’s third son, Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught served as a Lieutenant for forty years in various parts of the British Empire. As second sons, both King George V and King George VI had naval careers before ascending to the throne. Prince Harry’s uncle, Prince Andrew served as a Sea King helicopter co-pliot during the Falklands War in 1982-1893. Prince Harry’s second tour of duty in Afghanistan is part of a centuries long tradition of royal military service that shaped the course of England’s thousand year old monarchy.