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Rise and Fall of the Royal Guards

Jack R. Parnell

Fall, 2022


It’s not historically uncommon for a particular, elite contingent of professional soldiers to come to define the reputation of a given army. Under certain conditions—given the lifestyle, equipment, tactics, and experience of a select band of fighters—the degree to which they could establish and control the character of the battlefield distinguished them even above generals, and the nations they served. The fame and notoriety of those contingents often demoralized opponents simply by their deployment. Serving as shock troops, as the hardened core of a formation, or as personal body guards, warriors of that calibre both defined and destroyed dynasties throughout history.

It is the definitive nature of violence, which requires it to be incorporated as a pillar of power. No government which does not in some capacity monopolize violence will not survive the inevitable test against one that does. At small scales, like many tribal societies, chieftains are characterized by their ability to provide security for their people. While this can mean responsibility for management of resources, of work details, and of relationships within the tribe, the finality of violent solutions often requires that the chief be capable of commanding the respect of the warrior element—in order to lead them. Perhaps the most base element of that command is that the chief be a potent fighter in his own right. 

Both arming those entrusted with power, and necessitating the service of the nobility in the ranks of professional soldiery are common tactics—as demonstrated by the European chivalric class, the samurai, boyars, huscarls, and the myriad ‘chosen bands.’ However, as the scale of society increases the dexterity required to effectively prosecute executive decisions means that power must still be concentrated in relatively few people. This is true even of the broader democratic polities. Contrarily, the larger an empire becomes the more people and land it must secure, and so, the larger its military will become. 

Thus in governments of the relevant scale, the rulers will be as few as one man, whereas the armies will be many thousands. The vagaries of rule may require a king to dote upon his other structures of power to the detriment of his military arm for the simple fact that many such attentions are zero sum, and make precarious the balance of his reign. In these situations it becomes beneficial to have some segment of the military set apart and above the rest. Two simple requirements must be met, before all else: Special martial prowess, and exceptional loyalty to the throne. 

The mere reputation of such elite troops can dissuade civil unrest, rebellion, and attempted coup d’etat. In some respect, the elite soldiery offers a superior violence to the rest of the military, and in so doing, keeps them loyal to the interests of the nation—or at least their ruler—instead of pursuing more selfish aims. It is also natural, of course, that the most important man retain the most capable body guards.

The circumstances are common enough that elite guard units appear frequently throughout history. And though there are earlier examples, the Praetorian guard are perhaps the best known. Initially, Praetorian guards were an informal conglomerate of companions to the general of Roman armies, but they were eventually formalized as the general’s specific body guard even after the office of Praetor was discontinued. Toward the end of the Republican era the Praetorian guard was composed of hand-picked veteran soldiers, to ensure the safety of commanders on the field. As the importance of particularly loyal soldiers increased during the civil war period, Octavian and Mark Antony both expanded the size and role of their Praetorian troops. 

Men had plenty of reasons to aspire to membership in these cohorts. In addition to the prestige, they received double pay and a reduced term of service. Due to the importance of their proximity to the Emperor, they were allowed to construct their own compound in the city in much the same format as more traditional legionary border forts. The rewards of the position served the dual purpose of ensuring loyalty—making them more difficult to bribe—and as a lure, to retain the most capable soldiers and make them willing to risk exchanging their lives for their emperor’s when called to do so.

Other, similarly reputed units did less service as direct guards of the seat of power. The Russian Streltsy, as example, were initially recruited from tradesmen as particularly capable frontline troops. The Streltsy employed early firearms with expertise, and wielded poleaxes to devastating effect on the battlefield. While many contingents were consistently employed on distant fronts, there were others stationed permanently in Moscow. It was politically useful to have a mail-clad fist at the ready in the capital for any failures of the open hand. Like the Praetorians before them, whose guardian position kept them often far from war, the Streltsy were soon assigned to guard, to police, and to fire brigade duties. Whenever they were to be found without a war, the Streltsy and Praetorians sometimes ended up behaving more as secret police—wielded against civilian targets. Yet, boggy and miresome as the political enterprise is, it’s rare that anyone is able to police it without themselves being drawn in. 

Naturally, any party present at court will be subject to its intrigues, and that simple fact is not something of which any ruler would have been ignorant. While some felt that the dividends of those powerfully positioned, native troops were worth the costs, others would want to have their cake and eat it too, so to speak. Specialized foreign troops, mercenaries, or in some cases, kidnapped children could be formed into famously dangerous troops—whose own far-removed homes would keep them more naturally separate from political webs. They would, it was hoped, be loyal only and above all to their one connection to that land; to the personage of its ruler or at the very least, to his purse. 

Many potent warriors of medieval Scandinavia made their names serving in the Byzantine Varangian Guard. Notorious for their stature, for their heavy armor, and for wielding the formidable Dane axe, the Varangians were decisive in many battles over several centuries. They were commonly to be found serving as personal guards for the last emperors of Rome, and were feared privateers in the Mediterranean beyond their role as heavy shock infantry. The Varangian Guard were perhaps inspired by the Germani Corporis Custodes of the Julio-Claudians, a troop of 500 soldiers recruited from the Roman rhinelands as a supplementary guard, to that offered by the Praetorians. It seems that even at this early date in the empire, the Praetorians were already too politically fraught to trust completely—but too powerful to disband outright. Both the Varangians and the Germani found themselves vested with particular trust exactly because they were not Roman. While their foreign ties made it harder to sway these soldiers, they still had families and interests of their own—which could be used as leverage to turn them against those they were meant to protect.
   The Varangians, the Germani Corporis Custodes, the Praetorians, and Streltsy, each—at one time or several—played decisive roles in carrying out coup d’etats against their rulers. Frequently they were themselves the perpetrators. Each had their own reasons, often resulting from tricky political circumstances wherein fractured power structures made loyalty futile. Notably, the Varangians are recorded as having knelt to the murderer of their Emperor when his killer was to succeed him, as their duty was to the office and not the man. Yet, they were convinced at other dates to depose one Emperor in favor of another. The Praetorians, with such close proximity to their own Emperor in the often tumultuous transitions of power in Rome, found that they had a very profitable influence over the course of events. 

Sometimes king-making can be as simple as being the first party to yell a name. Such was the case with Emperor Claudius’ coronation by the Praetorians—after having created the vacancy, themselves. Just as armed men will not allow themselves to starve, they will not allow themselves to be placed at too great a distance from control over their own destiny. Decades later, the Praetorians even went so far as to attempt to auction-off the throne to the highest bidder. In Russia, discontented from long campaigns that separated them from the privilege of trading, which was a part of their station, the Streltsy marched on Moscow and attempted to replace the Tsar. Little more explanation need be given than to note that the difference between a dog, and wolf is most evident on a hungry night, though, it takes a wolf to stand above the hounds.

​Even so, many of these units served their roles admirably through the tests of battle. They were, in every case, soldiers who looked upon the glory of their service and station with pride. Loyalty to their ruler was a matter of personal identity. It was perhaps in noticing this characteristic of elite soldiery at its finest, that a new regimen of recruitment was devised. Often while material wealth might draw a guard aside, a strong sense of duty could keep him against whatever odds he was pitted—and so extreme enlistment measures were attempted in order to master the virtue of the perfect soldier.

The Mamelukes and Jannisaries of medieval Islam were recruited first as slaves, frequently from the Balkan regions, and from the sons of Christians. They were made part of the soldiering class in special schools, set apart from society, and were unable to take a wife or to enter into mercantile enterprise until they were forty years of age—owing particular loyalty to the sultan. They were brought up with an unshakable faith, and with the belief that what comforts and prestige to which they were now entitled were only a matter of supreme generosity on the part of their sultan; luxuries that would have been foreign to them, had they remained with their families. 

In particular, that strict personal discipline, which extended to unit cohesion, gave them a seamless countenance that struck abject fear into their foes. These units became famously competent and presented a dangerous force on the battlefield—trusted as well to be steadfast against intrigue. Their utility certainly seemed to outweigh the cost of their continued procurement, to the point that they eclipsed the usefulness of any other contemporary military apparatus. As a direct result, the Mamelukes overthrew the established government of Egypt and established their own dynasty, ruling with some success. 

The Ottoman Jannisaries realized that they did not actually need to rule, in order to achieve their aims. They gave any privileges they envied to their class, enriched themselves, and prevented any reforms which might diminish their influence. Any sultan that was uncooperative with their policies could be easily replaced for the simple reason that they controlled the palace, and were the backbone of the army. It was many decades before the sultanate threw off their yoke, but it serves to illustrate that more drastic measures can of course yield more drastic results. It seems that even absent influence from without, a man will always have his own desires. 

The manners in which the legend of a band of soldiery might be turned back upon their masters are not limited to usurpation of power. The Polish Hussars, for example; the famously skilled and deadly cavalry who carried out the largest mounted charge in history—managed their own obsolescence. Originally made up of skilled Hungarian mercenaries, but later composed entirely of Polish nobles at their height, the Hussars used their political power to perpetuate the unit well beyond its effectiveness. They transitioned slowly from an elite combat unit to one suited exclusively for parade. The honor of their reputation allowed them to confidently resist change, and age-out their once innovative tactics and weapons, until their characteristic methods had no use but show. Eventually, politically appointed soldiers of no practical use were commonly derided as ‘arm-chair hussars’. The Jannisaries’ own political exertions allowed them to resist change in the much the same way, and, they were ousted precisely because they allowed themselves to become outmoded. 

More tragically, the deadly repute of the elite band can undo the morale of the general soldiery, even when they are serving exactly as intended. At Dyrrachium, the Varangians—fighting against Norman incursions in Italy; vengeful, and confident in their prowess—lead a disastrous charge in which many of their number died. Upon their retreat, the morale of the rest of the Byzantine army was completely unsalvageable. A counter charge by the Normans lead to a general route. The defeat of such dangerous and pre-eminent warriors as the Varangians made any more regular soldiery feel instantly outmatched. 

Similar events played out during the battle of Waterloo. The veteran-elite of Napoleon’s middle guard fled under the weight of fusillade fire, a hitherto unthinkable turn of events, which, caused much of the French army to flee. It is worth noting, however, that the ‘grumblers’ of Napoleon’s old guard insisted on death before surrender, and covered the retreat.

One may rashly conclude—given all this—that despite their effectiveness, it’s a mistake to allow an elite unit of soldiery to accrue some mythic reputation. But such would certainly be a failure to understand the truth of circumstance. Namely: That any distinction between political power and military power is ultimately an illusion. One cannot exist without the other, and any attempt to widen the separation between the two will profit only an eventual balancing of the scales. The strength of that pillar; of controlled violence, upon which any reign depends is founded upon its competence, but, its longevity is dependent on maintenance. Nothing withers the roots of power so thoroughly as taking them for granted. The decline of each of these specialty troops, which often precipitated the fall of their corresponding nation, can be traced with clarity to particular failures of upkeep. The decay often sets in most immediately when the honor of a position is commodified by handing it out to those undeserving of it. Such is the nature of hereditary appointment—as with the Streltsy and Jannisaries—which caused them to drift away from being a skilled crop of handpicked warriors, to become only a set of ceremonial positions cloaked in a certain aesthetic of military power; hardly fit for war. 

Another source of rot is the stagnation; be it with respect to tactics, to weapons, or to grit, which results from stations far from battle. This was the the specific nature of the downfall of both the Praetorians and the Hussars. Kept, as they were, from the crucible of war for long enough that the dross was no longer able to be separated from the steel. Under pacified circumstances like these, the rust of political intrigue becomes inevitable. Finally there is the corrosive effect of those rulers who imagine that their station is not, at a primeval level, defined by their simple ability to keep hold of it. It’s a lapse in judgement that can only invite those who do, in fact, conduct the fighting to assume total authority—for a king’s grip on power is exactly as tight as it is on his sword.


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